Monday, August 3, 2015

What Might Have Been

What Might Have Been

An anonymous reader recently made a comment suggesting that the “B” model of the F-35 should have had different requirements and capabilities than it currently does.  Though he didn’t explicitly state it, the implication was that those differences would have led to a cheaper aircraft that would have been fielded sooner.

Note:  The reader commented anonymously.  I’d love to give proper credit which is why I encourage everyone to offer at least an informal username in the body of the comment text.

This is an intriguing idea and got me thinking about what the “B” should have been.

Let’s start with the most obvious consideration: the “B” is strictly for the Marines (I’m looking only at US application, now).  That means that, by definition, it’s not intended for air superiority, carrier group defense, deep strike, or maritime reconnaissance.  It’s intended for Marine ground support.  In other words, it’s intended to operate over a land battlefield.  That means that it doesn’t need exceptional speed, huge range (it will operate in close proximity to land forces), high degrees of stealth, exceptional maneuverability (I guess it achieved that one!), or 360 degree sensor fusion (let’s face it, that’s an A2A requirement).

What it did need was survivability to operate over a battlefield.  That survivability could take the form of armor, like the A-10, reduced size, reduced IR signature, enhanced ECM, redundant controls, and a moderate degree of stealth.  Stealth is only marginally useful in this role since the immediate low level battlefield threats are more IR and visual.

Another requirement should have been precision organic targeting.  Depending on external laser spotting, for example, is a very iffy proposition in high end combat.  The ground troops are going to be far too busy and pressured to conduct leisurely laser spotting.  The aircraft would need whatever onboard laser, IR, or visual targeting capability that could be had.  The ability to find and designate targets with minimal guidance from ground troops would be critical.

Hand in hand with onboard targeting should have been downward directed ISR.  Sensors designed to find and identify enemy troops, vehicles, armor, and artillery would be highly beneficial and would allow the aircraft to not only engage targets but guide friendly troop movements and strategy.  The ability to independently assemble a fairly comprehensive picture of the ground battle would be key.  JSTARS and similar aircraft have some of this capability so it’s not a total reach of fantasy.

All of this requires maximum endurance (time over target).  The ability to loiter and develop a ground picture and remain available for ground troops is paramount.  Passing overhead once at Mach 17 is nowhere near as useful as being able to loiter and develop an understanding of the ground situation and monitor changes over time.  That type of understanding would be of great benefit to the ground commander – perhaps more beneficial, even, then weapons on target.  This requirement further suggests consideration of a two seat aircraft allowing the backseater to develop the ground picture and coordinate with ground forces without having to be distracted by actually flying the aircraft.

Finally, the “B” should have had a significant weapons payload.  The weapons should have been a combination of high volume, suppressive fire like rockets as well as precision missiles like Hellfire and small guided bombs.

So, what does this give us when we assemble these requirements in one package?  It suggests that the F-35B should have been a fairly basic and straightforward airframe, possibly a two seater, possessing moderate stealth, great endurance, maximum IR signature reduction, armor and redundancy, and average speed and maneuverability.  It should have featured ground-directed sensing systems and the ability to interface with ground commanders.  Weapons should have been plentiful (maximum use of hardpoints since stealth would not be an emphasis) with a combination of precision and area suppressive munitions.  It should have had no emphasis on A2A beyond self-defense.

In short, the F-35B should have had far more in common with the A-10 than with the current F-35B.


  1. I've never been a fan of building a handful of manned, fixed-wing fighter bombers to just provide A2G support of Marines ashore. Penny-packeting airpower is never a good idea. We have plenty of aircraft that can and do perform that mission.

    "Our Navy's Army doesn't need its own Air Force."

    Just MHO.

    1. "We have plenty of aircraft that can and do perform that mission."

      No, we don't. At least not if we get into a war with a peer. Our aircraft will be totally tied up defending the fleet, attempting to establish air superiority, and supporting other operations like AF bomber missions. There won't be "plenty" of aircraft left over for ground support.

      Closely related to this is the fact that any aircraft available for ground support will be only marginally suited for the task and the pilots will be poorly trained. I remind you of any number of read GAB's excellent comments on the subject of ground support. The most important aspect is the ability of the pilot to understand our troop movements and objectives, the enemy's movements, proper ground combat operations and tactics, and the ability of the pilot to convey those understandings to the ground commander. Weapons on target is almost an afterthought by comparison. This ability to integrate with the ground forces comes only from intensive and extensive training - training that B-X pilots, F-22 pilots, and F-35 pilots do not and never will have.

      Sure, any aircraft can zoom past and drop a LGB (if someone has designated a target - highly questionable when the ground forces are fighting for their lives and getting pounded) but that's a very marginal degree of ground support.

    2. If we don't have enough aircraft to perform critical functions like air superiority, we should focus all our efforts on that first, before even thinking about this topic! Without air superiority, ground attack aircraft are nothing more than targets for red air.

      The pilot doesn't need to understand all that stuff. The TACP or air controller does. They are the ones that need to have the close integration with ground forces. They are the liaison between the ground commander and air power.

      We've demonstrated exactly this type of close air integration with ground forces for over a decade now. So saying it can't be done ignores over 200,000 instances of it actually being done.

      Respectfully, read up on your recent history! :)

    3. Talking about a new Marine CAS aircraft when our ability to gain air superiority is in doubt is like the Nazi's talking about a next generation Stuka when the skies above their forces are filled with Mustangs and Thunderbolts!

    4. Smitty,

      I really like the way you summarized the priority for TACAIR.

      That said, the ground support mission has not been handled as effectively and as efficiently as it could be, at least not in Iraq. There are a number of very pointed critics from ground commanders in the USA and USMC.

      And I disagree that "the pilot does not need to understand all that stuff" - by the Normandy invasion the USAAC trained thousands of fighter pilots as airborne FACs and made sure those guys could effectively control NGFS and artillery fires. They then collocated those fighters with the division and corps headquarters in France to ensure effective coordination. Not this was in addition to the thousands of dedicated observation aircraft.

