In the fall of 2001, when the Pentagon issued what would become the largest development contract ever for a combat aircraft for the Lockheed Martin F-35, the close air support (CAS) mission was not at the forefront.

But timing played a hand; the 9/11 attacks occurred only weeks before that contract was signed and CAS missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria became common. At that point, the fact that the F-35A would handle CAS in contested environments was a footnote in briefings as the Air Force focused on its virtues as a deep-strike counterpart to the twin-engine F-22, built for air superiority. Now lawmakers are weighing in on how to handle the mission as the Air Force struggles to argue that the A-10 retirement proposal is not a binary A-10 versus F-35 choice. After last year’s failed attempt to retire the A-10, the service is locked in a campaign to “energize” the discussion, says Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh, toward a future CAS fleet including a bevy of fighters and bombers, not just the F-35.

The issue is growing in urgency for the Air Force. In Washington, significant defense spending cuts are being planned as fiscal pressure mounts across the government. And the Air Force has once again offered up the A-10 for retirement, stating there is no longer enough money to keep single-mission aircraft in the fleet.

Having conducted a summit on the future of CAS with its sister services, the Air Force is now focusing on how to handle the mission without the A-10 or total dominance of the skies.

The Politics

Last year’s attempt to retire the A-10 flopped; Congress agreed to the mothballing of 36 aircraft—a small dent compared to the hoped-for savings. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James last month approved placing 18 into backup inventory; retiring all 36 would have resulted in the stand-down of an entire squadron. Maintainers supporting those 18 A-10s will be shifted to training for the F-35A ramp up, but many more new maintainers are needed fast to support plans to declare the fighter operational by December 2016.

Resistance is still strong. A vocal A-10 constituency includes some in U.S. ground components who directly benefit from the aircraft’s mission and others in Congress out to protect A-10 bases in their districts. But there are signs of change. Last year Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno was a strong proponent of the A-10. But this year Army Secretary John McHugh came out in favor of the retirement. “What the soldier wants to see and what the command structure in the U.S. Army wants to happen [is placing] explosive ordnance on enemy positions . . . in a timely and effective” manner, he told reporters last month.

“We know there are some members who just do not agree with this proposal,” James said. “It comes back to ‘if not this, then what?’ Or will you lift sequestration and give us more money?” Keeping the A-10 for fiscal 2016 would cost about $520 million, Welsh told Congress; keeping it through fiscal 2020 would require $4.2 billion. “There are circumstances where you would prefer to have an A-10, but we’ve priced ourselves out of that game.”  

The A-10 retirement argument was not helped when Maj. Gen. James Post, vice commander at Air Combat Command (ACC), recently equated A-10 support from officers with treachery: “Anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason,” the military blog John Q Public quotes him as saying.

Ever since the controversy broke, the service has been attempting to steer the conversation away from an A-10 versus F-35 debate, hosting two major media events focused solely on CAS. At issue, according to Welsh, is a need to plan for a future beyond A-10. “We’re not trying to reset the message on anything,” the USAF chief of staff avers. “We’re trying to reset the CAS mission for the future, but we’ve been trying to do that for the last two years. This is nothing new.”

The Statistics

From 2006-13, 67% of the CAS missions in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq have been flown by traditional Pentagon fighters, with 24% handled by the A-10, says USAF Col. Tadd Sholtis, spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command. The A-10 is by no means the sole workhorse CAS aircraft for these missions, although it is a solid contributor. 

But it is a symbol—especially for ground troops—of the virtues of CAS, using airpower to save the lives of soldiers engaged in close combat. This is largely because of the A-10’s characteristic cannon, a seven-barrel, 30‑mm Gatling gun, and the ability of its pilots to fly lower and slower to support ground troops—a visible relief in combat. Its companion fighters also have cannons, but they typically fly faster and higher so ground troops might not see them in action as often.

Thus Welsh’s frustrated refrain: “CAS is a mission, not a platform.” He is visibly irritated by the rhetoric from A-10 supporters who assert that USAF has abandoned the mission. “The Air Force isn’t committed to close air support? Well, I’ve got 140,000 data points over the last seven years that prove that is a ridiculous statement,” Welsh says. “That’s how many CAS sorties we’ve flown. About 20,000 a year. When is a little bit of credit given for that?”

The bottom line in talking to pilots who have flown CAS missions since 9/11: CAS is all about the training.

The Training

“You could put us in a Cessna 172 with an AK-47 and we’d go fly CAS,” said one F-15E pilot. Standard procedure, he says, is to have CAS aircraft—not just A-10s—on alert. When a “troops in contact” (meaning friendlies in a firefight need air support) call comes in, entire support crews line up to ensure the sortie takes off quickly, and they salute the pilots as they taxi—a sign of support for the mission to assist soldiers in peril.

