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The case against the Air Force.


In September, the United States Air Force will mark its 40th anniversary with a celebration so spectacularly flattering to itself that Top Gun will seem an antiwar film by comparison. All around the world bands will play, jets will zoom through the skies, and generals will make speeches about the sky service's many contributions to free world defense. But while the public is watching the air show, Air Force leaders inside the Pentagon will use their moment to push plans for one of the most questionable initiatives in postwar military annals-- converting billions of dollars worth of frontline fighter planes into planes designed to deliver smart bombs behind enemy lines. All at the expense of providing close-air support to U.S. troops in battle.

This initiative, which has no formal name but may be referred to by its nickname, "deep strike,' comprises perhaps the most important and farreaching conventional weapons procurement decisions Congress will be asked to make in 1987. Because the subject is tangled and involves the kind of institutional cross-purposes for which no individual can be singled out as the villain, deep strike is hardly ever mentioned in the press or on Capitol Hill. Yet it is the ultimate expression of a jurisdictional feud that has been simmering within the U.S. military since the airplane was invented. It is not necessary to go back in history, however, to find a warning that deep strike may be a huge waste of money: April 15, 1986, will do.

That was the day nine of the Air Force's most sophisticated strike aircraft, armed with the best smart bombs, tried to kill Muammar Qaddafi as part of the Libya raid. Qaddafi is still alive. The lasers and high-tech target sensors on four of the FB111s broke down, causing the planes to turn back without releasing their weapons. None of the five planes that did deliver scored a direct hit. This was not the pilots' fault; scoring direct hits on small targets from fast-moving airplanes is almost impossible. But this modest technical display, instead of giving pause to Pentagon leaders and the two armed services committees, has been glossed over as the Air Force presses ahead with deep strike, a program to invest tens of billions of dollars in the technology that struck out against Qaddafi--on the assumption that such technology will demolish Soviet forces offering considerably more resistance than a madman's tent.

From a hardware standpoint, deep strike involves adapting Air Force F15 and F16 fighters into electronics-laden tactical bombers similar to the FB111. The resulting $45 million F15E "Strike Eagles' and $20 million A16s (no nickname yet) would be used primarily to attack targets behind enemy lines. This specialty is vital to the Air Force in its battle against a menacing and determined foe it has been fighting throughout its 40 years-- the Army. From an institutional standpoint, the key element of deep strike is the Air Force's desire to avoid having to cooperate with its rival service.

In military lingo, what we attempted to do to Qaddafi was "interdict' him. "Interdiction' means conventional destruction of a precisely chosen point deep in enemy territory. Since the Air Force's creation in 1947, it has maintained that interdiction of targets such as supply depots is the best way to assist troops in combat. The Army has countered that "close-air support' aerial attacks at the battlefront itself are more important. Pentagon debates on this subject go on endlessly. Damage to rear-area targets may cost an opponent dearly. If, for example, interdiction aircraft can destroy a shipment of shells, the opponent may run out of ammunition in a week. On the other hand, close-air attacks at the front drain enemy strength right away, which saves American lives and may determine the outcome of today's battle, not next week's.

Were funds unlimited, a military tactician would want plenty of deep-strike power at his disposal. But even in the Reagan era, defense funds are not unlimited. The great drawback to interdiction is that the price is so high compared to close-air support, and the gains at best speculative compared to the indisputable need to defeat the enemy at the point of battle, that cost-effectiveness is dubious. At about $5 million each, the target sensors for the F15E and A16 alone will cost nearly as much as an entire A10 close-support airplane.

Here is where a ridiculous entanglement arises. Because the Air Force shows little interest in providing close support for troops, the Army is forced to invest undue amounts in attack helicopters, which are both costlier than comparable airplanes ($10 million for the Apache antitank helicopter, versus about $7 million for most A10s) and far more vulnerable to being shot down. At present the Army is ruminating over a new helicopter program called LHX, one more carefully tailored to satisfy committees than to serve on the battlefield. Go-ahead decisions for LHX, A16, and the $5 million sensor (called Lantirn, a compression of "low altitude navigation and infrared system for night') are due soon; procurement of LHX may, over its production life, cost $60 billion--more than the Reagan administration has spent on the B1, the MX, or other programs that have received greater public notice. A little background on these systems suggests alternatives that could both save money and improve the effectiveness of American forces.