      Where I differ from doctrine is on the insistence/reliance of ground commanders on CAS: I think the USA and USMC have gone far too lean with artillery and armor. The only time ground troops should expect air support is in when it is marshaled in a decisive blow in support of the main axis of advance.


    5. GAB,

      We still have many pilots acting in the FAC role. We have dedicated Tactical Air Control Parties composed of airmen and officers (pilots) specifically trained as air-ground liaisons. These TACPs are directly assigned to brigades, and battalions and live with their respective units in the field. We also have airborne FAC controllers who are similarly trained.

      These are the people that need to understand all that stuff, not your average F-16 or F-35 pilot. Now clearly fighter pilots need CAS training too, and the more we can get through the TACP programs, the better.

      The average pilot needs to know how to inter-operate in the air-ground system and effectively employ their aircraft and its weapons. But they don't all have to be CAS grand masters for the CAS system to be effective.

      The TACPs need to be CAS grand masters.

    6. B.Smitty forgets the Nazis did have a replacement for the Stuka, it was dedicated ground attack versions of the BF109 and FW190, known as Schlachtflugzeug. Thousands were built.
      The same principle was used by Allies, fighter bombers which didnt need to operate at altitude were ideal.
      The F35B is in much the same vein

    7. Ztev wrote, "B.Smitty forgets the Nazis did have a replacement for the Stuka, it was dedicated ground attack versions of the BF109 and FW190, known as Schlachtflugzeug. Thousands were built."

      So? What good did it do them?

      They should've devoted those aircraft and pilots to winning the air battle. They would've still lost, but it might've prolonged things a bit.

    8. "We've demonstrated exactly this type of close air integration with ground forces for over a decade now."

      Smitty, you're confusing the unopposed, live fire exercises we've been conducting for the last two decades with high end combat ground support. The two situations are no more alike than a person training at a shooting range is like combat. Everything works at the range. Everything works in live fire exercises.

      With respect, I read a LOT of ground combat reports and I see just as many instances of failed support as successful and the successful ones are largely in spite of themselves. Again, anything works when there's no opposition. Come actual combat, we'll realize that our ground support efforts are sorely lacking.

      You're equating some guy zipping by and dropping a bomb with effective ground support and it's not.

    9. Maybe on your computer you win one battle first before gearing up to win the next. The real question is why they didnt lose the war much earlier.
      The obvious answer is it worked for the allies. remember the P39 Airacobra ? Not really. But the russians received most of them for exactly the ground attack missions and local air defence that helped them win on their front.

    10. "Talking about a new Marine CAS aircraft when ..."

      Smitty, you understood that this post is not about a NEW ground support aircraft. It's about what the F-35B might have been had it been purposed designed from the start as a separate aircraft, as many feel the F-35 family should have been, at least in hindsight.

      I am not advocating a new design ground support aircraft!

    11. "If we don't have enough aircraft to perform critical functions like air superiority, we should focus all our efforts on that first..."


    12. CNO,

      Can you point me to some of these reports?

    13. "So? What good did it do them? "

      You're being flippant. Since they lost, we could ask that question of any aspect of their military effort.

      While air superiority was/is vital, wars are decided on the ground. They had to have ground attack aircraft.

    14. First, I'm not an expert on AF TACP operations so evaluate the rest of this accordingly. My understanding of TACP is that it provides an air-knowledgeable person(s) ON THE GROUND. This is nice, as far as it goes. What it doesn't do is put a ground knowledgeable person IN THE AIR. The essence of effective ground support is a pilot/aerial observer who thoroughly understands ground operations and tactics and can support the ground forces accordingly.

      TACP just assures a safe and accurate bomb release but does not enhance the ground force's understanding of the battlefield and does not enhance the ground force's effectiveness.

      If I've got this wrong, tell me.

    15. Smitty, sorry, it's just my cumulative readings of reports, oral histories, anecdotal evidence, books, etc. For example, the recent Iraq and Afg ops are loaded with examples of ground forces calling for support and either having none available, being available but ineffective for a variety of reasons, or executing ordnance drops but not really helping the ground forces.

      A common scenario is a unit gets ambushed, calls for air support and, in the cases where it is available, gets some ordnance on target (maybe effectively, maybe not) but the air support does nothing to enhance the ground force's understanding of the battlefield and, therefore, the ground unit is unable to take advantage of the air support to do more than disengage. You would probably cite that as an example of successful air support and I see it as an example of failed air support. I've read exactly that scenario countless times. True air support should enable the ground force to outmaneuver the enemy by taking advantage of the pilot's understanding of our ground mission, the enemy's movements, and our goals and capabilities.

      I'm becoming repetitive. Simply dropping a bomb in the vicinity of ground forces does not constitute effective air support. It may be occasionally helpful but it could and should be so much more.

    16. CNO said, "Smitty, sorry, it's just my cumulative readings of reports, oral histories, anecdotal evidence, books, etc. For example, the recent Iraq and Afg ops are loaded with examples of ground forces calling for support and either having none available, being available but ineffective for a variety of reasons, or executing ordnance drops but not really helping the ground forces."

      Tisk Tisk... Hearsay is inadmissible here, counselor. ;)

      I think you are confusing Close Air Support with Reconnaissance. The latter is a distinct mission. Google "killer scout sortie" for a hybrid of interdiction and reconnaissance. Google "corps shaping sorties" for an example of how interdiction air power enhances a ground commander's scheme of maneuver.

      I also think you are the only one counts a successful CAS mission as a failure by inserting requirements that were never there in the first place. ;)

    17. CNO said, "While air superiority was/is vital, wars are decided on the ground. They had to have ground attack aircraft."