In talking with eight pilots at different bases—all of whom performed CAS missions—they universally said that CAS is not about the platform, it is about the training. Ground-based airmen—aka Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC)—tasked with calling in a strike, agree. “At the end of the day, the tactics are taught to work with any platform,” said one JTAC among the team at Nellis AFB, Nevada, Weapons School who is charged with developing tactics. The JTACs and pilots of various aircraft— F16s, F-15Es, A-10s, B-1s and B-52s—are trained to employ a variety of weapons in myriad weather and topographical conditions. This includes the now widespread use of precision-guided munitions and, when needed, cannons.

The airmen are trained to “check in” with the JTAC when arriving at airspace over troops in contact. The JTAC then requests the needed effect and often specifies which weapon and its yield. Pilots can then set the fuze as needed with the Joint Programmable Fuze employed on service air-launched munitions. Even with the most advanced targeting pods and sensors, JTACs often “talk” a pilot onto a target. In some cases—notably ambushes in mountainous regions or urban conditions—selecting too large a weapon or missing by meters can mean life or death for friendlies. These missions are called “danger close.”

CAS pilots point to the so-called Green Flag exercises, which take place  throughout the year at Nellis or Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Whereas in widely known Red Flags the service trains pilots with increasingly complex air-to-air scenarios, Green Flags incorporate Army ground forces who, together with USAF components, participate in scenarios to hone CAS skills.

The preponderance of focus has recently been on maintaining currency for pilots to conduct CAS in a permissive environment. While A-10 pilots are primarily focused on CAS, the training and tactics focus on the mission for F-15E, F-16 and B-1 pilots has forced other missions for these multirole platforms to take a backseat, pilots say. For many of these pilots at a captain rank, “We’ve known nothing but this war,” so the idea of a high-end fight against a near peer is academic.

More than half of the Air Force’s combat units are not ready to fight the “high-end” fight, USAF Secretary James has told Congress, referring to a shift in focus toward operating in the permissive airspace of Iraq or Afghanistan. Skills for penetrating enemy airspace and attacking the most protected targets have atrophied.

The Technology

Pilots of various platforms agree that the A-10 is purpose-built for CAS. It is designed to provide the pilot a good field of view of the ground; it is optimized to fly low and slow and can carry plenty of precision-guided munitions and cannon rounds. But the rhetoric that “only the A-10 guys can do CAS is mostly bar talk,” says one A-10 pilot. Air Force officials say a variety of weapons are employed in CAS scenarios—from strafing rounds to the 5,000-lb. bunker-buster, and they are dropped from a variety of aircraft (see graph above).

However, the advent of precision-guided munitions has dramatically enhanced CAS accuracy and allowed the mission to be carried out from aircraft flying higher and faster. Most recently, the new 250-lb. Small-Diameter Bomb (SDB) has been employed from the F-15E. Designed as a long-distance glide bomb, it was not optimized for direct attack. However, F-15E pilots developed tactics to alter altitude for the drop, and manufacturer Boeing came up with a fix to reduce glide time when needed.

In some cases, A-10s have been called in to take over air support when fighters are either unavailable or insufficient for the job. In other cases, however, fighters have onboard systems that allow them to fly low, dipping under weather in valleys, to execute a CAS mission.

An F-15E pilot reports a case where soldiers were under fire in a valley in Eastern Afghanistan. “Dropping a bomb in a situation this chaotic was not going to work for them through the weather, [but] we knew how important it was. It is the scariest thing I’ve ever done in an aircraft,” he says. “To say we can’t do it is just wrong; we can. We have systems onboard that allow us to do it, that actually look at the terrain. We have maps that tell us what altitude the terrain should be . . . and then you make the decision to go. . . . We got down, got low, got fast over the target and the enemy broke contact and ran. Often that is sufficient. Once they see us, they run.”

The Air Force calls these “show of force” missions, where merely arriving on the scene repels the enemy. And pilots report the shows of force are now more often driving the enemy back—reducing the need to drop ordnance.

Some USAF officials admit that retiring the A-10 could expose the military to a capability gap, but one that can largely be addressed with tactics employed from other aircraft. 

“We could shoebox the best solution to being a platform. But . . . you don’t always have the ability to provide what you want [so] you provide the effect; there is the potential that there would be a gap in capability,” says an A-10 pilot.

But Air Force brass say the bottom line is money—there is not enough to retain a single-mission aircraft. “The A-10 is incredible at CAS . . . but other airplanes are doing the mission,” Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert Carlisle told Aviation Week. “Any time you transition an airplane, there is some inherent risk. But we are committed to [CAS] . . . and are using almost every platform we have to do CAS.”

And as USAF aircraft have become more advanced with precision targeting pods and munitions, so have Army and Marine helicopters. The downside of rotorcraft is their lack of speed and range to get to a target when friendly forces are based far forward. They are also susceptible to hostile fire, especially in a contested environment. But they are effective when they can be used; Army AH-64 Apaches and A-10s, for example, have been called in to support troops fighting so-called Islamic State targets.

