The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate

The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate

by Douglas N. Campbell


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The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate by Douglas N. Campbell

Former Warthog pilot Campbell recounts the institutional combat that surrounded the U.S. Air Force's choice of the Warthog (also known as the A- 10) for close air support missions. The narrative encompasses issues of technological development, war-fighting strategy, congressional politics, and bureaucratic infighting. Annotation ©2003 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781557502322
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Publication date: 05/15/2003
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.26(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.22(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate

By Douglas N. Campbell

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 2003 Douglas N. Campbell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1557502323

Chapter One


A joke appeared in the Reader's Digest in July 1967, as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War deepened, and Americans became more aware of the military's tactics. A boy returned from Sunday school and his mother asked him what he had learned. He said that he heard about how Moses and his people escaped from Pharaoh's Egypt. He told her that as Pharaoh's tanks approached the Israelites, Moses got on the radio and called in an air strike, which knocked the tanks out of action. The puzzled mother asked, "Is that really the way the teacher told the story?" The boy replied, "If I told it her way, you'd never believe it!"

Thus it is with close air support, known also by its acronym, CAS. Just as missiles, tanks, and machine guns offer an apparently obvious battlefield edge, logic dictates that ground troops use airplanes for extra firepower. Planes move over the battlefield in a way the ground forces cannot. Their high speed and lethal onboard weaponry enable them to surprise enemy troops with a hard knock. Airpower can destroy the enemy currently vexing the ground commander, and can also locate and hit threatening forces just beyond the front lines. It all seems so easy; and as the joke implied, the U.S. Air Force came to deliver CAS so well in Vietnam that people took it for granted.

But CAS is not easy to accomplish. Indeed, the term itself defies a simple definition. How close is close? For much of its existence, the U.S. Air Force used a close air support definition that went something like this: support of troops engaged or nearly engaged in combat so that close coordination is required with the ground units. Details of the definition changed over the years. After the Vietnam War, where the Air Force accomplished CAS so well, a survey conducted among Army and Air Force officers revealed no agreement about its exact definition or other related terms.

Even if one accepts the definition given above, other problems arise. The difference in visual perspective between the airman and the soldier is wide. To the infantryman, an enemy tank one hundred yards away is conspicuous, not only because of its size but also because of the serious danger it represents. To a pilot preparing to attack the tank from a mile and a half away, it is a large dot; and if its camouflage matches its surroundings, it may not even be visible. Conversely, the pilot sees features that the soldier cannot detect. If the soldier wants the pilot to attack a red-roofed barn, the pilot may see many such barns in his field of view. Further, the battle area is often a confusing, dusty, and smoky bedlam involving forces frantically maneuvering for advantage. The opposing lines are rarely well defined. One cannot say that one will attack everyone facing in a certain direction, for in the heat of battle, both forces often face in all directions. The battle can be so chaotic that those directing the planes-ground or airborne controllers who know the battle area-are themselves confused about who is friend or foe.

However, merging the air and ground perspectives to confirm target location is of life-and-death importance, for the pilot cannot fire until the target is properly identified. Otherwise, one risks shooting the wrong target or, tragically, the friendly troops who expect support. Therefore, good communication is necessary, and though one assumes that airmen and soldiers communicate easily with one another, this is not always so. CAS history features instances where two different military organizations procured incompatible radios. Visual signals exist, but all CAS participants must agree upon their meaning, and disaster looms for the ground troops whose signals become known to their enemy. Nowadays, laser designators and data link devices can instantly transfer target information to airplanes' fire control computers, promising quick target designation. Precision-guided weapons offer unprecedented accuracy. However, these items heap more technology upon an already complex technological undertaking. What happens if the equipment breaks, or there is operator error, or the participants have incompatible equipment or none at all?

Communications also require a system for ordering air strikes, and this is no simple matter either. The U.S. Marine Corps air task structure is relatively streamlined, given that it is a self-contained operation in a small service that often substitutes aircraft for artillery during amphibious operations. But the U.S. Air Force-U.S. Army air task process involves two services that must anticipate large-scale fights in which the Army may already have ample artillery. Further, the two services share a long, turbulent past. Questions arise about the appropriate weapons and minimum level for requesting authority. The Army's own firepower-artillery, attack helicopters, or tanks-may be able to solve the tactical problem; in any case, one cannot send planes hither and yon in response to every platoon leader's calls. Thus, the U.S. Army battalion is usually the lowest unit level that can request CAS, but even this far up, the request makes a long trip up the operational Army chain of command to determine its priority and whether Army firepower can support it instead. If an air support request gets this far, it goes to the Air Force command chain, which determines whether any planes can answer it. If so, one hopes they can get to the battle quickly enough to make a difference. This complex process requires proper staffing and constant active use to work.