      The Allies used Spitfires, P-38s, P-51s, and P-47s extensively as ground attack aircraft. Fighters would often fly out on a bomber escort or offensive fighter sweep mission, and fly back low, attacking targets of opportunity. Or they would swing role and carry bombs and rockets.

      That's the nice thing about fighter-bombers, they can do both missions. They can contribute to winning the air superiority fight, and then once won, they can switch to ground attack missions.

    18. "I also think you are the only one counts a successful CAS mission as a failure by inserting requirements that were never there in the first place."

      If the standard for a successful CAS mission is simply getting a bomb to impact somewhere within a ten mile range of ground forces then we're in great shape. Again, reread any of GAB's great descriptions of CAS. We do very little of that today.

      So many of the CAS missions that I read about accomplish nothing for the ground forces. Mere release of a bomb is not successful CAS. That's a pretty low standard.

      This is very loosely analogous to the Marines having the AAV and declaring themselves fully capable of amphibious assaults. Given today's insistence by the Navy that they will stand 25-50 miles offshore, the AAV is not a realistic amphibious option. Just because a vehicle can swim does not make it a suitable or successful amphibious assault vehicle. Similarly, just because a plane can release a bomb does not make it suitable or successful at CAS.

    19. "Tisk Tisk... Hearsay is inadmissible here, counselor"

      Sorry. I'm not ground combat focused and I make no effort to save or organize the hundreds of ground combat readings I come across. That doesn't change what I've read!

    20. "Fighters would often fly out on a bomber escort or offensive fighter sweep mission, and fly back low, attacking targets of opportunity. "

      Nothing wrong with that but it's not the ground support that we're talking about.

    21. This comment has been removed by the author.

    22. CNO, "If the standard for a successful CAS mission is simply getting a bomb to impact somewhere within a ten mile range of ground forces then we're in great shape. "

      Way to knock down that strawman. ;) ;)

    23. BSmitty said, "Way to knock down that strawman. ;) ;)"

      I'm sorry. I couldn't resist.

      If I were to reset the F-35 program, and I couldn't get out of the Marine requirement, I would tell them to continue the Harrier III and VAAC work.

      The Marines have a hard requirement to operate off of LHA/LHDs. That, unfortunately, necessitates STOVL.

      A Harrier III may not've been perfect, but would've been in service a decade ago and cost billions less.

    24. GAB said, "There are a number of very pointed critics from ground commanders in the USA and USMC."

      Can you link some of these so we can discuss the details?

    25. Smitty ,

      Some of the criticism of air-ground integration have floated out in professional journals like FA, or the USMC Gazette, but the meat is in after action reports.

      Tora Bora is one example, however the final assault into Fallujah stands out as the most poignant example of issues where the USAF/USA haggles over everything from airspace deconfliction to second guessing ROE and the tactical situation led to refusals to drop ordinance.

      People blame everything under the kitchen sink, but the essential problem when these breakdowns occur is lack of organizational trust.


    26. GAB,

      Did you mean Op Anaconda? I haven't seen many criticisms of air power during the Tora Bora battle. The issues there were more over-reliance on Northern Alliance forces and the expectation that Pakistan would block border crossings. By most accounts air power and a few SPECOPS allowed the Northern Alliance to pound Al Qaeda and the Taliban at Tora Bora.

      The issues you mention are doctrinal and organizational and are worthy of discussion, but have little to do with platforms. They would be problems even if A-10s were flying all CAS missions.

      Ultimately, CAS is a complex endeavor with numerous links in the chain that all have to work.

    27. Smitty: "The issues you mention are doctrinal and organizational and are worthy of discussion, but have little to do with platforms. They would be problems even if A-10s were flying all CAS missions."

      1. Ground support is not the same as CAS and while I am laser focused on "ground support" I am ambivalent about CAS.

      2. Ground support is very much affected by platform if platform requires maintenance and logistics support that absolutely precludes commanders from meeting face to face. Again, the USAAC (and Luftwaffe) operated fighter squadrons from airfields clustered around the divisions and Corps that they were supporting.

      3. *Regardless of the amount of ordinance dropped, the USAF was largely absent from the fight for as many as 18 out of every 24 hours* during the battle for Tora Bora. The fight was over (and lost)before the USAF was able to get the first operational TACAIR in theater. Bombers and other missions were flown daily, but - that is not ground support.

      4.I am unattached to platforms, feel free to substitute SU-25s for A-10s.


    28. Still trying to understand what you mean by "ground support". Can you point me to a doctrine document or something?

    29. GAB,

      "Regardless of the amount of ordinance dropped, the USAF was largely absent from the fight for as many as 18 out of every 24 hours* during the battle for Tora Bora"

      Do you have a source for this?

    30. Smitty,

      Ground support as I use it is a generic mission incorporating everything of tactical use to the ground commander from reconnaissance to interdiction, to CAS. Look at the tactical (non-bomber escort) missions assigned to the fighter groups in Western Europe 1944-45.

      CAS has a very specific definition that seems to be universally misunderstood even within the military and absolutely muddles any attempt at serious discussion of the role of airpower.

      On Afghanistan: the Navy did a nice brief showing that the bulk of air support missions flown in the initial months (10-hour missions off of CVNs) came from the USN/USMC. Most USAF missions were flown from out of theater (often CONUS). It should come as no surprise that the OEF did not look anything like Desert Storm.

      I encourage you to look hard at the effect of weather on air-ground coordination, the quality of JFAC training (note the length of the training pipe line and how many ordinance drops per student), and then look at the effectiveness of our targeting/mission planning (Peter Krause stated that less than 50% of targets were identified, which is staggering considering the amount of national resources allocated, but also seems to be born out in the recent Israeli- Hezbollah - Hamas conflicts).


    31. GAB,

      We fight joint.

      The Navy did provide most of the sorties early on in Afghanistan, but I fail to see the point here. Each service brings something to the table. The USAF didn't have local basing early on, so carrier-based air power had to pick up the slack. It's important that we have this flexibility.