This is a main thrust behind the Air Force’s push to discuss CAS; officials want to explain that many platforms can provide the muscle needed. And the retirement of the A-10 does not mean the CAS mission will solely fall on the unproven F-35.

The Transition

Chief of Staff Welsh emphasizes that the planned initial operational capability (IOC) for the F-35A by December 2016 is just that—an initial capability. Air Combat Command’s Carlisle is responsible for the declaration, and he is focused on three missions: CAS, air interdiction and limited suppression of enemy air defenses. He acknowledges that the F-35’s CAS abilities then will be “basic.” Suitable munitions at IOC are limited to 500-lb. laser-guided bombs and the 2,000-lb. joint direct attack munition. Pilots will not be able to fully exploit the synthetic aperture radar modes until Block 4 software is in service, years from now, nor will a video link to the ground controllers be available at IOC.

“The basic capability in the airplane we go to IOC with will have some communication capability,” Carlisle says. “We won’t have the Rover [data-sharing system] . . . where they can see the pod [video] and we can talk guys on [to targets] very easily.” He says the assumption is that other platforms can handle the mission while the F-35’s capabilities are ramping up, unless CAS is needed in a contested space.

Already officials at the Weapons School have begun a “CAS investigation” to examine and codify tactics for the F-35 operating in CAS missions, says Lt. Col. Benjamin Bishop, commander of the 422 Test and Evaluation Sqdn. at Nellis. This includes how the F-35 pilot will interact with the JTAC. The findings will be integrated into the aircraft’s tactics manual. CAS was the first of the missions to be worked in part to support Marine Corps IOC, which is slated for July 1. Bishop says that the Air Force’s 3i software-equipped aircraft—those with which IOC will be declared—and 3Fs are a “baseline investment” until the more robust Block 4 is fielded.

“We know that 3i is not going to have all of the weapons, right? We know there will be more weapons and more capability in 3F for the FOC [full operational capability]. So we have to develop the tactics and operationally test the tactics,” says Maj. Gen. Jay Silveria, commander of the Air Warfare Center at Nellis. “We’ll get more capability in 3F and will expand the testing and the tactics development based on those other weapons.”

By contrast, the Marines say their Block 2B F-35s, slated for IOC in July, will offer additional capability over the F-18s and AV-8Bs. “The increased capability due to the aircraft’s sensor suite and improved pilot situational awareness will decrease the time required to employ precision ordnance,” says Maj. Paul Greenberg, a Marine Corps spokesman. “This aircraft will be able to support the ground element in environments which previous aircraft could not” because of its stealthy qualities.

Block 3F will feature improved data fusion, full use of the infrared search-and-track capability, use of the cannon and wider use of the radar. The electro-optical targeting system in the meantime, however, allows for night CAS from the F-35, Silveria says. 

Block 4 will further expand those and a variety of munitions, including the 250-lb., all-weather, moving-target SDB II now in development. The F‑35A will be able to employ its cannon when the 3F software is approved, and officials at Edwards AFB, California, expect to begin testing the gun when it is installed on a test aircraft by June.

The Plan

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.

The service hosted a CAS Summit with representatives from its sister services this month 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 says. “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 to act as an umbilical cord 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 JTACs available to meet demand. “In 1990, we had 100% of the requirement at 450,” Carlisle says. During the Gulf war, 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.” Another option is to use contract aircraft to train more JTACs, he notes.

The CAS Integration Group will also examine how to transfer relevant CAS lessons to operations likely 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 says.

Finally, the Air Force is examining ideas for future CAS weapon systems, including, potentially, a dedicated platform. This is only in a study phase, but Carlisle says careful review is needed not for capability as much as potentially fielding extra tails to augment the dwindling numbers of fighters.

“There is a capability requirement for the future threat. There is also a capacity discussion,” Carlisle says. “As . . . you look at the real high-end players and . . . if they get to the capability we anticipate 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, given the threat and budget environment “we are not there yet.”

Meanwhile, Air Force laboratories are continuing to examine a long-held desire to field true “dial-a-yield” weapons, which could provide tailored destructive effects “dialed in” by the pilot to reduce the destructive power or increase it based on scenario. Also hoped for are multirole weapons that can be carried internally in the F-35 to allow for their use in a contested environment. “The other capability that has always been key is either point- or cue-and-shoot. With the A-10 you pull your nose around, 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 a forward-firing-type CAS environment, he notes.

Beyond this, Welsh says that he wants out-of-the-box thinking on CAS weapons—including such concepts as directed energy to 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,” he 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 you have thousand-round bursts” instead of the [far fewer rounds] “we get out of the gun in the front of an airplane today, [yet] the effect looks exactly the same on the ground?”

Although these ideas are on the table, there is little consensus as to the Air Force’s ability to fund its plans to revamp the mission.