2009/11/19

TacAir of the future (?)

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Afghanistan with its extreme land transportation (and therefore land-bound logistics) shortcomings is a high time for close air support. Close air support (CAS, even flown by heavy bombers) was even preferred out of logistical necessity over artillery and mortars in many, especially early, contacts.

The volume of fighting was relatively small and the supply of precision guided munitions by air power was quite good in comparison to artillery and mortar forces who had a relatively small supply and choice of guided munitions.


Such special small war circumstances don't necessarily tell much about the future, though. Just as the Spanish Civil War told very little about the soon to follow WW2.


The classic, most valuable tactical (air power) support for the army (not to be mistaken with operational and strategic efforts) was as far as I know the support as flying artillery for armoured spearheads. The 1940 Meuse crossing at Sedan was such an example.

Motorized artillery was barely able to keep the pace with armoured spearheads, and its ammunition train didn't always get a high enough traffic priority to keep it supplied. Self-propelled artillery with dedicated artillery resupply vehicles improved the picture, but armoured spearheads on the offence are still difficult to supply and difficult to support with massed support fires.
That is, unless you consider the flying fire support of helicopters and aircraft in CAS missions who can easily bridge the distance from airbase to spearhead int he never really congested airspace.

Such CAS for spearhead forces has its defensive counterpart in QRF and "Feuerwehr" (firefighter) missions; air power can easily shift its focus by hundreds of kilometres within few hours, and is therefore uniquely suited as a rapid theater-level reinforcement for forces in crisis. The battle of Arras was such an example (although the CAS only arrived after the decision).


Yet, artillery increased its reach considerably (about 40 km for 152/155 mm howitzers and dozens, at times 80 km for rocket artillery) over the past two decades.
It did also reduce its logistics footprint at least to some amount (the hype about this improvement of about 1995-2005 was overly optimistic, of course) and should therefore have less supply troubles than before.

This alone justifies a new look at the issue, far away from the basic 'artillery vs. CAS' discussion that arose after Op Anaconda in 2002-2004.


There's more: I considered missiles like ATACMS, Iskander and LORA as operational-level munitions in the past. This has changed recently when I had a look at the all-in-one dispenser for ATACMS.

(Lockheed Martin photo)

Lockheed Martin itself doesn't claim it, but I got a hint that it might be able to actually carry three Small Diameter Bombs as well. That was the last straw that broke the camel's back.
SDBs are no large bombs, but they're bombs and each is about the weight of a 21 cm howitzer shell. An ATACMS-compatible MLRS could be built to project everything from small warheads in the 105 mm range up to 210 mm shell equivalent bombs and of course unitary missiles with a warhead of about 227 kg (much more on bigger missiles like LORA and Iskander).

The range of ATACMS spans from about 150 to about 300 km (of course not with identical warheads weights).


Such technical potential in the missile artillery does seriously question the role of tactical air power (TacAir) . The only remaining advantages of TacAir in CAS remain
* the bird's eye view on the scene (before and after the strike)
* the ability to use very heavy munitions (heavy bombs 1,000 lbs and more - not terribly smart for CAS)
The theater-wide quick reaction capability and the easy reach to far forward spearheads as well as a reach to the battlefield from relatively safe rear positions can be matched by modern rocket artillery thanks to the good range.


Such a new (reduced) set of TacAir advantages over artillery demands a reassessment of an optimal balance and use of assets.

One - probably quite radical - conclusion COULD be to limit TacAir to its strength; the bird's eye view. TacAir could (let's just assume it could despite enemy air defence, for it's got no real advantage if it couldn't) loiter over the battlefield and effectively resort to the FAC (forward air controller) mission for support fires. Its own munitions (if hauled at all) would be used in those cases where immediate effect is critical.


This reduction of TacAir to the FAC role, to an observer's role, could in turn pump happiness molecules into the drone-loving crowd. The FAC mission is feasible with relatively small drones if survivability and communications performance are satisfactory.

