The problem this paper attempts to address is that today’s battlefields heavily rely on an air-component and combined arms philosophy that has significant gaps both in theory and when applied in practice. CAS (Close Air Support) aircraft and attack helicopters have shown themselves as highly critical in the modern battlefield, clearly demonstrated over Iraq during the two Gulf Wars. However, they have been a major issue of concern on a number of fronts, from being too expensive, having separate logistic chains from other combined arms components, and having a fundamental de-link in tactical communications because of differing operational radii. Another issue is that the role of CAS aircraft have tend to be a reactive rather than proactive, – the controller calls in air support, rather than CAS aircraft proactively fighting the battle. This paper describes the problem, attempts to bridge and define the doctrine, and design an aircraft that can fulfill that doctrine.
For the last 60 years, we have not moved much further than Rommel's North Africa campaigns. Even with network centric warfare, the basic doctrine has not changed, the employment of armor, infantry, artillery and air-power are essentially the same. The goal of this paper is to attempt to build beyond this - beyond the combined arms operational concepts rehashed for the last 60 years to a new standard. The key salient is that airpower will not be seen as a reactive support force. In fact, the word "Close Air Support" is inherently flawed – the airwar should be an arm onto itself of a combined arms military force, and a proactive force rather than 'support'.
To conceptualize this, consider 4 elements - armor, motorized infantry, artillery and CA-AC (Combined Arms Air Component. NOTE: I shall continue to use the term CAS for the sake of familiarity, but will be meaning CA-AC). Now to explain the fundamental dynamics between the forces, consider a medieval army - one with:
2)heavy armored knights / war elephants / Roman cataphracts
For the last 60 years we have assumed that the tank played the role of the cavalry, without distinguishing between the light and the heavy cavalry, creating a triad rather than a quartet. Yet, light cavalry was employed differently from heavy cavalry for most of known military history.
Consider the employment of the medieval heavily armored knight – always moving in closed formation; often employed to charge and break enemy lines. Can be susceptible to well disciplined and well-formed infantry with pikes. Countering such infantry, heavy cavalry moved on to incorporate ever greater ranged assault and ever greater armor. Consider how well this fits the role that tanks have played and how they have evolved. How tanks, like their erstwhile predecessors, also are best employed en mass and not individually or small groups. How they are used to drive a wedge into enemy lines, but can be devastated when well trained and well formed infantry can effectively deploy their anti-tank arsenal (i.e. pikes). Consider how ranged attack and greater armor have increasingly become important with the increasing lethality of anti-tank weapons.
However, if modern armor equates with heavy cavalry, then what can be considered as the light cavalry component? What can optimize mobility and surprise rather than firepower and armor? Clearly, not the modern MBT. Perhaps the combined sequel of weapons in the modern battlefield made light cavalry obsolete. Or perhaps there is such a weapon system that is merely waiting to be found. This paper claims the latter and equates traditional light cavalry with what it calls Combined Arms Air Component 'CA-AC'.
Let us now transpose our medieval army to the modern battlefield:
1) foot soldiers translate to motorized infantry
2) heavy cavalry armored knights / war elephants translate to tanks
3) Light cavalry translate to CAS
4) Archers translate to Artillery
These four components should, ideally be part of one integrated army and work with seamless operational unity. To be truly effective, they would need to be employed organically, and share the as close a possible, a logistics base and operational deployment.
The Modern Compromise
Today's multi-role aircraft attempt to compromise between a fighter, a deep strike and a CAS aircraft. The disconnect between them is particularly stark vis-a-vis CAS, where a cheap, slow flying but agile aircraft is needed, which does not need to fly at anywhere near the sound barrier, or have a sophisticated radar. What is need is an aircraft that can fly low, maneuver at below tree top height, retain an ability to 'hang in the air' when needed, and land on the shortest strips or gravel or paddy field. Instead of this, what we see is that combat aircraft are increasingly becoming more complex, larger, poor performers at low altitudes and low speeds and able to land only on specialized runways. Focus has turned to dropping JDAMs from altitude, negating proactive engagements.
Further, while in an overly mismatched battlefield, one side can dedicate a portion of its air force assets to CAS, in a more even battle, airforces focus almost all of their assets in winning the air-war first. Given the cost and value of fighter aircraft, this makes sense. However, given the need for a truly combined arms operation and a cheap CAS aircraft, it makes less sense to have the ground forces commander left without CAS, when CAS can be the difference between a defeat and a victory.
The present response to fill this widening gap is to increase the component of attack helicopters. However, helicopters fundamentally are more complex, have far less range and are more expensive to build on a payload delivered basis. Moreover, as we shall later see, todays helicopters cannot fulfill a complete vision of a seamless combined arms operation. They have separate logistics chains, separate tactical deployment requirements and are very low on endurance.