Perspective-related difficulties extend to several other war-fighting considerations. There are many soldiers and relatively few airmen, and the soldier's training pales next to the time and cost required to produce a competent tactical pilot. Though Army weapons can be expensive, they do not closely match the average Air Force fighter's cost. During a 1990s interservice debate over force structure, one Army general exclaimed: "If you spend $10 billion on an army you modernize a whole corps. Ten billion dollars on an aircraft programme is nothing." Thus, air leaders often seem more cautious about using their pilots and planes than ground commanders are about using their soldiers and weapons.

Distance from actual ground combat creates another issue. Airmen are concerned about enemy ground forces, but they are not nearly as interested as soldiers, who are in constant direct contact with enemy guns. To the ground troops, the immediate objective and nearby enemy forces are of preeminent importance, and the troops move only in coordination with other friendly ground units.

The pilots see themselves as able to move quickly and relatively freely over terrain, but their restrictions also may seem irrelevant to the ground troops. Pilots do not like flying a machine that is helpless against enemy fighters. Dense antiaircraft fire can appear in areas out of the soldiers' ken. Fuel considerations and pilot fatigue bring back to earth planes with the best endurance. They cannot remain in the battle area indefinitely while the ground folks sort themselves out. Weather that is a nuisance to the soldiers can ground the airmen or prevent them from executing CAS.

Thus, the airmen's operational objectives and priorities differ from those of the soldiers. Even when they were part of the Army, air leaders placed close air support in third priority behind air superiority and interdiction. The mission precedence remains, for the airmen cite historical examples when asserting that air support is difficult, even impossible, to accomplish without air superiority. They also point out that interdiction against enemy forces in the rear area often yields better results both for the air effort and the ground campaign's longer term. Planes flying repeated interdiction attacks against known targets accomplish more missions over time than those remaining on ground CAS alert or flying about seeking permission to hit CAS targets. The airmen may even say that strategic targets deep in the enemy's homeland rate a higher priority effort than the enemy army.

Return for effort is important because many experts consider CAS the most dangerous airpower mission. A fighter patrol may yield no combat if the enemy's planes do not appear or cannot be engaged. An interdiction mission can be very dangerous if there is fighter opposition and dense belts of antiaircraft fire, but its route of flight often passes over unarmed people, even if they are enemy. CAS, however, is always a mission against an armed group of people. Along with the dedicated antiaircraft batteries, nearly all of the enemy-perhaps thousands of troops in a small area-are armed. They may possess only small arms and may not know how to track an airplane, but as one ventures near the target, the metallic maelstrom from all of the aimed and barrage fire can down one's plane, no matter how fast or sophisticated it is. Quite often, CAS pilots must fly near the target in order to identify and then to hit it, and though air and ground force perspectives can vary, CAS pilots' compassion for beleaguered soldiers often leads the fliers to take lethal risks on the troops' behalf.

CAS obviously takes some practice and inclination if it is to be done well, and this raises another problem: both sides must be interested in the mission. The Air Force may say that budget and force structure limitations will restrict CAS training, relegating air support to an ad hoc "emergency procedure," as some airmen have described it. The soldiers may be confident in their own ability to beat the enemy. They may even see Air Force support as a distraction from, or in competition with, their own war-fighting doctrine and weapons procurement.

This last consideration is important. Though the historical record shows that almost any plane can fly CAS-World War II fighters like the P-47 and later transports-turned-gunships like the AC-130 handled it quite well-only a certain kind of plane best meets its varied demands. The plane must maneuver well, and though speed is an asset for responsiveness and survivability, the plane must fly slowly enough for the pilot to see and hit the target. Since finding the target can take time and the soldiers may want multiple attacks, the plane needs good fuel endurance (also called loiter capability) and abundant firepower. It needs durability to withstand the small arms hits that inevitably accompany this mission. Though advanced avionics gear can aid target acquisition, the plane should be a relatively simple, easily maintained design and one that-given the threats it encounters-can be easily repaired. Too much technological complexity increases cost and maintenance demands, especially in combat, and the plane may have to operate from primitive bases near the front. One wants to minimize combat losses in any event, but one also does not want expensive planes in this dangerous arena.