The TacAir of the future could look like the German KZO Brevel drone* (certainly a completely accidental result because the KZO project is ancient Cold War stuff with an unsatisfactory program history). That drone was conceived as the bird eyes of the artillery arm of the German army.
Said artillery arm lacks the stock of ammunition to use the playbook laid out here, though.

Circumstances and relative strengths change over time - force structures and ideas about how to mix and use forces should keep pace. Maybe our understanding of such basic and easily visible components of modern warfare as close air support, artillery is already as badly outdated as was the understanding of infantry combat in 1913.

Sven Ortmann

*: An interesting piece of info: KZO Brevel uses a radar absorbing material (RAM) paint. This is afaik never mentioned in public texts and documents about the drone, but I recall a notification about the trade of a certain amount of RAM paint specifically for the KZO project. The notification was about ten years ago in an English language aviation journal, I think Aviation Week.
KZO is - unlike Predator/Reaper/Heron and the like apparently meant to operate over conventional war battlefields, in face of enemy army air defences.
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5 comments:

  1. The one thing you didn't mention in regard to missiles was cost. I'm not sure about the specifics, but I believe that dropping dumb bombs from a reusable platform like a conventional aircraft is far cheaper than using long-range missiles. With complex and guided munitions the difference might not be so great, but it's definitely something to consider. If people bemoan the current artillery supply situation, I can only imagine how limited our stock of cruise missiles must be.

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  2. I think you have made a point conserning the tactical point of view. But since the financial aspect gets more and more important especially when you`re engaged in coin-warfare I`d like to know how you estimate the cost factor of such artillery systems with increasing complexity in comparison to the rather cheap and easy to maintain CAS-aircrafts like the A-10 or Super Tucano?

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  3. The cost side is difficult to discuss without good cost data.

    I have a very strong suspicion that more elaborate munitions (30 km rockets) win over elaborate platforms with a bit less elaborate munitions (guided bombs) in most cases.

    It's less obvious in a scenario as Afghanistan, but even there we see strong indications.
    The cost of sustaining personnel and air power in-country or to fly over the country from remote bases is quite impressive. Hundreds of thousands of USD per man-year and many, many times the normal price for fuel units.

    Add in the fixed cost of the air frame (relevant in the long run and in regard to consumption of airframe durability).

    Rocket artillery - not a perfect substitute especiallyy in mountaineous regions, of course - would basically need few personnel plus the shipment of the ammunition (almost no fuel consumption).

    The picture becomes even more convincing in conventional war when air attacks are much more than just a strike fighter in the air. You need to add jamming aircraft, tanker aircraft, SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences) aircraft and combat air patrols (against enemy fighters) for the full Western-style air power repertoire and for low losses.
    The actual air/ground sorties can make up less than half of the total aircraft sorties. That multiplies the costs. A competent enemy conceals, deceives and camouflages himself well and reduces the efficiency of such strike packages even more. Many air/ground aircraft dropped only one or two or even no ammunition during the Kosovo Air War, for example.

    The relatively simple rocket artillery requires a much less elaborate system of systems. That's why I treated it for a long time (also on this blog) primarily as an alternative to the Western complex strike package model - and as an operational level air attack alternative for underdog Air Forces.

    I think today that it's likely more than that, and the continued development of ATACMS (U.S.) and LORA (Israel) kinda confirm that.

    @Dr. Luny; the U.S. bought thousands of ATACMS and intends to buy over a thousand new ones. That's an impressive stock.

    @Norman: I'm a major conventional wars guy, small wars interest me little. That's why my writing is mostly in the major conventional war context. A Super Tucano is almost worthless as combat aircraft in that context.

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  4. The total life cycle costs of aircraft includes maintenance, fuel, crews, pilots and their legacy costs of pensions, housing, benefits.

    The canceled Comanche stealth scout helicopter showed that modern weapons are prohibitively expensive.

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  5. Though primarily discussing the broader class of Time Sensitive Targets (TSTs), this publication lists some other benefits of fixed wing aircraft and ATACMS.

    Of course some limitations (e.g. lack of delay fuze on ATACMS) can be overcome.

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