More on the squandering of airpower

As a followup to the earlier post, here’s an email making the rounds from an A-10 driver.

Subject: A-10 driver perspective
Date: March 6, 2015 at 4:16:21 PM EST

FYSA
The squadron is doing fine. Everybody is happy to be here and we are doing some good work. The A-10s are holding up well and the technology we have have on the jets now (targeting pods, GPS guided bombs, Laser Guided bombs, Laser guided missiles, tactical data link, satellite comms), and of course the gun, make the A-10 ideal for this conflict. We are killing off as many ISIS as we can, mostly in ones and twos, working with the hand we are dealt. I’ve never been more convicted in my career that we facing an enemy that needs to be eradicated.
With that being said…I’ve never been more frustrated in my career. After 13 years of the mind-numbing low intensity conflict in Afghanistan, I’ve never seen the knife more dull. All the hard lessons learned in Vietnam, and fixed during the first Gulf War, have been unlearned again. The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy, and politics is staggering. I basically do not have any decision making authority in my cockpit. It sucks. In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a UAV, over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage. I’ve spent many hours, staring through a targeting pod screen in my own cockpit, watching ISIS perpetrate their acts until my eyes bleed, without being able to do anything about it. The institutional fear of making a mistake, that has crept into the central mindset of the military leadership, is endemic. We have not taken the fight to these guys. We haven’t targeted their centers of gravity in Raqqa. All the roads between Syria and Iraq are still intact with trucks flowing freely. The other night I watched a couple hundred small tanker trucks lined up at an oilfield in ISIS-held northeast Syria, presumably filling up with with oil traded on the black market, go unfettered. It’s not uncommon to wait several hours overhead a suspected target for someone to make a decision to engage or not. It feels like we are simply using the constructs build up in Afghanistan, which was a very limited fight, in the same way here against ISIS, which is a much more sophisticated and numerically greater foe. It’s embarrassing.
Be assured that the Hawg drivers are doing their best.

One of the prime arguments the Army Air Force used to have air component commanders co-equal to ground component commanders as far back as the campaigns in North Africa in World War II was that airpower benefited from centralized planning, but decentralized execution.

That is, where land component commanders tended to want an umbrella of fighter cover over deployed units all day long, air component commanders, taking a broader view of the air battle, would be able to see which target sets would take priority and be the highest payoff targets. That is, one day, airpower might best be devoted to knocking back enemy airfields, and the next interdicting bridges and trains. The inherent flexibility of airpower could, in the hands of a capable commander, be better used by shifting the priorities, something ground component commanders were not always cognizant of.

Of course, the flip side of that coin was that the execution had to be decentralized. If a raid on an airfield found it empty of enemy planes, the raid leader would call an audible and find other targets worthy of attack.

But today, the increasing trend of the four star squad leader is surely at play here. No one wants to be responsible for a massacre of civilians. But in the example given in the letter, the tanker trucks, laden with oil, are no doubt going to be used to smuggle illegal oil and fund the ISIS state. That makes them a legitimate target, whether they’re manned by civilians or not. Which, let’s face it, our enemies here aren’t exactly adhering to every nicety of the laws of warfare. Why should we unilaterally and arbitrarily handicap ourselves with an overabundance of caution, particularly when the laws of warfare were set up to encourage reciprocity, not reward one side for violations.

AGM-130 in Action

Via Funkers 350

Operation Northern Watch-1999.

A Beagle crew spots an SA-2 Surface to Air Missile system, and takes a shot with an AGM-130.

What’s an AGM-130?

Take a 2000lb bomb. Fit it with a television camera and remote controls. Give it big fins for good glide range.  Then, to give it a bit more range, strap a goodly sized rocket motor underneath. Add on a datalink so the launching aircraft can send directions from long distance.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6gaXZXATvo]

AC-235 Gunship Lite

One of our longstanding frustrations with the way the US purchases airpower is that it has so often sought the comprehensive solution to a perceived problem, and not the 80% solution at 20% cost.  Rather than buying low cost platforms for low threat environments (such as Iraq and Afghanistan) in modest numbers, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps insist on flying their dwindling number of strike fighters. An airframe has a finite number of flying hours available. And they’re being wasted droning over virtually secure airspace. The only push in the US for low cost solutions is coming from the Special Operations community, and they are getting pushback from the mainstream services.

The AC-130U is the definitive gunship conversion of a transport aircraft. But there will only ever be a handful of them. They’re such good aircraft because they are so lavishly equipped. They’re astonishingly expensive. I’ve seen quotes of a flyaway cost of about $190 million dollars!

The C-27J program looked at building a low cost roll-on package for the Spartan to provide top cover.  That dream died when the Air Force smothered the program in its crib.

But the idea of putting some weapons and sensors onto a converted transport has merit. Witness the Marine Corps deployment of C-130J Harvest Hawks.

And other nations are catching on as well. The latest is Jordan. Jordan teamed with ATK to field a conversion of the popular CN-235 light transport into the AC-235 gunship.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4oyplReZg0?feature=player_embedded]

That’s actually a pretty robust capability. As Think Defence notes, integrating the APKWS guided 70mm rocket is a no-brainer as well. With very good sensors (the SAR/GMTI radar is quite handy), and presumably a system similar to our ROVER that allows sensor video to be shared with troop units on the ground, the long endurance of an AC-235 allows much more than merely providing supporting fires. The top down view can allow a commander to exercise much better control over his forces, as well as providing a better picture of the enemy.