Scaring Hitler

The airplane, invented in 1903, was first incorporated into the U.S. military in 1907, with the creation of an Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps. It wasn't until 1947 that the Air Force was made an independent service, the event being commemorated this year.

During Wold War. I, aircraft were primarily infantry tools. Some performed reconnaissance, others were employed to strafe troops; dogfighting developed when one side's airplanes tried to prevent the other's from accomplishing such objectives. Many pilots came away from the Great War suspicious that ground generals, jealous of their franchise, had used aircraft ineptly in order to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that the new flying machines were not significant. Many also came away feeling a bit superior to their lesstrained comrades on the ground. Corps elitism wasn't new to the Army, of course; the cavalry traditionally felt that being on horseback made it superior to those on foot. The new flyboys, thousands of feet up above those dying in the trenches, quite literally carried elitism to a new height.

In 1913 an Army lieutenant named Henry H. "Hap' Arnold had written an article for The Infantry Journal suggesting that aircraft could be used not just for close support of troops, but for ambitious offensive operations. Eight years later an Italian theorist named Guilio Douhet wrote The Command of the Air, the first comprehensive work on air power. Douhet argued that airplanes might render the gruesome trench warfare of World War I obsolete. Cheaper victories might be had by bombing the enemy's industries, destroying the means to fight.

That same year, 1921, Army Captain Billy Mitchell dispatched the first of several "unsinkable' battleships he would send to the bottom in his crusade to demonstrate that flying machines could destroy anything from the air. Like Douhet, Mitchell saw the airplane as a means to make warfare less barbaric. Like most aviators he shared the notion that pilots represented a new, noble order of fighting man, capable of winning wars in a civilized fashion-- but only if freed from subservience to the generals of the infantry, whose closed minds led to so much nihilistic slaughter in the trenches. "It is probable,' Mitchell wrote in his book Winged Defense, "that future wars will again be conducted by a special class, the air force, as it was by the armored knights of the Middle Ages.'

Young officers who saw promise in the airplane met with pronounced institutional resistance from their senior counterparts. Army officers aligned with the service's existing infantry, artillery, and other factions, feared that if fighting aircraft were successful, funds for their fiefdoms would be reduced. So air power advocates of the thirties and early forties focused their energies on an idea that would circumvent the infantry altogether--a long-range bomber capable of striking far from combat. The ideas of Douhet and Mitchell became the foundation of lectures throughout the 1930s at the Air Corps Tactical School: "Critical targets' in the enemy homeland would be assaulted by "strategic bombing.' What Arnold called "the independent air mission' would make it all possible. (The phrase "strategic bombing' later fell out of use when strategic acquired special meaning in the nuclear era; "interdiction' replaced it.)

As the outbreak of World War II approached, the bureaucratic tide--which always seemed to run against air power advocates--suddenly shifted in the flyers' favor when Arnold won Franklin Roosevelt's personal endorsement for his theories. Roosevelt had solicited reports on how long it might take the military to prepare for another war in Europe. Some admirals and infantry generals predicted five years or more. Arnold, using unofficial channels, made the case to Roosevelt's advisor, Harry Hopkins, that air power could carry the fight to the German heartland much sooner. And if interdiction worked as promised, sending another American army to the continent might not be necessary.

As Thomas Coffey recounted in his book Hap, Arnold, Hopkins, Secretary of War Henry Woodring, and a selection of old-school generals and admirals were called to Roosevelt's office in September, 1938. "Roosevelt began by saying he had read the War Department report on a proposed expansion of the ground and air forces, and he wasn't satisfied. A new Army post in Wyoming would not, in his opinion, scare Adolf Hitler one goddamned bit. What he wanted was airplanes.' While the old-schoolers hemmed and hawed, Arnold jumped in with a plan for rapid expansion of aircraft production. Roosevelt approved.