      CAS was still delivered during Tora Bora. There were no 18 hour gaps, from what I've read. The Taliban and Al Qaeda were ultimately routed, though escaped due to insufficient blocking forces.

      Training is always an issue, as is A2G coordination. We certainly can do more on these fronts, as well as doctrinally. No argument there.

      There is significant "ground support" doctrine that goes beyond CAS. There is certainly debate about the value of kill box interdiction vs corps shaping operations, where to draw the FSCL, and so on. But we did make significant strides in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

      Commanders have a wide range of aircraft and capabilities at their disposal, from hand-tossed UAVs up to Global Hawks, recc and attack helicopters, tactical and strategic manned aircraft. All of these play a part in "ground support".

      I don't think you are giving our recent CAS performance enough credit. It's allowed small pockets of ground forces to punch well above their weight. It's been a critical enabler in all of our recent conflicts.

      As far as the percentage of targets identified, I think we have to be realistic about what can and can't be accomplished from the air. It's impossible to see into every cave, under every canopy, and in every hut or house from the air. Air power is good at finding military targets in the open. Tanks, artillery, SAM sites, and so on. It's not as good at finding small targets in difficult terrain, or with significant overhead vegetation. It's also not good at picking out insurgents among a civilian population. The best we've come up with is persistent UAVs that can monitor day-to-day goings on for signs of insurgent activities. But this takes time and lots of UAV sorties.

    32. Smitty,

      There is no doubt that the tonnage of bombs dropped was tremendous, but at the end of the day, neither the conventional force, nor airpower prevented OBL and the key AQ/Taliban leadership from escaping into Pakistan. That is mission fail; a result of bad planning, bad intelligence, and worst of all: a total disrespect for enemy capability and his will to fight.

      The "we fight Joint business" sounds great in the briefing slides, but there is definitely a pecking order by service, and by units of who you want to answer the call, and on the flip side who you want to be called in to support.

      Our controllers and pilots are less effective than they could be. This is a fact. On the whole; the selection and training of across the services is worse than in 1990. I say this with no judgment on the troops, but emphasize the failure of the military to provide tough realistic training to both pilots and the ground controllers. On a whole we fly fewer flight hours, we offer less effective initial training for controllers (some are certified with simulated weapons drops!), and we have fewer live ordinance drops in training.

      And yes platforms matter: A squadron or two of cheap, rugged, fixed wing aircraft (A=10s, SU25/39s, EMB314s, A-1s, A-4s, etc.) deployed to airfields in Afghanistan on day one of Operation Anaconda would have offered superior support compared to B-2/B-52 strikes from CONUS. The bombers were necessary for the initial targets but even the USAF admitted that it ran out of strategic targets by week two of the air campaign. Do the math on the number of sorties that were possible/generated flying missions from out of theater, not to mention the time on target and you will understand the issue with timing. T = D/R. When the Corps got rid of the last U.S. military observation/light attack aircraft the OV-10 (with a pilot and a ground guy in the other seat) it lost a huge capability - even the USAF acknowledged this when AFSOC started looking at EMB314. By the way, the OV-10 could operate from LHAs. Many, many helicopter missions were scrubbed in Afghanistan due to weather prompting even the CO of TF 160 to criticize the capabilities of his aircraft. Rotary wing aircraft, F-35s, and drones are not the answer to the ground support mission.


    33. GAB,

      The Super Tucano buy is NOT meant to be an OV-10 replacement. It is NOT a FAC(A). It is a SOCOM aircraft to use for foreign training and integration.

      Bombers in Afghanistan flew from Diego Garcia, not CONUS. Still a long ways, for sure, but they could average a sortie every other day or so, IIRC. On the flip side, bombers had far more time on station per sortie. So you might only get a handful of sorties per day, but they could stay there all day (with refueling).

      There were TONS of tactical aircraft involved in Op Anaconda. By that time, we had local air bases. We didn't lack aircraft. The problems were airspace deconfliction (lots of aircraft trying to use a VERY small chunk of airspace), an awkward command situation, and a lack of TACPs (the 10th Mountain left theirs in CONUS!).

      Tora Bora was earlier in the conflict. Still lots of aircraft available by all the accounts I've seen. We did have carriers on station.

      I have a hard time believing the selection and training of TACPs and FACs is worse now than in 1990. We fought two wars for nearly fifteen years that involved extensive use of CAS. We should have it figured out by now. Of course, now that everyone is home, we may've gone back to our old ways, I don't know.

    34. "We should have it figured out by now."

      I about wet myself laughing over this one.

      We should have figured out how to build ships by now and yet we get the fiascos that are the LCS, LPD-17, etc.

      We should have figured out how to build an airplane by now and yet we have the F-35.

      We should have figured out how to get Marines ashore by now and yet we have ... actually we don't have anything.

      We should have figured out naval combat tactics by now and yet we have the Navy trying to establish a tactics school for officers due to an almost total lack of tactical training.

      We should have figured out interservice communications by now (remember Grenada?) and yet we haven't.

      We should have figured out CAS by now and yet we haven't.

      Seriously, I can write these all day. Our institutional memory is fleeting, to say the least, and we forget and have to relearn lessons all the time. Remember, how proud the Marines were to stagger through a mock landing exercise after a decade on land? What a fall from grace!

    35. "... bombers had far more time on station per sortie. So you might only get a handful of sorties per day, but they could stay there all day (with refueling)."

      You're describing the future problem without being aware of it. CAS, supplied by bombers piled up in holding racetracks are what a peer enemy will call a target rich environment. We've completely fallen into unwise, lazy habits regarding CAS. We think a peer is going to allow us to conduct leisurely CAS as we do now against a total absence of opposition.

      If we don't start figuring out how to do CAS in a contested environment we'll get our asses handed to us when we attempt it against a peer.