The cost of an Apache AH-64D is exorbitant – Greece paid as much as $56.25 million per piece. Whether this includes training, logistics and support or not, it illustrates an ever increasing cost of creating a platform that can, in essence, deliver an anti-tank missile to the battlefield. The best candidates out there for such platforms today are the A-10, the Su-25, and the AH-1 Cobra. The A-10 cannot be employed organically with a battalion because of the complex logistics and necessity of a landing strip. The Su-25 is less complex and can land on worse terrain but again, it would be a stretch to consider it to be deployed organically with a brigade size force; consider the simple question of finding jet fuel or supplying it to a brigade.
If we look at finding an easy solution such as a smaller aircraft like the Tucano and arm it with missiles, some armor and optimize it for short takeoffs and landings, we would have something like the ALX. We would still need to build an engine to run on either diesel or at least petrol. We would be essentially better off designing a new aircraft. But before we do that, let us consider what Combined arms operation is, and what the role of CAS should be.
Defining the Role of the Combined Arms Air Component, CA-AC
True Combined arms operation is not about calling in air support. In my opinion, it is about having a military force, one arm of which is CAS aircraft. Thus we would have Armor, Motorized Infantry, Artillery and "Air Cavalry". All shall share one logistics base and one tactical deployment basis. In other words, an aircraft designed for this role will run on diesel, take-off and land from ordinary fields and road strips, and fire largely the same ammunition (say tow missiles and 12.5mm) that the logistics supply chain provides to the other components. This at least is the doctrinal ideal that we wish to reach or work towards.
To further elaborate, flight endurance, flying nap of the earth, the ability to fly slow when necessary and maneuver rapidly are also key characteristics. Flight endurance is necessary because, if the air arm is to stay with a rapidly moving armored force, constant preparation of landing and refueling is not possible. Flight endurance must approximately be aimed at between 5-6 hours at cruise speeds.
Low flight profiles will help evade enemy fire as well as keep the battle ground-bound rather than attracting enemy fighters. A slow and low flying small aircraft is unlikely to even show up on a fighter aircaft's radar. This will be key in staying out of the air campaign. The ability to fly slow will help on a number of fronts: enable short take-offs and landings, help stay with the pace of the armor and other ground components, identify and attack enemy units, and help with endurance by being a more fuel efficient method of staying up in the air. The aircraft must also be able to maneuver rapidly and be nimble enough to evade enemy fire. Designing such an aircraft should not be beyond the realm of possibility. One possible solution is outlined below.
Concept Design of a CAS Aircraft
The following key characteristics / roles have been identified:
1. Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing (VTOL/STOL).
2. Be able to withstand a burst of up to 12.7 caliber weapons in vital areas. Be invulnerable to small arms fire. Kevlar panels used for armoring.
3. Be able to carry up to 6 TOW or Hellfire or similar weapons for a stand-off anti-armour role.
4. Have a 12.7 mm main gun with about 50 rounds of ammunition.
5. Capable of flying at exceedingly low speeds and maintaining high manoeuvrability at such speeds. Speed range of 10 mph to 200 mph.
6. Ability to operate at night. FLIR.
7. Run on diesel.
8. Turbo Prop single engined aircraft.
9. Have provision for flare cartridges, effective RWR, basically a good passive and active deco arrangement, to counter man-portable SAMs
10. Ease of maintenance and a basic low-cost solution.
To make Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) possible from unprepared strips, it is proposed that the aircraft have an angled wing and an angled propeller.
Another proposition is to have large, very low aspect ratio, thick and slightly forward sweeping wings (by about 5 degrees). This has shown to decrease take offs and landings as well as enable even slower flight (while maintaining agility and maneuver). This will also help towards condition 5, particularly towards the kind of agility required for Nap of the Earth flight. Lastly, the aircraft should have a strengthened under-carriage, landing gear with large low pressure tires and air brakes.
Mounting the wings high would give great visibility for the ground attack role and will aerodynamically provide better streamlining for cruising, provide more lift at less drag for climb and glide efficiency. Clearance will also be better and a useful attribute in semi/unprepared landing strips.
The use of composite armor and new materials like Kevlar should make protection against up to .50 caliber weapons easier. The wing design characteristics of thick, low-aspect ratio wings should also ensure greater survivability.
The attached diagrams illustrate sketches of such an aircraft. A more conventional design along the lines of the IL-2 is an alternative design possibility.
The biggest problem I actually see with this is vulnerability from enemy air defence. Something like what I have proposed, flying in good numbers are always likely to be vulnerable, no matter how tactically innovative you are. Good ejection are always an advantage though...