By the time World War II began, the idea of "independent air missions' was established. In both the European and Pacific theatres, the bomber corps fought, for the most part, a private war against cities, factories, and staging bases. Whether or not this represented the best allocation of air resources, it was essential if air power was to acquire the autonomy that would lead to a separate service.

Interservice noncooperation

Interdiction did not have the decisive effect on Germany that backers predicted. Then, as now, most bombs missed what they were aimed at. A bomb missing a factory by as little as 100 feet may do no militarily significant harm; against other targets, even greater accuracy is required. The "destruct radius' of a 500-pound bomb dropped against a tank is today less than 15 feet; only a bull's eye will do the job. During World War II, the accuracy of the best bomber crews, flying low in daylight, was measured not in feet but in thousands of yards. If 100 bombers were assigned to attack an industrial complex, only a few might actually land their bombs on the factory grounds. Surveys conducted after the war concluded that German factories increased their output despite being bombed. (Next time you're in a plane at 30,000 feet, try to pick out a building on the ground and imagine the technical difficulty of releasing a bomb so that it falls through miles of space--buffeted by unpredictable winds; propelled by the momentum of the plane's forward motion--and hits that building alone.)

The sad reality of bombing inaccuracy was driven home in 1945, when U.S. tacticians, frustrated by their inability to stage precision destruction of military targets, began sending bombers against cities, which are harder to miss. Yet interdiction was not, as is fashionable for revisionists to assert, morally bankrupt. German factories might not have been shut down, but how much more would they have produced without bombardment? During the early forties, output rose by far higher margins in U.S. factories, a surge that could not have occurred if they, too, had been periodically attacked from the air.

After the Air Force was established in 1947, it ordered its tactical goals as: air superiority, interdiction, close-air support of the Army. From that year to the mid-1970s, the Air Force built many kinds of planes for the first two roles, but neglected to design a single close-support aircraft.

Meanwhile a sort of truce document signed by top military officials in conjunction with the Air Force's creation, effectively barred the Army from operating "fixed wing' combat aircraft. This forced it to invest n "rotary wing aircraft' (helicopters). Even if these aircraft were frighteningly fragile--and during the Vietnam war the Army would lose 4,643 helicopters, all to small-arms fire and visually aimed rocket grenades-- at least when an Army field commander called for help, they would come. The Air Force might be preoccupied.

The Korean War was the first war the Air Force fought as an independent service, and in the early months of that conflict, interdiction worked well. But once the North Koreans figured out U.S. bombing tactics, they devised a simple countermeasure: moving their troops and supplies at night. The North Korean military also proved surprisingly adept at rebuilding damaged targets. Highways, rail lines, and bridges were often back in use only hours after being damaged, repaired by masses of laborers with shovels. The Air Force responded with a bookkeeping parry: it redefined interdiction success in terms of tonnage dropped, not targets hit.

In the summer of 1951, the largest interdiction effort ever undertaken was mounted against the seven major highways leading from railheads to the lines of Chinese and North Korean troops. Air Force, Navy, and Marine aircraft flew more than 100,000 sorties, but supplies continued to come through. By the end of the Korean War the Air Force alone had flown some 220,000 interdiction sorties in what was generally considered a failed effort. A 1966 study by the RAND Corporation, the Air Force's own think tank, called the bombing campaign "at best, a limited success.'

Worse, from the soldier's standpoint, was that while the Air Force was devoting huge resources to fight behind enemy lines, it was giving short shrift to close air support. During the early days of the Korean War, Marine commanders were allowed to control their own aircraft; response time to a call for help usually ran about 15 minutes. Then the Air Force insisted that all close-support requests be coordinated by a rear echelon hierarchy under its control; the response time rose to 45 minutes.

When the Air Force did attempt to provide close support, results were often poor. The service had designed no planes for this role; instead, the Air Force used its flashy fighters, the F80 and F86. But even the slickest aircraft cannot realistically fly faster than 500 miles per hour during "ordinance delivery,' and 300 miles per hour is considered more practical; otherwise it's virtually impossible to spot a ground target or avoid the hills and other obstacles that might bring a low-level mission to an unscheduled conclusion.