Perhaps more important, an Air Force possessing dedicated CAS planes also guarantees that it has flying units that prepare for such a difficult mission. Further, the pilots will be focused upon doing the mission well. The necessary characteristics will probably prevent the plane from being used as an air superiority fighter, or even an effective deep interdiction plane, since the traditional aerodynamic trade-offs for such a design are a lower top speed and operating altitude. However, Air Force leaders may not want such a plane because it represents a permanent asset diversion from other, more important tasks. Army commanders may not want it either if it competes with their weapons in the defense budget, or if its inflexibility obstructs other war-fighting goals.

The U.S. Air Force CAS Plane

Thus, the purpose-built U.S. Air Force CAS plane, like the CAS mission, lived on a boundary between organizations and war-fighting styles. Given the mission's difficulty and requirement for interservice interest, it should be no surprise that whether as part of the U.S. Army or as an independent arm, the U.S. Air Force did not have such a plane for much of its early existence. It only procured a CAS plane, the A-10, when certain factors combined to make it do so.

The factors inhibiting CAS plane procurement were many, but if there was any sure foundation for the mission and the plane, it was America's war-fighting style and foreign policy needs. The wealthy nation could utilize abundant firepower to achieve tactical advantage and prevent needless sacrifice of its citizen-soldiers. This imperative arose repeatedly in combat, for many wars did not require rigid adherence to Air Force combat priorities. Indeed, in many of the war-fighting situations that the United States encountered, CAS was the most important, and at times the only, combat mission for air units. Combat was the catalyst for the factors that drove the service to build a dedicated CAS plane.

Accordingly, the CAS observer cannot look at the A-10 without considering the historical currents that created it and buffeted its existence. Both A-10 opponents and supporters have appealed to history to justify their positions. Opponents have pointed out that the service derived its doctrine from historical lessons demonstrating air support's relative lack of worth. Supporters have criticized a service that seemed too intent upon fighting a European, high-technology, stratospheric Trafalgar while ignoring the demands of wars that actually occurred.

Therefore, this book reviews the full background of the U.S. Air Force CAS plane, beginning with the CAS mission's birth during World War I and the fortunes of the U.S. Army's airmen before and during World War II. They faced difficulties in developing CAS, a fight within the Army to prove the air arm's independent worth, and promising bomber plane technology. Thus, they embraced other missions, especially strategic bombing. The exigencies of World War II brought them back to flying air support, and they came to fly it well, but the experience supported their impression that fighters could handle CAS when necessary.

This book then recounts the newly created Air Force's experience with CAS, as well as factors that led the service to procure a plane specifically built for the mission. In this period, conflicts such as Korea reemphasized the worth of tactical missions, but Air Force leaders further embraced strategic bombing as part of U.S. nuclear-oriented military policy. The Army's discontent with neglect of CAS helped fuel its pursuit of a new technology, helicopters, as a means of conducting its own air support. The Vietnam War's earliest years highlighted Air Force CAS deficiencies, which, combined with the Army's development of an advanced attack helicopter, forced the service in 1966 to commence construction of a dedicated CAS plane in order to protect its mission prerogatives.

The book then concentrates upon this plane's turbulent existence.


Excerpted from The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate by Douglas N. Campbell Copyright © 2003 by Douglas N. Campbell
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The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had great expectations for this book with regards to the subject matter being the A-10 Warthog aircraft. However, I found this book to somewhat of a tedious read and the facts behind the development of the A-10 aircraft are presented in a very dry and slow-moving manner. The book reads exactly like the thesis from which it was drawn from with a very high amount of references used in the book that slows down the reading. A little more emotion by the author into the subject matter with regards to personal insights from his flying of the aircraft would have helped provided a much-needed spark for the book. For a more concise book that is to the point on the history of the A-10 Warthog that can be read quickly, please refer the to the A-10 MINI IN-ACTION book by Squadron/Signal Publications.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The A-10 Warthog is arguably the best aircraft in the U.S. inventory for providing close air support. Infantrymen locked in mortal combat will attest to that. Yet it is also an extremely controversial aircraft. How can that be? Author Doug Campbell tells us how, in expressive and captivating style. Campbell, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who flew the A-10 is also a serious student of air power history. In this book he tells how the A-10 came into the inventory despite opposition from his own service, the USAF, which hated to 'waste' money on an aircraft that could only do close air support. Ironically, the U.S. Army whose troops would benefit from the Warthog's awesomely lethal weapon system also opposed it. Its a fascinating story. The reader learns of the vicious political fighting that is part of the aircraft acquisition process, the details on the A-10, some of its battle history and the whole close air support controversy. Casual readers interested in great war birds as well as serious students of military/air power history should read this book.