Defense Focus: F-35 fantasies -- Part 2 shows some important misunderstandings about how close air support (CAS) is performed today. ">
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The F-35 and Close Air Support

September 20, 2007 (by Eric L. Palmer) - A recent article by Martin Sieff Defense Focus: F-35 fantasies -- Part 2 shows some important misunderstandings about how close air support (CAS) is performed today.

The F-35 seen here during take-off for its first flight on 15 December 2006

While I may be a critic of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), I would never go so far as to state that the aircraft would be unsuitable for CAS. This just is not so. CAS today is all about combined situational awareness of the troops on the ground needing the fire support and those providing the fire support, that being airpower or artillery.

Claiming on one hand that the JSF is too fast for acquiring ground targets and then also claiming that it can't take the punishment from lower altitude threats such as "triple A" ( Anti-aircraft artillery or AAA), and ground fire like an A-10 misses some critical facts.

First, the A-10 is going to be around for a very long time. With the recent rebuild as far as the year 2025 and it is my prediction that it will be refirbed again and press on for more years.

Next the A-10 has no choice but to stand there and take it. It is slow, orbits around and if there is a real battle field threat and not some bush army gunfire, it is going to get shot down by low altitude threats like MANPADS (man portable air defense systems, example shoulder fired SAMs (surface to air missiles) and low altitude battle field SAMs. While some have returned to base with damage from these very threats, some have also been shot down by the same, simply because they didn't have a choice of being out of range of that kind of fire.

Then of course there is the recent precision engagement package (P.E.) for the A-10, which... puts it in the air to perform missions that are done by today's fighter aircraft like the F-16: Sitting up on a perch dropping laser guided bombs or GPS assisted bombs (Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) with sub-4 meter accuracy and being directed by a specialist that is with the ground troops needing the support: The Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), just another name for a ground forward air controller (GFAC).

Then of course in this case the A-10, because the engine upgrade to it was never funded, will still not be high enough with it's P.E. package to completely avoid the threats I mentioned. Other aircraft such as the F-16, F-15 and F-18 can drop those precision weapons from 30,000 or more feet and be out of the reach of trashfire, AAA, MANPADS, small battlefield SAMs, and produce most of the same CAS results needed by the ground troops.

Reaction time - If it is an emergency (911) call for unplanned fire support, one of the most important things to a JTAC is reaction time. A B-1 or teen fighter that arrives quicker beats a slow A-10 that will take longer to get there. In the case of the JSF, if the Short Take-Off and Landing "STOVL" variant of the aircraft is successful, reaction times to CAS will beat many conventional runway only fixed wing aircraft where STOVL bases are close to the action. The Harrier when based close to the battlefield proved this.

Survivability- The M.O. for the U.S. is to come in and kill all the enemy air threats and large area SAMs. After that even legacy (non-stealth) aircraft like the "teen" fighters mentioned above can contempt of engage the remained ground threats. "I can touch you, but you can't touch me". And, with a good JTAC, provide CAS in many adverse weather conditions. JSF is stealth tuned to give a lot of trouble on it's front facing to X-band like threats: Those things most likely to kill aircraft. That would be air intercept radars in enemy fighter aircraft, many kinds of radar assisted SAM's and radar assisted AAA.

What is important to remember is that a lot of fixed wing aircraft in the past have gone down due to ground fire from radar assisted AAA, and SAMs. The stealth quality of the JSF, while built to be affordable will mean that various SAM guidance radars and radar assisted AAA, will have a hard time getting a bead on the front of the aircraft for those times when it does drop down to lower altitudes that are higher risk for the legacy (non-stealth) aircraft. This is especially important when considering strafing isn't going away any time soon. Yes the gun options for the JSF are no big GAU-8 found in the A-10, then again strafing from smaller gunned teen fighters has been effective.

Note also that when a teen fighter or in the future the JSF comes down from it's perch to strafe it will go right back up again with some speed. Here again the A-10 doesn't have this option. Marine F-18 pilots in Desert Shield did a test. People standing on the ground only saw an F-18 making a mock attack run coming down from up high, after it had already released it's weapon and was pulling off the target. A radar assisted low altitude battlefield SAM or radar assisted AAA gun is going to have a difficult time vs. the front aspect of a JSF swooping down on the target it is supposed to defend. The JSF's wingman will also have an excellent geo-location of those emitters.

The purpose of this article is not to knock the A-10. This aircraft has no replacement as it is a fine bridge between attack helicopters and faster fixed wing aircraft. On planned operations where it is overhead and given operations like today where the ground threat is no Fulda Gap, it is a powerful piece of firepower for the JTAC to have available. Given today's PGM world that we live in, one has to remember that the A-10 was designed in the mid-evil era before cheap PGMs were common place carry on nearly all airframes. It is no longer the absolute king of CAS, especially if there is no airfield available or it is a 911 call the JTAC needs and response time is what counts.

JSF is yet to be proven. However unlike legacy aircraft today that have to have everything tacked on to them, it will show up with a very good electro-optical system build right in and some additional survivability. Given the CAS aircraft/JTAC relationship of today, target acquisition shouldn’t be difficult. In the case of the United States Navy CV variant, it will be available where, like the STOVL, there is no conventional long land runways to fly from.

CAS is not just about the A-10. It is about today's very effective legacy aircraft doing good JTAC assisted CAS support. It is about scary and effective night net-centric attack helicopters such as the Apache. It is about unmanned aircraft such as the Predator or similar providing support in some cases equal to a manned aircraft or at least better than nothing in a pinch. And it is also about newer forms of fire support performed by tubed artillery or rocket artillery with GPS assisted rounds that when available have a reaction time that will trump any aircraft unless it happens to be overhead.

There is nothing wrong with being critical of the Joint Strike Fighter program. However stating that it is not going to be effective at CAS when the methods it will use are similar to those used today, may be a reach.

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