Another drawback to high performance aircraft is that they consume fuel more quickly than their mundane cousins. This usually meant they couldn't "loiter'--circle near the battle area-- waiting for the precise moment they were needed. Instead they had to be called in from distant airbases and could make only one hell-bent pass before roaring back whence they came. To compensate for the frontline fighters' limitations, the Air Force pressed into service old P51 Mustangs, prop-driven airplanes that had been great successes as World War II fighters but which proved vulnerable to ground fire.

One of the most chilling cases of interservice noncooperation occurred in 1953, when the Air Force virtually abandoned a Marine division at the Chosin Reservoir. Encircled by a much larger force of Chinese, the Marines called for air support. At the time, Air force commanders wanted to send Marine aircraft off on an interdiction wild goose chase. Only because Marine pilots ignored Air Force controllers by pretending to have radio trouble were they able to help their comrades break out; the Marines have insisted on (and gotten) their own close-support air wing ever since.

Hit and run

The situation proved much the same in Vietnam. The Air Force spared no expense for interdiction, dropping six times the total tonnage it had during World War II with, at best, modest results. High-altitude accuracy improved (there was very little bomb damage in Hanoi proper, and civilian casualties were small by the standards of warfare) but fixed industrial or military targets were not obliterated; the Christmas 1972 bombings helped bring about the 1973 truce, but years of attacks on the Ho Chi Minh trail failed to close it.

Meanwhile, close support of troops was neglected. Army helicopter pilots attempted with extraordinary courage to carry out the job, but their aircraft were easy to shoot down. Most Air Force close-support missions in Vietnam were flown by supersonic performance machines like the F104 Phantom and F105 Thunderchief. Because neither could slow down long enough to find friendly troops under the jungle canopy, standard operating procedure was to tell everybody to duck as they roared in to unload a fast blaze of ordinance and then roared off, hoping to reach base before running out of fuel. Again, the Air Force was in the embarrassing position of having to bring a dull-looking prop plane out of retirement for close-support work, in this case, the A1 Skyraider, which first flew in 1946. The A1's top speed was a mere 318 miles per hour, but it could carry lots of ordinance, withstand small arms fire, and stay over a target for long stretches of time. As soon as the Vietnam war ended, the A1 was banished from the inventory.

Errant precision

There are two solutions to the problem of dropping a bomb from 30,000 feet. One is to bring the bomber closer to the ground; this requires sophisticated electronics and exposes the plane to a higher risk of being hit. The other is to add target-seekers and motors to the bomb itself, creating precision guidance. So the Air Force (and other military organizations, U.S. and foreign) has quested after ground sensors and precision-guided munitions, or "smart' bombs.

Bombing radars were tested during World War II, but their resolution was too vague to do much more than ensure that a plane was attaking the right city. A claimed breakthrough debuted on the FB111: terrain-following radar, which scans the ground ahead of an aircraft, generating an image that pilots supposedly can use to avoid hills and obstacles as they fly low behind enemy lines, avoiding detection until the target is at hand.

In tests, terrain-following radar is the cat's meow. But tests are often held over the southwest desert, where hills and obstacles are few, and without opposing fire, so that pilots are never distracted. Early FB111s were shipped to Vietnam, where it soon became clear that if a pilot attempted to practice high-speed terrain following under real conditions, the yin of his plane would achieve oneness with the yang of the ground. The "circular error probable' (CEP, the basic measure of bomb accuracy) of the FB111 was about three-quarters of a mile--better than anything achieved in World War II, but still not good enough to assure a hit on a factory, to say nothing of a tank.

Air Force response to the FB111's inability to deliver its advertised accuracy was not to question interdiction theory, but to withdraw the aircraft from Vietnam, thus cutting off the flow of embarrassing statistics. More funds then went to the same technology; the primary attack sensor of the B1B is also a terrain-following radar--new and improved, of course. When the bomber first went into service, pilots were forbidden to use the system at night, because copilots couldn't watch out the window to see if the electronics were right. Now, the Air Force has assured Congress, everything's fine.