The US Coast Guard is buying a handful of CN-235s for Search and Rescue. They were going to buy more, but instead they’re taking delivery of a handful of C-27Js that were intended for Army and Air Force use. Would it be so hard for the services to buy a few more and convert them to AC-235s*?

*The  Air Force quietly operates a pair of vanilla CN-235s for unknown purposes. My supposition is they are used to quietly move Special Forces troops around in Africa or other places that operations aren’t secret, but where a discrete footprint is desired.

Douhet, Mitchell, Lambeth. All Airpower advocates, all wrong.

It must be budget battle time, as airpower advocates are coming out of the woodwork to tell us that the Air Force will win the wars, and the rest of us can just stay home.

Since the Cold War’s end, the classic roles of airpower and land power have changed places in major combat against modern mechanized opponents. In this role reversal, ground forces have come to do most of the shaping and fixing of enemy forces, while airpower now does most of the actual killing.

Operation Desert Storm in 1991 showcased, for the first time, this departure from past practice between air- and ground-delivered firepower. During the Battle of Khafji in January of that year, coalition air assets singlehandedly shredded two advancing Iraqi armored columns through precision night standoff attacks.

This role shift repeated itself with even greater effectiveness in 2003 during the three-week major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom that ended Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s rule.

Modern airpower’s achievements in these two high-intensity wars demonstrated that precision air attacks now offer the promise of being the swing factor for victory in an ever-widening variety of theater war scenarios. The primary role of US land power may now be increasingly to secure a win against organized enemy forces rather than to achieve it.

In organizing their response to Hussein’s forceful seizure of Kuwait in 1990, the leaders of US Central Command aimed to destroy as many of Iraq’s armored forces from the air as possible before launching any land invasion to drive out the occupying enemy troops. It remained unclear, however, how effective allied airpower would be under this approach until they actually executed the air campaign.

Three factors came together to enable allied airpower to draw down Iraqi forces to a point where allied ground troops could advance in confidence that they would be engaging a badly degraded opponent once the ground offensive began. First, allied aircraft were able to operate at will in the medium-altitude environment, unmolested by Iraqi radar guided surface-to-air missiles or fighters, thanks to an earlier US air defense suppression campaign.

Second, the introduction of the E-8C JSTARS aircraft permitted allied air planners to see and identify fixed and moving objects on the battlefield clearly enough to make informed force commitment decisions and to execute lethal attacks day or night. Third, allied planners discovered during the campaign’s initial preparation phase that aircraft equipped with infrared sensors and armed with laser guided bombs could find and destroy dug-in enemy tanks one by one in large numbers at night.

It’s a long article, but it doesn’t get any smarter. Let’s just fisk a little of what we have here.

First and foremost, let me state again that I’m not opposed to airpower. Air superiority, or at a bare minimum air parity,  is a necessary precondition for success in high intensity combat.

1. Uncontested medium altitude operations- There’s certainly no guarantee that future campaigns will allow our tactical airpower to operate freely over the battlefield, whether at medium altitudes or any other. While the Iraqi forces had a reasonably sophisticated air defense system for fixed installations, they lacked modern mobile air defenses for maneuver units. Future enemies learned a lesson about that. And Lambeth ignores the long time the Air Force had to devote to the suppression mission (SEAD-Suppression of Enemy Air Defense).  Time spent on SEAD was time and sorties not spent attriting Iraqi armor. Had the Iraqis made a large scale offense while the Air Force was still trying to achieve suppression, rather than the modest attack at Khafji, we groundpounders would have faced a much more difficult problem.*

2. JSTARS tracking and targeting- Well, that’s what it’s for, to give the commander an ability to look deep throughout the depth of the battlefield and identify and track enemy formations. But two things about that. First, few places on earth are as conducive to JSTARS tracking formations as the Iraqi desert. Second, having learned that the capability exists, any enemy can quickly devise countermeasures, which can be as simple as just having a bunch of people driving private autos around, either randomly or as spoof formations.

3. PGMs as anti-armor weapons- Tank-plinking was indeed a successful campaign. Why, a gazillion dollar F-111 could go out and in the space of a 2 hour sortie, drop its four GBU-12 500 pound LGBs, and probably kill 2 or even three tanks.  But for all the success of the campaign, vast amounts of Iraqi armor still survived, and was still capable of maneuver and engaging our forces.  As a counterpoint, I had a front row seat when my brigade engaged a Republican Guard brigade. In the space of about half an hour, we eviscerated the entire formation, destroying somewhere around 100 armored vehicles, and probably another couple hundred vehicles.

Further, the Air Force is still limited in its ability to attack armor or other moving formations in bad weather. Cloud layers will degrade laser designators quickly, leaving the attack aircraft either unable to deliver ordnance, or forcing them into the low altitude air defense environment, where they are terribly vulnerable.  Ground forces ability to engage can be degraded by foul weather, but not to nearly the extent of air power. Artillery doesn’t care if it is cloudy.

The bottom line is this- in spite of almost a century of airpower visionaries proclaiming that the days of muddy boots are over, airpower still cannot stop the enemy on the ground. It can impede it, it can attrit it, it can make movement costly. But airpower still remains a supporting fire, much as the artillery. No sane commander would attempt to fight a campaign solely with artillery.  One of the historical strengths of our armed forces since World War II has been our incredible ability to harness the synergy of combined arms, whether from the Infantry/Artillery team, or the unified application of land, sea, air and space power. Puerile arguments about the supremacy of  airpower do little credit to the Air Force Association’s flagship publication.

*Especially units like mine. We had people on the ground, but our vehicles hadn’t even reached port in Saudi Arabia yet.