Air Force Contemplating New Close-Air Support Platforms
In June, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh compared the desired capabilities for the new system to the convenience and flexibility of a soda machine.
“Imagine the … flying Coke machine and just having a Coke machine overhead, and you put your quarter in and you get whatever kind of firepower you want when you want it,” he said at a breakfast with reporters shortly before he retired. “In the perfect world, that’s close-air support of the future.”
But the Air Force isn’t sure what form such a system would take.
“Is it manned, is it unmanned? Is it just more responsive [than current systems]? Is it a number of smaller things that arrive and deliver weapons? Is it one big thing that orbits? ... I don’t know,” Welsh said.
A secretive office in the Pentagon is working on a project that could potentially fit the bill for the type of capability that he envisioned.
“We’ve done a lot of work with the Air Force over the last year on developing a very large prototyping program called arsenal plane, which is trying to get sensors and shooters separate [and] have large aircraft that can carry lots of weapons to feed into the battle so that planes don’t have to land and resupply,” said William Roper, the director of the strategic capabilities office.
The focus of the SCO is to advance or repackage existing technologies rather than starting development from scratch. That should help speed their delivery to the force, he said at a recent conference.
“We’re very interested in seeing if legacy systems can play a role of the big warehouse carrying weapons into the fight, and without breaking an arm and a leg can we get these networked with forward systems” that could relay targeting information, he said.
“It could be a completely game-changing [concept of operations] if we get it right,” he added.
Although Pentagon officials are slowly pulling the curtain back on the arsenal plane concept, there is still a great deal of mystery surrounding the platform itself, including which legacy system it will be based on.
Anonymous defense officials have told reporters that the Pentagon is considering modifying B-52 or B-1 bombers to meet arsenal plane program objectives. But Roper declined to tip his hand.
It is a “risky prototyping effort,” he noted. “We want to give ourselves a maximum chance to look at various options before we neck down and say, ‘Here’s what it is.’”
The revolution in precision-guided weapons technologies has given older bombers the ability to provide close-air support, said Mark Gunzinger, a former B-52 pilot, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
But a non-stealthy bomber’s ability to do the job well could depend on the sophistication of enemy air defenses.
“In contested environments, that would be more of a standoff aircraft and that might not be conducive to the close-air support mission,” he told National Defense.
“In a permissive environment … an arsenal plane such as a B-1 or B-52 that carries a large payload of [precision-guided munitions] would be able to penetrate and survive … and perhaps support close-air support missions,” he said.
There could also be a major role for drones going forward, analysts said.
“We’re using long-loitering aircraft like Reapers that can just stay in the air for a long time,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’ve got a small payload but they can hit a target in a very timely manner very accurately.”
The Air Force should consider making the next-generation attack plane unmanned, he added.
Another contender is the multi-mission joint strike fighter. The Air Force’s F-35A reached initial operating capability in August.
Speaking at a recent conference, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said the aircraft would have “limited” close-air support capabilities after IOC was achieved, not the “full-up” capabilities that are expected to come later.
Adversaries are developing advanced anti-access/area denial weapons that could make it more difficult for a relatively slow moving, radar-observable plane like the A-10 to survive in combat. In contrast, the joint strike fighter is stealthy and could operate more freely in less permissive warzones.
“When you look at Afghanistan today, and for that matter Syria and Iraq, those are not necessarily indicative of the kinds of environments the Air Force is going to have to fight in” in the coming decades, Gunzinger said. “That is a factor to consider when you are designing future air forces.”
But critics of the F-35 have argued that the plane won’t be as effective as the single-mission A-10 when it comes to providing close-air support. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., vowed to prevent the Air Force from prematurely retiring the Warthog “until an equally capable replacement is fully operational.”
“We should now get to work on the development and procurement of an aircraft that can eventually replace the A-10 and provide even better close-air support capabilities for our troops,” she said in a statement earlier this year.
Welsh said Air Force officials “don’t think this would take that long” if the system were designed to operate in low to medium-threat environments.
But following the drumbeat of warnings by Pentagon officials about emerging adversary counter-air capabilities, it might be difficult for the Air Force to convince Congress to fund a new non-stealthy attack plane.
“I think there would be questions raised,” Gunzinger said. “Why do we need to replace an aircraft that cannot fight in contested conditions with another aircraft that cannot fight in contested conditions?”
In light of fiscal constraints, some experts believe that keeping the A-10 in service longer than currently planned would be the right move.
Gunzinger said the Air Force should hold onto the plane as long as possible and “fly the wings off it” until it ages out. Keeping it in the inventory rather than starting a new development program in the coming years would free up resources to fund other critical modernization needs, he noted.