The Air Force also experimented with various smart bombs. One such weapon much touted during the seventies, the television Maverick missile, turned out to be a legendary dud. TV Mavericks, designed to destroy tanks and break fortifications, have cameras in their noses. A screen in the cockpit allows pilots to see what the missile sees and supposedly steer the weapon to a direct hit. But in order to concentrate on guiding a television Maverick, a pilot must fly his plane straight and level, with no evasive maneuvers. In demonstrations for congressional delegations this is no problem; in combat it is suicide. The latest version guides itself, using a sensor designed to identify a tank's radiant heat. This is a clear step forward for pilot life expectancies, but accuracy of the new version appears only so-so, and the launching aircraft must still fly straight for an uncomfortably long time as the pilot locks the missile on its target.

Against Qaddafi, the Air Force employed another kind of smart bomb, one with laser seekers. Because laser light does not occur in nature, its reflection is distinctive and easy for sensors to track. FB111s are two-man aircraft; during the approach to Qaddafi's compound, the pilot flew the plane while a weapons officer looked for the quarry through a night-sight called a Flir ("forward-looking infrared'). These sensors are remarkably effective at rendering dark areas visible; but at best they enable a smart weapon to achieve the same accuracy it would during the day, which isn't necessarily sufficient. The FB111s were moving at their slowest speed, 500 miles per hour or 833 feet per second. At that speed a two-second pause equates to a quartermile delivery error; a pocket of turbulence can knock a bomb off course.

Once Qaddafi's compound was spotted, the weapons officer shined a laser "designator' on it and launched bombs. As the pilot veered the plane away, the weapons officer had to hold the swivel-mounted laser projector trained on the target. (The Army's Apache antitank helicopter also works on the laser designation principle, except that it may hover while the weapons officer guides the missile. Recent war games indicated that when Apaches hover to operate their missiles, even the main guns of tanks, normally useless as antiaircraft weapons, could shoot them down.) If the laser-designator stays trained on the target, a bull's eye is likely. If the weapons officer can't hold it there, or if the aircraft must juke to evade antiaircraft fire, the smart bombs revert to dumb.

Several of the "precision guided' warheads delivered against Qaddafi fell far wide of the mark; one landed two miles distant, killing about 100 civilians. Considering that Qaddafi's compound was lightly defended by Warsaw Pact standards, that preparation for the raid had lasted months, and that the exact configuration of the compound had been mapped out far in advance --an advantage rarely available in combat--this mediocre performance should cast great doubt on plans for a major commitment to deep-strike hardware. Air Force officers who briefed the White House on the Libya plan had confidently predicted a .95 "PK'--probability of kill.

Protocol offenses

There was one break in the modern Air Force obsession with interdiction. When Melvin Laird was Secretary of Defense during the first half of the Nixon Administration, he threatened to award the Air Force's close-support "roles and missions' statement to the Army unless a close-support aircraft was built. When its budget was threatened, the Air Force jumped: the result was the A10, a relatively simple and low-cost antitank aircraft.

The A10 and most close-support aircraft designed by other nations are cheap primarily because they are subsonic. While the A10 can deliver precision guided munitions such as the Maverick, its primary weapon is a big cannon that fires armor-piercing shells. This cannon is also cheap; about $200 per burst, compared to about $170,000 for the new self-guiding Maverick and about $362,000 for the latest version of the Libya laser bomb. The cannon possesses an important advantage over smart bombs--because it sprays a broad area, it need not be precisely aimed. There's no elaborate "lock-on' sequence; when strafing tanks, A10s fly straight and level for only a few seconds. Considering that none of the air-to-ground antitank weaponry developed by the U.S. in the last decade has actually been used in combat, no one really knows what works, but in training exercises the cheap A10 gun has generally done better than the expensive smart bombs.

