Last year, at the height of the F-35/A-10 close air support (CAS) debate, Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark A. Welsh III stated that the Air Force averaged 20,000 CAS sorties a year in Afghanistan. But was it really CAS? Within the fighter/attack community, the narrative of seasoned aviators who’ve “been there, done that” tout that airpower did not really perform CAS at all. Instead, they argue it featured glimmers of CAS sprinkled on what was actually ground-directed dynamic targeting. Not only are they right, but the distinction is even more important, as it biases and bounds the air support dialogue of the A-10, its potential successors (A-X2 and/or OA-X), and even the F-35. Air support in Afghanistan worked, but it is a mistake to think it was all CAS.
The (eventual) retirement of the A-10 Warthog has been a challenging issue for the Air Force. The original plan to replace the A-10 entirely with F-35 has fallen by the wayside, buttressed by the reality that the extended combat deployments undergone by the fighter/attack force were never envisioned when the F-35 plan was hatched. Twenty-five years of continuous conflict, most of it irregular in nature, has highlighted the utility of a relatively slow, heavily armed multirole aircraft. Our operations over the past decades have been largely very similar to the kind of counterinsurgency demands that led to the requirement for a new attack aircraft (then called A-X) in 1966.
As the Air Force has moved toward the position that a replacement attack aircraft (A-X2 or OA-X) is necessary, one persistent issue continues to arise: What kind of aircraft might be able to do “high threat” CAS? In a presumed environment where the air defenses are too lethal for the A-10 to survive, wouldn’t the F-35 be a better alternative? The question itself is highlights a persistent trend in Air Force concept development — a mythical set of conditions that is highly unlikely, fundamentally not credible, based on a misunderstanding of the air threat, or, in this case, all three. There is no reasonable case to be made for an aircraft that can survive in a high-threat CAS environment, because there is no credible case to be made that any aircraft can survive in such an environment. It isn’t that there isn’t a need to apply airpower in such an environment. Rather, it is that having a need doesn’t equate with delivering a capability. The idea that the Air Force can deliver effective CAS in a highly contested environment is a myth, one that the Air Force would be well served to get rid of.