The plane’s service life could probably be extended into the late 2020s or beyond, he said.
“There might need to be a little bit of investment to extend its service life,” he said. But “we bought it, we’re operating it, it’s mature. We have a highly trained cadre of pilots and maintainers operating them and supporting the fleet. It doesn’t make sense to necessarily walk away from that investment we’ve made in time and treasure.”
Service leaders are open to the idea of holding onto the A-10 until a follow-on system is in the works, the new Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said at his confirmation hearing in June.
“Right now we’re looking at that as an option,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The challenge will be to keep the capability so that [during] the fight we’re in today there’s no degradation to any of the soldiers, sailors or Marines or my airmen that are on the ground.”
The Warthog force is the best of the best in its attack role, he noted.
“The A-10 community is actually our Ph.D. force when it comes to close-air support, and they set the bar,” he said.
Although the Defense Department has pushed to retire the Warthog to save money, powerful supporters in Congress have continued to fund it. It remains to be seen whether the plane will actually be phased out in 2022 as planned.
“The only thing absolutely certain about the A-10 is that it absolutely will be retired some day,” Gunzinger joked. “Who knows?”
If continuing to fly the aircraft is deemed cost prohibitive, the Air Force could look for relatively inexpensive, non-developmental alternatives.
During a recent discussion with Gunzinger and other independent defense analysts, a senior Air Force official said that a non-developmental platform, referred to as OA-X, could potentially supplement the A-10 and provide a bridging solution until a next-generation aircraft, termed A-X2, is available.
Gunzinger declined to name the senior official, citing the ground rules of the closed-door meeting.
Systems such as the A-29 Super Tucano, built by Embraer, and the AT-6 Wolverine, manufactured by Beechcraft Defense, were bandied about as examples of an OA-X type of plane, Gunzinger said.
“The emphasis there would be how quickly could industry field a variant of an existing system for close-air support and at what cost?” he said.
Although no specific timelines were mentioned, Gunzinger deduced from the meeting that the service would like to have the OA-X within five to six years, if not sooner, if that path is chosen.
Harrison said such a system could potentially be purchased with overseas contingency operations funds — which aren’t constrained by budget caps — in the coming years because the Air Force could argue that they are needed for the fight against the Islamic State and other militant groups.
The A-X2 would likely be a longer-term project, Gunzinger said, estimating that it probably couldn’t be fielded until the mid to late-2020s even if funding were to become available in the next few years.
“I have not actually seen a proposal on any of this that has come forward to me, so it for sure is predecisional,” said James, the Air Force’s top civilian official. “Where would we get the money? [That’s] not at all clear to me.”
The service is in the process of modernizing its fighter, bomber and tanker fleets and other assets.
“If you just look at the Air Force’s budget and the totality of their modernization needs, it’s hard for me to believe that they could afford to begin funding a next-generation close-air support aircraft today,” Gunzinger said.
Harrison said developing a new platform from scratch and fielding it could cost tens of billions of dollars, depending on how many were procured and other factors. It would have to compete for limited funds during the Air Force’s looming modernization “bow wave” in the 2020s, he noted.
Nevertheless, Goldfein promised lawmakers that moving forward with planning for a next-generation system would be one of his top priorities.
“My focus is going to be on ensuring that I go back to the doctors of CAS — the A-10 fleet and the A-10 operators — and say, ‘What is the future of close-air support?’” he said.
The Air Force’s top officer offered a glimpse of some of the questions he wants to ask as the service ponders what comes next.
“Why is it that I only get a minute-and-a-half of trigger pull on a 30mm bullet?” he said. “Why don’t I get 10 minutes and why is not every bullet precision guided?
“Why do I spend so much time having to figure out who is actually friend and foe on the ground when we have technology to be able to help us do that? Why is it that I have to do all the work for collateral damage estimates when I have a machine that can help me do that?” he added.
The service needs to develop a clearer vision as it plans for the next-generation system, he noted.
“My commitment to you is that … I will take this on,” Goldfein told lawmakers.
Regardless of how the process plays out, the Defense Department needs to ensure that no capability gap develops, he said.
Soldiers rely on the Air Force to pound enemy ground forces. But Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley isn’t wringing his hands about the uncertain future of close-air support.
“I have enormous confidence that they will make the right decisions on the platform,” he said at a recent conference.
The Army leader is system neutral as long as it gets the job done.
“As a soldier and a guy who’s been in my share of firefights, the only thing I care about is the effect on the target, and I don’t give a rat’s ass what platform brings it in,” he said. “I could care less if it’s a B-52, if it’s a B-1 bomber, it’s an F-16, an F-15, an A-10. I don’t care if the thing was delivered by carrier pigeon. I want the enemy taken care of.”