But just because the Air Force built the A10 didn't mean the flyboys liked it. Being subsonic and sluggish-looking (no swept wings!), close-support aircraft do not fit the service's wild-blue-yonder image. Being inexpensive, the A10 made it hard to justify other Air Force models at budget time. Worst, A10 operation would not be practical without coordinated Army-Air Force planning and "JAATs,' Joint Aerial Attack Training in which Air Force pilots and Army helicopter drivers trained side by side. There was also the FAC factor. Because the topography of battle changes (in contrast to targets like Qaddafi's compound, which are stationary), aircraft operating at the front need help from forward air controllers (FACs). When infantry FACs do the controlling, Army corporals and sergeants radio commands to Air Force pilots who are captains and majors. This is an extreme protocol offense.

From the moment A10s arrived in the inventory, the Air Force fished for reasons to substitute more expensive, higher-tech strike aircraft. When asked at congressional hearings for places their budget might be cut, blue generals would always cheerfully suggest the A10 program. Asked why, they would explain that the A10 wasn't "all weather'--the cannon must be visually aimed, ruling out use during storms.

"All weather' ground-attack systems are a chimera engineers have been attempting to breed for decades. The idea that weapons must be smart enough to function in bad weather skims past the complication that even the best modern aircraft often can't fly when the weather is bad. It also ignores the fact that if a smart weapon has only so-so accuracy under ideal conditions, performance is unlikely to improve in cloud banks. But all-weather attack is an advanced technological objective, profitable for contractors and enticing to those congressmen whose favorite words about procurement are "gee whiz.' Far more money has been spent pursuing this elusive goal than on improving practical systems that will suit most, though not all, conditions.

The Air Force saw its escape from close-support work when the latest super-sensor, Lantirn, was proposed. Lantirn consists of two "pods' resembling torpedoes, slung under Strike Eagles and A16s. One pod holds navigation equipment for the pilot to use as he roars along 100 feet above the ground at midnight in the rain; its main component is terrain-following radar. The other pod contains targeting aids for smart bombs, including laser designators and a "millimeter wave' radar with very high resolution.

The only thing that protects Lantirn from the kind of scrutiny directed against other procurement boondoggles is that, like the late, lamented Divad gun, it's so complicated nobody understands what it's supposed to do--so nobody can tell if it's working. Lantirn's $5 million cost is almost comical. Performance has been questionable. And so far, Lantirn tests, according to the Pentagon's office of Operational Tests and Evaluation, have not "even minimally . . . reflect[ed] the stress of combat environments.'

Of course, many complicated machines perform poorly at first. A good rule of thumb for evaluating procurement projects is to ask whether they will represent sensible investments of defense dollars--assuming the wrinkles can be ironed out. Military insiders feel that if Lantirn can be debugged, it will lower CEPs for the new Strike Eagles and A16s to a few hundred feet. This will be an improvement over any interdiction aircraft in the world today, but that doesn't necessarily justify its cost.

Among other things, so much weight on Strike Eagles and A16s will be taken up by Lantirn pods and extra fuel tanks that the airplanes will carry only a limited amount of ordinance--so that if they do succeed in reaching and hitting an "interdiction' target, they may not have enough punch to wipe it out. Shortcomings like this are found in all forms of wonder weaponry. But when the price of these deep strike airplanes is factored into the relatively small amount of damage they might inflict assuming they work, and the damage to us if our limited number of these aircraft are shot down during interdiction raids (as one of the 18 FB111s was during the 10-minute Libya action), the exercise starts to become nutty. Its numerous mechanical breakdowns aside, Divad never passed the "is it sensible?' test. Lantirn--an expensive system to guide expensive aircraft into position to miss targets of secondary significance--doesn't either.

But Lantirn was irresistible to Air Force generals. Their beloved F15, which the public perceives as futuristic but which actually entered production before Molly Ringwald entered grade school, was nearing the end of its planned acquisition run. A strike version sporting Lantirn and smart bombs might keep the plane in production with its state-of-the-art credentials renewed. Better still, the Strike Eagle would be so expensive that only a few could be afforded--42 are in the Pentagon's fiscal 1988 budget request. That would give the Air Force an excuse to reserve the planes for "independent air missions' far removed from Army battles.