    36. CNO,

      We used bombers because we could. The Afghans had no air defenses to speak of. If a future enemy has significant air defenses, we would adjust accordingly. Don't assume the way we fought in Afghanistan is the only way we know how to fight.

    37. Perhaps a question for another thread, but can we rely on Predators and other big slow UAVs for reconnaissance against a peer enemy that actually has an air force? Or is this another case of preparing for an enemy that offers little resistance in the air?

    38. ClarkC, no, the large UAVs are not particularly stealthy and are not even remotely survivable. The military has generally acknowledged this and indicated that they would not use these aircraft in combat areas. Of course, that begs the question why we're so focused on acquiring them?

  2. I love the Marines. My cousin was a Marine. But I'm beginning to doubt their concept for air operations.

    It sounds like we are in a situation where the Marines are expecting to be operating with air superiority?

    For the Corps to support itself in a ground attack role from a rough base a Super Tucano or its own Cobra's seem to be able to do the job, *if* we assume the people they are fighting don't have air superiority fighters.

    If their enemy does have a decent air superiority fighter, then its going to be really difficult to make a plane for the corps that can:

    A) Be able to compete with an air superiority fighter
    B) Be able to be a decent ground attack jet, and
    C) Be able to be supported, by the Corps, on rough airfields close to the front.

    The SuperHornet can't do it. The Hornet can't do it. Neither can be supported from rough airfields. I think its really obvious the F-35 can't do it. This isn't the '40's where the corps could piece together Wildcats for the cactus air force.

    So we're back to F-35's operating off of 'phibs. But if the enemy has an air superiority capability then the 'phibs are going to have to have some sort of way to defend themselves, and I don't think they can do that *and* support a Marine force in the field; so they'll have to have a carrier near by.

    And if you have a carrier near by.... why bother having a 'phib with F-35's?

    1. "And if you have a carrier near by.... why bother having a 'phib with F-35's? "

      ...Massed Strike Doctrine?
      I believe with that was what it was called.
      The doctrine of massing your forces into one ball to allow for the most consolidated striking and defensive power. Hasn't been used since WW2.

      I don't know, but what we've been seeing recently it's as if the Navy/Marines are trying to return to their glory days but are forgetting everything that made them so glorious.
      They're treating the 'phibs like Light Carriers (they're closer to slow Fleet Carriers). The America is in every way but speed a Fleet Carrier.

      Just a thought. I pretty much agree with you.

      - Ray D.

    2. That sounds as good a reason as any.

      I actually like the philosophy. I know we are short on 'phibs, but maybe the America and her similar sister (no well deck) could be used if we developed a turboprop aircraft that could use them. A Tucano/A1 skyraider type that could do CAS in our non peer conflicts. It would be a cost, but it would end up saving us money in the long run if the aircraft were cheap enough by not burning through hours on more expensive airframes.

      The problem is that the America class doesn't have catapults.

      Another option someone else mentioned, that I think is a valid one, is that the marines need more cheap tube artillery for those type of conflicts. Tube artillery *can* be put at rough bases ashore.

  3. CNO,

    Also consider the two-seat SU-25UBas a viable alternate design to the A-10.


  4. We used to have lots of these types of aircraft. Most started with the letter designation "A". Now we're trying to get rid of the few that are left.

  5. I am of the opinion that there needs to be a new CAS fighter built. It should be smaller than the A-10, more agile, better T/W ratio, and with a gun with a faster spinup time (a failure of the GAU-8).

    It will not be able to carry as many bombs (due to size - the only thing you'll be able to carry is light iron bombs and perhaps rockets), but you will be able to buy more of them.

    This aircraft should be rugged (ex: able to operate on grass fields) and dusty environments. It must also be heavily armored.

    The agility is what will work for survivability.

  6. I think we are way beyond the days where simple armour is going to be worth much in terms of survivability of an airframe, in a peer situation.

    I’m 100% with you in much of your synopsis CNO, particularly IR reduction.
    I think the 360 * 360 IR sensors and radar are arguably more about ground attack then A2A but let’s not get into it as we don’t know the details, we will split hairs talking about SEAD and DEAD.

    Given the capabilities of the world MANPADS though, even with IR signature reduction, or RCS reduction, any low level, truly close attack is going to fail, a gun attack nowadays against a peer has to be an absolute last resort.

    Either you have to strike at a distance so your signature is minimal (but close enough for a timely response) or you have to move FAST. And have some very good decoys.

    Agree F35B isn’t idea for dedicated modern CAS, but the A10 is further.
    To support my argument I don’t think we have to go to history.

    We are watching right now in Ukraine, Russian backed separatist with no airpower stopping CAS from a wide variety platforms.

    We are seeing pretty much all the traditional techniques falling out of the air, do we really think the A-10 would fare any better?

    We have to rewrite the rule book. I'm just not entirely convinced we know how just yet.

    1. "I think we are way beyond the days where simple armour is going to be worth much in terms of survivability of an airframe, in a peer situation."

      Armor is always valuable. In the low level CAS environment, small missiles (MANPADS) and guns (ZSU and the like) are the main threat so armor will be effective. Check out the Desert Storm A-10 battle damage incidents. They took some amazing damage and survived thanks to their armor, redundancy, dual engines, and general design. The A-10 was designed to take damage and survive and that design concept has proved out in combat.

    2. "Either you have to strike at a distance so your signature is minimal (but close enough for a timely response) or you have to move FAST."

      Ben, if you haven't, you must do yourself a favor and attend an air show (assuming they have those in the UK). Standing on the ground during an aerial demonstration is eye-opening. Even if you know an aircraft is coming by in a relatively low level pass, they're almost impossible to spot until they're come and gone. The most incredible phenomenon is the total silence with which they approach. You'd think you could hear an aircraft coming but they are totally silent. It's eerie. A second or two after they pass, you hear the noise following behind but by then it's way too late in terms of spotting an aircraft. The point is that to the soldier on the ground holding a MANPAD, the aircraft are almost undetectable without some type of direction.

    3. CNO, "Check out the Desert Storm A-10 battle damage incidents. They took some amazing damage and survived thanks to their armor, redundancy, dual engines, and general design. The A-10 was designed to take damage and survive and that design concept has proved out in combat."

      Damaged aircraft parked on the tarmac awaiting repairs do not fly CAS sorties.

    4. And all the vehicles and troops that they destroyed do not engage in further fights. What's your point? Combat is about using assets, even to the point of loss, to achieve goals. I know you understand this.

    5. Combat is about maximizing the net delivered combat value of your assets over their combat lifespan.

      Cut that lifespan short, or interrupt delivery for days or longer, and you reduce that overall value.


    1. Ben, I have no context in which to evaluate those losses. 5 ground attack aircraft lost and 2 damaged may or may not be high losses. If it was 5 aircraft lost in 10 sorties, that's a problem. If it was 5 aircraft lost in 10,000 sorties, that's pretty good.

      I don't know their level of training and tactics.

      We also have to remember that losses occur in combat. We've adopted a zero-loss mentality about combat as a result of the last two decades of unopposed live fire exercises that have passed for combat and have forgotten that real war involves losses. Those 5 aircraft presumably inflicted damage on the enemy during their lifespans. Was it enough to justify the risk and loss? We don't know.

      The point is that the mere loss of aircraft does not mean that the platform is no longer suitable for modern combat. War is losses. Some people want to get rid of the A-10, for example, because it could be shot down. Of course, it could. Any aircraft can. It can also inflict huge losses on the enemy which justifies an occasional loss.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I take your point, and we don't have specifics.

    We do have some objective observation though, those losses occurred without significant degredation to the Rebels positions.

    Without decernable impact on resupply or movement of a significantly inferior land force.

    In short none of the typical hallmarks of effective CAS.

    Plus if it was working they wouldn't have stopped ?

    And this with NO A2A opposition what so ever.

    That kit represent some ( thought to be ) serious capability. i.e. GABs Frogfoot, a very capable aircraft purpose designed for CAS.
    HIND, Mig-29 and Tactical Bombers.

    I very much take your line CNO on how much warfare has moved forward Peer to Peer. And we have ( until recently ) not been able to guage the changes that have ensued.

    I maintain that we are witnessing 1990 tech CAS vs modern air defence right now though. And viewing its lack of effect.

    CAS isn't dead, we just have to find a better way. And we have at least for the last decade been studying the problem.

    1. "We do have some objective observation though, those losses occurred without significant degredation to the Rebels positions."

      This is the proverbial "proving the negative" dilemma. What would the separatists have accomplished without the presence of ground attack aircraft? Who knows. I certainly haven't seen sufficient data to evaluate what's happening over there.

      Also, don't expect a few ground attack aircraft to change the direction of a war. Wars are still won and lost on the ground. Aircraft can help but even the mighty F-35 can't change the direction of a war if the ground forces can't follow through.

  9. Oh btw Farnborough was thrilling last year. Thanks. I witnessed F35B CAS abilities first hand.

    Many of the locals did get a bit scared of the BIG SHINEY BIRD THINGS, but most of us were ok after a cup of tea and a nice sit down ;)

    1. "I witnessed F35B CAS abilities first hand."

      Excellent! What did you see? What kind of capabilities did they showcase?

    2. Stealthyest plane I never saw !


    3. And of course the answer your looking for is that I got to see it eat about £120 of my personal funds, to not turn up anywhere near on time, but It left the vuage promise of eating some more of my money in future. For no garentees at all.

      The F18 was quite good tho.

      There Happy now. Ben.

  10. Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it.

    In this case the Marines have read history and remember only too well being dropped off and told see ya with no aircover. I would go so far as to say obsessed with not repeating it to the point where they are going to bankrupt the Corps and get a black eye similar to what happened with the Army tried to deploy Helicopters in Bosnia.

    It is a sad day for the Corps

    1. Anon, you bring up an often cited rationale for the Marine's obsession with air power: the Guadalcanal episode. That event would seem to be deeply embedded in the Marine psyche. However, it doesn't hold up to logic.

      Let's assume that the Marines want their own air wing so that can't happen again. Now, consider an amphibious assault where the Navy feels it can't protect the ships. They'd leave and take the F-35s with them. Even if the Marines wanted to bring the F-35s ashore (assuming they had an airbase to operate from), they wouldn't have the sophisticated spares, test equipment, specialized repair tools, fuel, and munitions to operate the aircraft for more than one sortie. The days of swinging a wrench at a Wildcat and hammering out your own parts are long gone.

      So, even if the F-35B is the Marine's attempt to avoid another Guadalcanal, it won't work.

      What do you think?

    2. I agree completely with what you are saying. The logic of trying to use the F-35 to solve the issue is completely flawed. If you want to operate A/C after being dropped off you need simplicity and reliability.

      The Marines response to History has been as screwed up as the event itself. But my bigger point is that this insecurity and paranoia is gonna bankrupt the Corps.

  11. cno , i dont think they can make that kind of specialized F35 just focused on ground attack ( disregarding A2A , adding armour, etc) .. well technically they can do it but im sure USMC dont want it, Those stuff listed to be removed from the specialized F35 all are the heart of F35. if all taken out you might as well create a new stovl jet altogether.

    and low level CAS today with peer/near peer enemy will result in bloodbath , using A10 or F35. The A10's low level gun run might work on insurgents but it wont work with peer/near peer enemies.. there'a valid reason why AC1:0 gunship is forbidden to operate in daylight in the face of even minimal AD..

    1. "b", you may have missed the point of the post. It wasn't whether a dedicated ground attack plane is a good idea or a bad idea, it was what the F-35B could and should have been. For better or worse, the F-35B model is a ground attack aircraft. The post simply suggests that it could have been a better one.

