The U.S. Air Force Has Loathed Close Air Support Since the Beginning
Army complaints from the Korean War mirror issues today
In December 1950, the U.S. Army’s X Corps wrote down its requirements for air support on the battlefield. After six months of intense fighting in Korea, the Army had some clear ideas on what it wanted from the now independent Air Force.
“To determine the Army’s requirements for tactical air support,” the report stated up front. “Solution of the problem must be based upon Army needs, devoid of Air Force or budgetary policies, priorities or missions.”
In two sentences, X Corps had successfully summarized the entire fight over close air support, or CAS. The Army wants the Air Force to do it — and the Air Force hates it. Fast forward nearly 65 years later, and the debate remains mostly unchanged.
A key component of the Pentagon’s budget plans for the 2016 fiscal year include “retiring less capable, single-mission or vulnerable weapons systems such as the A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft,” according to an official briefing. Better known as the Warthog, the low- and slow-flying jets are the only American warplanes built specifically to support ground troops.
“We’ve been doing CAS a long time,” Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, assured reporters in March. “We will always do CAS.”
Air Combat Command owns the bulk of the flying branch’s combat aircraft, including the A-10, F-15, F-16 and the up-coming, but troublesome F-35 stealth fighter. But, at best, Carlisle’s comments glossed over decades of complaints and criticisms from other services … and within his own ranks.
“I’d tell you the P-40 was a great CAS platform,” Carlisle explained at the same press conference six months ago. “And we’re flying 4,000 or 5,000 sorties in Europe during World War II.”
The general declined to point out that, at the time, Army Air Forces pilots had little direct contact with the infantry. American aircraft makers had designed the P-40, along with far better P-47 and P-51, first and foremost to shoot down enemy aircraft.
After the Air Force split from the Army and became a separate service in 1947, the service’s new leaders actively derided the achievements of close-air support advocates such as Lt. Gen. Elwood “Pete” Quesada. Quesada had pioneered the use of planes like the portly P-47 — the first plane to carry the Thunderbolt moniker — to aid troops in need.
“Pete Quesada? I wouldn’t talk to that traitor!” is how A-10 designer Pierre Sprey previously described the Air Force attitude in the late 1940s.
Focused on lobbing its growing nuclear arsenal, the Air Force’s lack of ground attackers became painfully obvious when the North Korean army stormed across the 38th parallel in June 1950. The flying branch still relied heavily on fighter planes — including World War II-vintage P-51 Mustangs — for air strikes.
Renamed F-51s, the Mustangs could only carry two bombs or six tank-busting rockets in addition to their six .50-caliber machine guns. Early F-80 jet fighters carried similarly light weapons.
The curious F-82 Twin Mustang — effectively two F-51s bolted together — and the B-26 Invader bomber only offered nominally larger payloads. The Invader’s biggest advantage was a solid nose cone filled with either six or eight .50-caliber machine guns, plus more guns in the wings.
X Corps felt all four of these planes were inferior to the Marine Corps’ F4U-5 Corsair. While the Corsair’s basic design dated to the early 1940s, the plane could carry two bombs and eight rockets at once. On top of that, the aircraft had hard-hitting 20-millimeter cannons with armor-piercing and explosive shells.
But the real star of the show was the Navy’s massive Douglas AD Skyraider. This single-seat, single-engine propeller aircraft had 12 hardpoints on its wings and another under the fuselage for bombs, napalm and rockets. After dropping or launching all of these weapons, Navy and Marine pilots could strafe their opponents with hundreds of 20-millimeter rounds.
From the Army’s standpoint, the Air Force needed a dedicated ground attack plane like the Skyraider. Multi-role fighters just weren’t going to cut it.
“It is unreasonable to expect that aircraft designed for fighter missions can be employed as efficiently in tactical air support as aircraft designed for tactical air support,” X Corps explained. “Final determination as to the type best suited for a close support role, of course, should be determined by experts.”
More importantly, however, “no such determination would be proper, however, without ascertaining the relative enthusiasm of the supported infantry units for each type of supporting aircraft, for the real test of any weapon is the satisfaction of the man whom it is intended to assist.”
In other words, X Corps argued that air power should primarily support soldiers on the ground.