Strike Eagle came first. Then about a year ago, when funding for a new close-support aircraft began to be discussed, Air Force planners unveiled the related idea of adapting F16s for battlefield work. Using the service's two frontline fighters as the next generation of ground-attack planes would ensure that no more low-tech planes like the A10 snuck into the Air Force inventory.

In theory, an A16 version of the F16 would be capable of providing close support for troops; for instance, it would have provisions for mounting a compact version of the A10 antitank cannon. But to keep acceleration and maneuverability high, fighter planes have thin, metallic skins to keep weight low. Up high in the sky, this makes sense: during air-to-air combat a fighter generally either receives a fatal blow or escapes unscathed. Down close to the ground, think skins are nonsense.

Near the battle lines, all manner of weapons are going off. Aircraft-attacking tanks may be fired back at by dozens of cannons, machine guns, and rifles, in addition to a variety of missiles. Under such conditions hits are almost inevitable. For this reason the A10 and the comparable Soviet Sukoi 25 are "armored' aircraft. They have thick skins that deflect bullets and small cannon rounds, special shields surrounding the pilot, internal fire extinguishers, and other combat survival features.

An attack plane based on the thin-skinned F16 would be torn up by simple machine gun fire. Strike Eagles also have fighter-thin skin. The Air Force doesn't even pretend that these $45 million investments will be gambled against $1 million tanks. Aviation Week, the Pravda of the defense industry, recently noted, "Senior officers from both services believe that A16s will be capable of performing [close air support], but junior officers see the aircraft as less capable than the A10 in this role and more suited to interdiction.' Translated, that means the deskbound brass in Washington, whose next career move will be early retirement to a soft job with a contractor, believe, as usual, that no cost is too high and no plan too complex; field-grade officers, whose next career move could be putting their backsides on the line in combat, want weapons that work. Guess who usually prevails.

If it wins congressional approval for A16s and more Strike Eagles, the Air Force will have accomplished a bureaucratic coup: preserving the funds that flow through its close-support "role,' but using those funds for other purposes. The Army, unfortunately, has a perverse incentive to play along. Air Force refusal to provide effective battlefield support is the mud service's best argument for keeping alive funding for Apache and the LHX.

Sense and sensibilities

What are the alternatives?

First, the silly restrictions against Army operation of airplanes should be lifted. The Air Force may not care about battle support but the Army surely does. Letting Army planners address this problem by whatever means works best instead of restricting them to helicopters is the essence of the "is it sensible?' approach. Freed of the close-support role it dislikes, the Air Force could concentrate on air-superiority and strategic operations, which it's good at. Freed of the ban against "fixed wing' aircraft, the Army might slowly wean itself from overreliance on vulnerable attack helicopters.

Second, the approximately 700 existing A10s ought to be repainted green and turned over to the Army. Defense equipment belongs to the public, not to individual services; it should be sent where it serves the public best.

Third, a new close-support airplane, similar to the A10 but smaller and more maneuverable, should be built instead of the A16 and LHX. Such a plane would address the drawbacks of the A10--it's awfully big, presenting ground gunners with a large target, and has trouble with certain types of evasive maneuvers. The A10 is big mainly to accommodate its antitank cannon, the chambering mechanism of which is the size of a small car. After A10 production began, tests showed that operating the cannon at about half the maximum rate was just as effective as full blast, allowing compact versions of the cannon to be built and making a small aircraft possible.

Building a new A10-style aircraft has been endorsed by the Air National Guard and many military scientists, in addition to a few underground factions within the Air Force and Army. It should also be backed by the Marines, who currently are buying expensive Harrier jump-jets for close-support work.

These sorts of military reforms wouldn't fit into a 20-second evening news blip about the anniversary of the Air Force, so it's unlikely you'll be hearing much about them during the extravaganza to come. But if the Air Force is to have a 50th anniversary--and a hundredth--reforms are urgently required. The irony of one service staging a public festival to celebrate its bureaucratic escape from having to cooperate with another may be lost on the media, but it will not be lost on U.S. soldiers in future combat.
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Title Annotation:weapons procurement
Author:Coram, Robert
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1987
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