Air Force's Urgent Search for Next-Gen CAS Aircraft
Earlier this week, the Atlantic Council and other institutions around Washington were briefed on how the Air Force plans a two-phased approach to the recapitalization of its close air support (CAS) fleet. In the next two years, the USAF intends to procure an off-the-shelf observation-and-attack aircraft, deemed the "OA-X," for flying against lesser threats. Very likely, Air Force officials noted to us, this means either A-29 Super Tucanos from Embraer, or AT-6 Texan IIs from Beechcraft. In the next five years or so, for flying against somewhat stronger threats, the USAF intends to buy another aircraft, the "A-X2", possibly developed fresh, and possibly derived from an existing subsonic military jet. Plenty of options come to mind for the latter fleet; the Italian firm Leonardo was clearly thinking this way when it began designing its latest Aeromacchi trainer jet—pitched for the USAF's upcoming T-X competition—with modest ground attack capabilities available from flipping a switch.
One of my colleagues described this plan as starting with the answer, not the question. On the National Interest today, Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute calls it "incoherent." I can understand that view, but I do disagree. An attack-trainer isn't a dedicated design, but more so than the CAS-dedicated A-10, it's a frequent approach around the world. As Rebecca Grant noted to Aviation Week, it gets pilots in cockpits at a modest cost. That the Air Force is thinking in such terms suggests a marked departure from General Goldfein's earlier, aspirational ideas for something more awesomely violent than the Thunderbolt II. In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the new chief of staff wondered aloud why a ground attack aircraft couldn't provide ten minutes of sustained 30 mm Gatling fire with guided cannon rounds. Honestly, just getting smart fusing into that caliber is hard enough.
Indeed, after years of hearing that the F-35A would be the sort-of replacement for the A-10C, it's worth reviewing why it never could be. It's not for the gun or the armor. It's the increased threat: Russian motorized rifle brigades now run with lots of their own 30 mm guns, looking up. Missiles are now a bigger problem too. As Colonel Mike Pietrucha USAF wrote for War On The Rocks last month, the heat from that huge engine is itself a huge target for heat-seekers. Lockheed has worked hard to suppress the signature, but physics dictate there's only so much that can be done. Overall, the hundred-million-dollar jet is just too expensive to hazard to for busting tanks that way. In short, CAS by fixed wing aircraft against the strongest Russian and Chinese air defenses may just have gotten not possible. And that's why nothing quite the same has been planned.
Starting with the answer is usually not good in the long run, but it's sometimes important for moving quickly in the short run. William Roper, head of the Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office, was recently asserting that procurement system isn't broken; it just works too slowly, he thinks. I argue that the piling-on of requirements is a large part of what slows an already slow process, and in the process adds to cost. By short-circuiting the all-too-common paralysis of analysis, the Air Force is in this case prioritizing the possible. Introducing aircraft tailored for counterinsurgency will limit the cost of fighting ISIS and whatever local forces of disorder follow its pending demise. So send those A-10s to fight ISIS. The planes don't owe you anything. Work this last hurray out of them, and get on to finding and funding their follow-ons.
Some problems really are too challenging. It's important to know when to stop trying. Starting with the answer works well after you've circumscribed the question.
James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.