This was the exact mentality that led to the A-10 Warthog — with significant resistance from the Air Force — more than three decades later. Despite Carlisle’s claims, much of what little progress the service made during Korea was quickly lost after the armistice agreement halted the war in 1953.
“The whole [A-10] concept came out of the lack of capability of some airframes in Vietnam,” one Warthog pilot declared in an unreleased Air Force video about the aircraft. “And they said ‘hey, we’re gonna learn from this war and build an airplane that is perfect for close air support.'”
Retired Air Force officer Tony Carr obtained the unedited short film, simply titled Hawg, and posted it on his blog John Q. Public. An outspoken critic of many of the service’s policies, Carr has been unable to get the flying branch to confirm any details about the footage.
But X Corps believed that if the Air Force was ill-suited to backing up ground troops, it was because the flying branch wasn’t interested.
“Any military unit performs its primary mission more efficiently than lower priority missions,” X Corps explained. In Korea, Fifth Air Force never placed “tactical air support” higher than “third priority,” according to the Army’s review.
Despite the obvious flaws in its fleet, the Air Force opposed buying dedicated ground attackers in both Korea and Vietnam. Even after reluctantly accepting aging Skyraiders from the Navy to train South Vietnamese crews and for dangerous CAS flights in Southeast Asia, the flying branch largely refused to change tack.
Same goes for the A-10. After similarly feeling forced to accept the Warthog, the Air Force has done everything it can to get rid of the snub-nosed attackers. In the run up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the service tried — and failed — to replace the Warthogs with modified F-16s.
That being said, the Air Force has gotten a lot better at close air support. X Corps had bitterly complained about the lack of communication with its cousins in the sky. Today, specially trained airmen regularly work directly with even small Army and commando units to call in air strikes.
“You need the right kind of support to have boots on the ground,” one of these so-called Joint Terminal Attack Controllers — a.k.a. JTACs — said in Hawg.
But the Air Force is still focusing on planes designed to carry out many different missions. The vexing F-35 is the crown jewel of the current push.
“Fifth generation isn’t necessarily about an airframe,” Carlisle said at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition in September. “It’s really about technology and thought, and how we move our Air Force to continue to be the best Air Force on the planet and what it takes to get there.”
Aircraft makers and experts generally describe “fifth generation” jets as having stealthy features, improved sensors, new defensive gear and other advanced features. Despite the Air Force’s assertion that this future has no place for the A-10, not everyone agrees that multi-role planes are the best way forward.
“They try to designate the weakness of the A-10 as its a singular mission focus,” another flier explained in Hawg. “I think that’s our greatest strength.”
It was exactly this sort of attitude that led X Corps to propose some dramatic and radical changes. Namely, it wanted the Army to have effective veto power over the Air Force’s budget.
“The Army should be a party to stating characteristics and should share budgetary justification responsibility with the Air Force,” the report recommended. “The only assurance a senior ground commander can have that any supporting arm will be employed effectively, or at all, is by having operational control over that supporting arm.”
Understandably, the Air Force balked at those ideas then and would be wholly unwilling to consider them today after nearly 70 years of independent operations. The modern Army has no stomach to advocate such a radical plan, either.
The A-10 is “not number one in the Air Force goals. It’s not number one in the Army goals,” a A-10 pilot noted in Hawg. “The only way it’s number one is in the A-10’s goals.”
But echoing the Army’s sentiments decades ago in Korea, the airmen insisted that their dedication to close air support is what makes those missions successful. Warthog pilots “almost share the same mentality” with ground troops, one JTAC said. “If you were to say that there’s a grunt in the sky, it’d be the ‘Hog’ pilot.”
Ditching the planes — and the A-10 community’s collective experience as a result — without a real, dedicated replacement could have serious repercussions. “I know that when you’re talking to a 19 to a 35-year old man on the end of a radio, who’s scared and just needs some help right then, he doesn’t care about fiscal constraints,” an A-10 pilot explained in Hawg.
“He doesn’t care about big picture Air Force policy. He doesn’t care about the next fancy weapon system coming down the pipeline,” the flier continued. “He cares about being saved right then and there.”
With increasing pressure from lawmakers and the general public, the Air Force is going to have to do everything it can to convince critics that multi-purpose planes will be there for troops when the time comes.