Sunday, July 25, 2010

The American Airpower Mess

Posted by Chris at 3/22/2009 12:00 PM ...

Last week David Axe reported that the U.S. Navy finally did something that USAF needed to do years ago - leased four Super Tocano light attack planes to support Special Operations. The Super Tocanos can't operate off carriers, but at least the Navy understand that flexible air to ground capability is a must in the modern threat environment. This fits with the normal Navy and Marine Corps approach to aviation - it's a necessary tool used to address multiple problems. To be effective you need multiple types of aircraft, not just super expensive fighters and bombers. This is why the Navy is getting the P-8, the EA-18G, and the F-35 on top of their other airframes, at a a time USAF is focused on the F-22 and F-35 to the exclusion of almost everything else, even the necessary support aircraft like tankers.

The Tocanos are designed for close air support, a role USAF always seems to want to get rid of in favor of the more glamorous air superiority and strategic bombing roles (still not shown effective in any war). Before Operation Desert Storm (and even afterward), USAF wanted to scrap the most effect aircraft of the 21st century battlefield - the A-10 Thunderbolt II (Warthog). While the A-10 is getting a much needed upgrade program, the Air Force seems to think that armed drones firing missiles is the way to handle close air support and reconnaissance. The two dirty little secrets here is that use of drones to attack insurgents invariably seem to kill innocent civilians or violate borders, simultaneously recruiting more insurgents and antagonizing the populations of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that more than 30% of the $4.5 million drones crashed. That means that while they can hit targets, they are counterproductive and not as cheap as claimed.

Capt. Mark Mullins, the naval officer running the program seems to understand the issues:
"It's not about flying in from 1,000 miles away, dropping some thousand-pound bombs and leaving. It's about working with [the ground force], doing the intelligence preparation of the battlespace, doing a [communication] relay, close air support, eyes on target and if there's squirters leaving the target, keeping up with them and tracking them down and doing [bomb damage assessment] at the end."
Mullins was careful to say that the Navy is working with the Air Force and Marine Corps on the new program to test the Tocanos for combat use, but the message is clear. The Air Force dropped the ball on close air support, and continues to do so. While I won't dispute the need to procure advanced weapons to face future threats, or the need to proceed rationally in developing and deploying new (to us) weapon systems, the fact of the matter is that USAF doesn't want this role, and is as slow to address it as it was to deal with the reality of tactical air combat in the 1950s and 1960s (see Korea and Vietnam) when it wanted to focus on supersonic fighters armed with missiles designed to attack bombers.

If, as Jimmy Wu reported in 2006, the Key West agreement is truly dead, maybe the Air Force should relinquish its hold on close air support and tactical transport so that the services that rely on those aspects of airpower (Army/Marines) can get on with business. Give the Army and Marines the A-10s and allow them to deploy more of their own fixed wing assets to handle counterinsurgency and close air support, and be done with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment