The U.S. Air Force’s interest in a possible new close air support (CAS) platform to replace the A-10 Thunderbolt II is about “capacity,” says Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle – a sign that a projected downturn in the number of fighters in the inventory will make it insufficient to meet current missions.

The look at a new CAS platform is only in the study phase, but Carlisle says careful review is needed not for capability as much as potentially fielding extra aircraft to augment a dwindling fleet.

“There is a capability requirement for the future threat. There is also a capacity discussion,” Carlisle tells Aviation Week. “As … you look at the real high-end players and … if they get to the capability that we anticipate that they will get to … we have to keep thinking about how we maintain that capacity … There may be an inflection point in the future that says at this point we need more capacity and to get that we have to do it at lower cost.” However, with the current threat and budget environment “we are not there yet.”

Carlisle opened the door to a new platform designed to handle the CAS mission during remarks last month at the annual Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium.  The Air Force recently conducted a week-long summit on CAS with its sister services in an effort to “re-energize” the discussion on the mission area, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said. A look at an A-10 follow-on was one of the topics of discussion, though Carlisle notes there is no urgency to move forward now, in large part due to budget pressure.

The challenge ahead is twofold. The service could simply face a shortfall of available assets to cover the panoply of missions required – from combat air patrols in the U.S. to supporting wars abroad as well as low-intensity conflicts.

The Air Force once envisioned a “high-low” mix of hundreds of F-22s mixed with more than 1,600 F-35s for future missions. But the F-22 buy was truncated and the service now has only 183 of the twin-engine stealthy aircraft. This puts more pressure on the yet-to-be-fielded F-35 fleet as legacy fighters retire in the next two decades.

Carlisle’s comments show at least a willingness to consider a new mix of aircraft, perhaps including a low-end platform capable of CAS missions in a more permissive environment. The F-35 is the platform of choice for CAS in contested situations, he says.

Meanwhile, Air Force laboratories are continuing to examine a long-held desire to field true “dial-a-yield” weapons, which could allow pilots to reduce or increase destructive power based on the scenario. Also hoped for are multi-role weapons that can be carried internally in the F-35 to allow for their use in a contested environment.

The Air Force had once pursued the Joint Dual-Role Air Dominance Missile, which was to provide a single platform capable of handling the AIM-120 mission of air-to-air kills combined with that of the Harm, which was designed to destroy ground-based radars. The effort fizzled and money dissipated, indicating such a need could have been pulled into a black program.

Carlisle, however, notes that a more sophisticated suite of forward-firing weapons could provide flexibility for the mission in the future.

“The other [capability] that is key that has always been key is either point- or cue-and-shoot. With the A-10 you pull your nose around [to target]. We’d like to do that same thing but maybe cue and shoot where … you use the helmet-mounted cueing system,” Carlisle says. “We do that for some weapons as well, but we haven’t developed them for that forward-firing … type CAS environment.”

Beyond this, Welsh says he wants out-of-the-box thinking on CAS weapons – including such concepts as directed energy and smaller, precision-guided systems. “We should be focused on the next generation of close air support weapons … There are different ways to look at this problem that technology can solve,” Welsh says. “A large number of forward-firing laser guided rockets [for example]. Is it something that fragments from a rocket into a thousand bullets … so that you have thousand-round bursts instead of the much less rounds of burst we get out of the gun in the front of an airplane today – but the effect looks exactly the same on the ground.”
A new platform and weapons – if ever actually funded – are far term at best.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is taking a number of steps to transform CAS, not only for permissive airspace but to establish the technology and tactics needed for CAS in contested airspace.

This month’s CAS summit was held with representatives from all the services to identify a way forward. Chief among the steps ahead is to consolidate CAS aviator experience in the Air Force.

Pilots from the A-10 community will be assigned to squadrons of F-16s, F-15Es and, eventually, F-35s focused on that mission. “We want that CAS expertise to go to those squadrons that are dedicated to CAS to keep …. that culture alive,” Carlisle said. “When we get to the Block 4s of the F-35s, those are going to be great CAS platforms.”

The service is also establishing a CAS Integration Group at Nellis AFB, Nevada, to act as an umbilical on training, tactics and technology for the mission. It will include members of the other services as well as ground-based air controllers. USAF is also planning to incorporate live virtual training into the curriculum to boost the number of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) available to meet demand. “In 1990, we had 100% of the requirement at 450,” Carlisle said. During Desert Storm, airpower was used to take down defenses and potential airborne threats in Iraq, so CAS was not needed as much. “Today, we have over 1,500 and we’re still not meeting the requirement,” Carlisle said. Another option is to use contract aircraft to train more JTACs, he said.

The CAS Integration Group will also examine how to transfer relevant CAS lessons to operations that could come in a contested environment. “If we’re in a contested environment where there’s an ability to fight your way in, to defend yourself in the airspace and still conduct a mission, that’s a higher level of training and it takes a lot of work,” Carlisle said.