  12. Smitty, do you have a link to any rigorous study of CAS in recent times that isn't authored by the AF as a self-congratulatory writing? In other words, something from a reasonably objective third party or ground force perspective? Genuinely interested to see what such a group/person would say, good or bad.

    1. Here are two RAND report on the topic.

      They aren't authored by the AF, but are AF-funded research.

      Here's an air power perspective on Operation Anaconda,

      Again AF document.

      Here is a DoD case study on Op Anaconda,

      Not sponsored by any particular service but has discussions of air power.

      Here is the Army sponsored "On Point" document for OIF,

      Here is the Marine's account of The 2nd Battle of Fallujah,

      It has numerous references to air support and air coordination.

      In summary, I don't think you are going to find what you are looking for. The AF is the service most interested in and likely to sponsor this type of research, but I have a feeling you won't believe what they produce.

      So you will have to piece together accounts from other services' official documentation of battles and campaigns.

    2. Smitty, I wouldn't believe an AF written or funded report any more than I believe the numerous official Navy reports that paint nothing but glowing pictures. I'm looking for a reasonably objective third party, like DOT&E or RAND (if not funded by the AF).

      I'd like to hope that you wouldn't believe an AF report anymore than you'd believe Navy reports which we've shown to be ridiculous PR writings. To get the truth, one has to dig a little deeper. Perhaps the AF is the service that tells the unvarnished truth but I doubt it.

      I've read many accounts over the years that have included aspects of air support but, having no particular interest at the time, I made no effort to save them.

      There was an interesting series of TV episodes a while back where reporters/cameras were embedded with various units in (Afg?/Iraq?) and the stories were remarkably similar. A patrol goes out, blunders into an ambush, calls for air support, sometimes gets it - sometimes not, bombs are dropped with little apparent effect, and eventually the patrol disengages and RTB. I remember thinking at the time that if we would make better use of air we could turn the ambush/disengage into a small victory by directing the movement of ground forces to cut off the enemy's disengagement movement and continue to hammer from the air. As best I could tell, the reasons why we didn't included, frankly, a lack of desire on the part of our ground forces (we had a nice little skirmish, let's call it a day and go back to base for a hot shower and a meal), very limited air presence (a couple of passes and they were done), and lot's of communication difficulties between air and ground. In short, air occasionally helped a bit but never really changed anything on the ground. This goes to GAB's distinction between CAS and ground support. A bomb that hits where someone directs it is a successful CAS mission, in a minimal sense, but we clearly aren't performing ground support, at least not in the accounts and videos I've seen.

      I remember back to Viet Nam and the observers we had flying around in little prop jobs and directing battles. Where has that gone? To the best of my knowledge we don't do that anymore.

    3. I'm thinking one of the war colleges might have something but I'm unaware of how to access most of their writings.

    4. Smitty, I really think you ought to consider authoring a post on CAS and especially how it would fit in to an amphibious assault.

      Where would the aircraft come from given the larger priority of fleet defense and air superiority?

      What kind of numbers and sortie rates are needed and can we provide them from the relatively few aviation ships we have?

      What degree of support do you see being needed? Bombs dropped? Surveillance of enemy forces? Direction of friendly ground forces?

      Do we have sufficient communications for air-ground co-ordinated efforts?

      Role of UAVs in a peer contested environment?

      Effectiveness of attack helos versus fixed wing aircraft, again in a peer contested environment?

      How will we provide CAS if the air is contested (meaning, neither side controls the air)?

      You've stated that we shouldn't do an assault if we can't establish air superiority but how can we know if we will before the assault? In other words, if we launch an assault and then discover we can't establish air superiority, what then? Do we abandon the assault?

      I'd love to post a piece on this whether I agree with it or not. Let me know if you're interested. Heck, you practically write a post on these topics, anyway, in your comments! You may as well get some credit.

    5. Smitty, I read the Anaconda report. Thanks for the link. It seemed like a reasonably objective description. It highlighted the both the inadequacies in CAS and the potential it has for aiding ground forces. Although the report didn't address the issue, it seems as if the air support was limited to ordinance delivery as opposed to ground support to include battlefield intel and direction.

      All in all, a fascinating report with plenty of lessons to be learned. Sadly, we appear to be slow to learn them. I repeatedly read more recent accounts of battles that contain all the hallmarks of this episode in terms of failure of intel, failure to adequately consider contingencies, failure to include heavy weapons, etc.

    6. CNO said, "I've read many accounts over the years that have included aspects of air support but, having no particular interest at the time, I made no effort to save them."

      Unfortunately anecdotal accounts are worse than official accounts. They often tell the story of one particular patrol on one particular mission without understanding the larger picture. Media embeds are hardly objective (or knowledgeable) observers.

      One of the findings in the RAND CAS report was, "Army organic fires remain the most efficient means to meet routine unplanned requests for fire support."

      Their rationale, "Giving engaged ground elements the ability to effectively call for precision fires against enemy forces is a necessary but not sufficient condition for responsive fire support. The fires must also be rapidly available. Army standards for fire support responsiveness are very high, with counterbattery fire expected to be delivered within three minutes and more-general fire support in five to ten minutes. This level of responsiveness is possible from the air for selected high-priority missions (e.g., the leading elements in a major offensive such as the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry during Operation Iraqi Freedom or Special Forces direct-action missions), but it requires a huge force structure to sustain for prolonged operations over a large battle space. "

      So some of these anecdotal accounts are the result of an over reliance on air power for routine, unplanned fire support. Air power is a fantastic tool but we have to understand its limitations. The Army and Marines were constrained, politically, in Afghanistan from bringing their fire support systems with them, so they had to rely on air power.

      Those little Vietnam-era prop jobs have been replaced by UAVs. Aggregating UAVs at lower and lower levels provides some of the "ground support" capabilities you want. And yet a battalion may only have three or four hand-tossed Raven UAV systems (9-12 aircraft) at their disposal. It has to split those systems across nine platoons that could be scattered over a large geographical area. Higher echelon systems can and do supplement, but at the cost of not being organic, and thus subject to the "frictions" of the command structure.