It isn't physically possible for a pilot to identify and target the enemy from 15K feet altitude or even treetop level while flying at 450 knots. He will need the assistance of powerful sensors and computers to display information in a simple, unambiguous manner. If the target positions provided by the ground troops is accurate, then an attack can be conducted with precision weapons such as JDAMs or SDBs. If datalinked positions are not trustworthy, then on-board sensors are needed to provide an accurate targeting solution for PGMs.
Persistence is another problem you identified. Fast jets don't have an ability to loiter for tens of minutes, much less hours. However, propeller driven airplanes are notoriously slow and suffer long transit times from their base to the operational area. Forward basing (FOL - Forward Operating Location) can cut transit times, but forward basing also places your airplanes and their logistics tail at risk from enemy interdiction. (The easiest/cheapest way to destroy an airplane isn't to shoot it down, but to kill it on the ground). Once a FOL is established, it doesn't stay a secret from the enemy for long and he will give it some unwanted attention if it is within reach or his offensive capability. FOLs also have huge logistics drawbacks because fuel, munitions, maintenance personnel and spare parts must be positioned at the FOL. This can be a problem with sustaining high sortie rates if the FOL is established in an unimproved location away from good ground transportation routes.
A quick look at what most gunship helos carry will tell you that unguided rocket pods and cannon fire still have a place on the modern battlefield. With laser guided kits for unguided rockets you can have an appropriate weapon for most CAS targets. The reality is that most ATGMs have too much penetration and not enough blast and fragmentation effect for most targets on the battlefield other than tanks. Most countries in the world today don't have a large supply of well armoured tanks and those that do are not likely to be using their forces against an enemy well equipped with such vehicles. Therefore having ATGMs that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars is a waste of money. A guided rocket that costs a few thousand dollars and has a warhead able to deal with a wider range of targets makes much more sense.
Equally the 50 cal HMG with 50 rounds is just silly. To effectively use such a weapon you need to get within 50 cal range, and once you are in 50 cal range of them they are within 50 cal or 57 cal or 23mm range of you... they will always win that fight.
At least with a cannon on board you can rely on shell power rather than kinetic energy. For example the HE shell for most 20mm cannon is effective at any range because it relies on HE power for effect rather then velocity. This means you can start firing at area targets at long range, which makes your fire platform safer and more likely to survive.
The loss rate would be higher, surely, but it means limited effective striking power. Such an aircraft would definitely not be the shining Lockheed Martin ad. But war is war and the tendency to build a new marvel for each tactical situation seems waste of ressource.
2. The "shooters" sound great IF you know where the enemy is (assuming lookers, where again the air superiority snag comes in). The problem that keeps coming back to haunt an armchair thinker like me is, with all the "lookers" and satellites and even boots on the ground, modern armies (and the modernest army the US) still have very poor situational awareness as exemplified in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I think the problem roots from how we have been attempting to substitute direct "human" situational awareness. We are either flying in jets and watching the countryside go by as a blur or we are travelling in APCs and tanks with our eyes elsewhere than our surroundings. We then fall back to "there being no substitute to boots on the ground" which to me, is the truth but only half of the truth. To me, the critical element is having "eyes" on the ground rather than "boots" - in essence, true "human", real time, actionable, situational awareness. This is the main problem, once this is solved, we can fly all the UAVs we like.
A good weapons capability, including the number of rounds for the onboard and built in cannon, to mach the aircrafts endurance.
It would also need to be able to take plenty of punishment from small arms fire (basic enemy infantry!).
Have good rough-field performance, so as it can be armed and refueled from forward airstrips.
A good passive and active decoy arrangement, to counter man-portable SAM’s
And the all important - ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’
I am also a strong believer that the pilot in the seat of an aircraft over the battlefield, has much more situation awareness with his two Mk I eyeball (360 degree) than a video relayed image from a CAS drone to its controller sitting in an air-conditioned truck, some distance from the battlefield (especially when it is a close-in battle.
Do not get me wrong, I strongly believe in the use of RPV/drones over the battlefield, for missions like strikes against highly defended fixed targets (airfields, fuel & ammo depots, C3 sites etc…), Reconnaissance, and SEAD missions.
But again from an infantryman’s point of view, talking to a pilot, whilst in contact with the enemy, that is directly over my AO, who is in the same line of fire as I am, and who can see the battle unfolding before his eyes below him will always be a must until the day when a foot-mounted infantry robot replaces skin and flesh of a human (Note this is not just being old fashioned on my behalf, for it is a fact.)
Just as our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, weather they would like a swarm of armed Predator RPV or a pair of A-10 Thunderbolt II,s or a circling AC-130 Specter?