THE FASCINATING BUT DISTURBING STORY OF CLOSE AIR SUPPORT—THE SAGA CONTINUES
Americans tend to take this nation’s air dominance for granted—and where freedom from attack by enemy aircraft is concerned—that would seem to be true. Quite where sophisticated air defenses, missiles and UAVs will take us has yet to be determined.
The story of CAS—Close Air Support—is much more complicated and does not reflect well on the Air Force. In fact, as I write, the Air Force is trying to retire the A-10, despite its phenomenal combat record, on the grounds that it doesn’t have the versatility of the frightening expensive F-35. That is code for saying: “We want the F-35 and will do everything necessary to make sure we get it—even if it means retiring perfectly good aircraft and undermining the CAS mission.”
Such behavior is beneath contempt, but entirely consistent with the Air Forces track record in this area. Indeed, Lieutenant General ‘Pete’ Quesada—rightly famous for fostering the closest cooperation between air and ground during WW II—was called a “traitor to the Air Force” by his peers, and forced out of the service.
The Air Force have never wanted the CAS mission and have dodged it whenever possible. Instead, they prefer Interdiction which is based upon the orderly destruction of targets planned well in advance. In contract, true CAS means working with ground forces as one integrated unit—normally at lower heights than the Air Force is traditionally comfortable with.
Yes, CAS is more dangerous and messier—but it is the best friend that ground forces can have, and leverages their combat power more than any other alternative.
Whatever about the selfishness of the Air Force, DARPA is looking to improve CAS effectiveness.
Raytheon is moving ahead to demonstrate more rapid and accurate close air support after finalizing a contract with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) to continue the Precision Close Air Support (PCAS) program.
PCAS has been modified to shift the emphasis from automating close air support by enabling ground forces to control the weapons on unmanned aircraft. Instead, the program has been focused on transitioning technology to manned CAS aircraft.
The original plan was to demonstrate unmanned CAS using a Fairchild A-10 converted to optionally piloted mode by Aurora Flight Sciences. Now PCAS will be demonstrated using a manned A-10, says Dave Bossert, Raytheon program manager.
“The fundamental goal is still the same: to decrease the timeline by a factor of 10 from a request for fire to an effect on target — from 60 min. to 6 min. for an A-10 20 nautical miles away,” he says. “And we will still use the A-10, but not optionally manned.”
The modified program comprises two elements. PCAS-Air is the airborne system, providing the interface between the aircraft and the joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) on the ground. PCAS-Ground is the JTAC kit, including Android tablet computer, head-up display and radio.
“The PCAS-Air piece was the A-10. Now it is “Smart Rail” electronics small enough so that anything that can carry the Hellfire missile can be PCAS-Air-enabled,” Bossert says. “We are platform-agnostic, sensor-agnostic and radio-agnostic.”
This DARPA initiative seem likely to be successful, but it’s effectiveness will be limited if the Air Force is not compelled to change its behavior.