      But the Army and Marines are far better off now, with the tools they have available organically and from theater and strategic assets, than they were in Vietnam.

    7. Trust me, I put zero stock in embeds but I do value video and ground forces comments.

      There is no question that we have become lazy on the ground. Ground forces answer to any resistance is to stop and call for air support. To be fair, a bit of that is ROE driven. Our desire (obsession) with avoiding collateral damage limits what should be the proper response which is to level the threat area with heavy ordinance (mortar, artillery) while conducting tactical maneuvers. Instead, ground forces all too often sit back and wait for air to do their job. To be doubly fair, we tend not to even ship our artillery, tanks, and heavy mortars out with our troops.

      We need to either vastly beef up our CAS/GS assets and training or go back to providing organic heavy weapons to the ground troops.

      I would strenuously disagree that UAVs have replace the Vietnam era prop planes. OK, they have but not functionally. UAVs, at least the type found at low level over a battlefield, have very limited sensor "vision" and the pilots have no ground support training, to the best of my knowledge. They have no way of interpreting what they might see in any way that's useful to the ground forces. UAVs have their uses but they are not flying FACs.

      I strongly disagree that the ground forces are better off now than during Vietnam but that's just my opinion. I'd love to know what the ground forces actually think. Of course, there aren't many Vietnam era ground troops left who would have any basis for comparison!

    8. Shadows, Ravens and Gray Eagles are owned and operated by the Army. Blackjacks are owned and operated by the Marines. If they don't have pilots with "ground support" training, nobody will.

    9. Those are fine for looking at specific targets or objects but their sensors have a very limited field of view and do not lend themselves to the "360" degree eye in the sky view that is needed to assess and direct battles. They are tactical usage not operational. They are also probably not survivable in a contested environment.

    10. I think you are asking for something that has never really existed.

      You want a survivable, persistent, 360 degree eye in the sky that can act as a FAC(A), general fires coordinator (artillery, mortars, CAS), and can also perform area aerial scouting duties.

      Perhaps a laudable idea, but not something we've ever had. None of the O/OVs were survivable. The closest we have are fast FACs flying fighter aircraft, but they don't have that much persistence and use similar soda straw sensors (targeting pods).

      Ground forces have scout helicopters that are semi-persistent eyes in the sky, and at the ground commander's disposal, but derive their survivability from NOE flight and not getting to close to threats. They are not survivable when overflying enemy held territory. They are better for looking over friendly forces from a distance, or quickly dashing ahead a little ways and back. They can't provide much depth of view.

      Small UAVs have different survivability characteristics. For one, we can afford to lose them. They aren't that expensive (as we've seen in the earlier post). They are also rather small targets that aren't real easy to detect. Unfortunately they do have soda-straw sensors. Their small size limits the sensors they can carry. It is conceivable that we could develop a Gorgon Stare-lite for UAVs.

      Perhaps a stealthy UAV carrying a Gorgon Stare style optic system and a high-resolution SAR radar might fit the bill. It would still have to have a high bandwith pipe back to a ground station for analysis and command and contol, but it could be more survivable, persistent and still be somewhat expendable.

      The F-35 could potentially be outfitted with a Gorgon Stare style system and/or an area SAR radar to augment its APG-81 and DAIRS. However it's a single seater with questionable all around stealth. Not a perfect solution, but probably the most likely, in combination with UAVs and helicopters.

      We could develop a new, manned aircraft, but that is the least likely option.

    11. Honestly, I don't know what we've had (and lost?). We certainly had more during Vietnam than we do now in terms of ground support. We have much better precision delivery of munitions now but we've lost that link to the ground forces.

      As you suggest, we need to decide what we want to be capable of and how that capability will manifest itself in a contested aerial environment.

      Whether that capability requires an overhead presence or whether it can be provided from long standoff ranges via a JSTARS type platform, I have no idea. We're getting into needing to know the specifics of sensor performance that none of us are privy to.

      What I do know is that there is a need that neither the AF nor the Army/Marines seem to recognize. I get it. The Army is fighting just to keep some divisions intact let alone worrying about a future combat capability. The Marines are so caught up with aviation that they've almost abdicated their ground force responsibilities. The AF can only be dragged kicking and screaming to CAS and surely wants nothing to do with something more nebulous like ground support.

      My suggestion, though it won't happen for the reasons I just mentioned, is for the Army to re-emphasize heavy organic weapons (artillery in all its forms) as their CAS, supplemented by attack helos, and that they form their own mini-air force of FAC/GS aircraft.

    12. Well, i think the forces are still basking in the glow of OIF and OEF victories, with regards to air/ground integration, and don't feel much pressure to change.

      Things DID go pretty well during major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, after all. There were hiccups and snags, but overall you'll be hard pressed to find a significant number of complete failures in A2G integration. Air played a major role in both theaters.

      The following occupation and COIN didn't go well, but lack of sufficient "ground support" wouldn't be high on the list of reasons why.

    13. Hmm ... I can't seem to get you past that realization that what we called success was against a third rate opponent with no aerial challenge whatsoever. Against either (or both) a competent aerial challenge (from both the air and ground) or a competent ground force, our CAS shortcomings would have been exposed. If you can't see that ... Well, I tried. Time to move on.

    14. I can see that. I'm just pointing out a potential reason why we haven't seen a greater push from the services in this area. They don't see A2G integration as majorly broken at the moment.

      A more stressing conflict might expose major weaknesses, but then again, it would probably expose major weaknesses across the board.

    15. The battleship Admirals pre-WWII didn't see anything majorly broken. The inability to see a problem doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist.

      As I've said a thousand times, when war comes we'll see all kinds of weaknesses exposed. On that we agree!


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