Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Close Air Support History Repeating Itself

(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

General Paul LaCamera, commander of the United Nations forces in Korea, had a stark warning for lawmakers during an April 2023 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) asked about the lessons to be learned from the Korean War ahead of the 70th anniversary of the armistice that ended what Gallagher termed “America’s forgotten war.” LaCamera tersely responded, “Be ready.”

The Korean War serves as a useful reminder for all the national security policy decision-makers today because in their singular focus on preparing for a future war against China, they are failing to prepare for other — more likely — conflicts. Right up until the moment the North Korean tanks crossed the 38th Parallel on June 25, 1950, few people in official Washington considered that the next war would be on the peninsula. Official Washington was convinced it would be fought between NATO and the Soviet Union. That conviction shaped nearly every military policy decision and weapons system design through the end of the first Cold War, yet such a war never materialized.

Instead, U.S. commanders and servicemembers have been forced to fight a series of counterinsurgency wars using strategies and equipment unsuited to the task.

Today, Washington is convinced the next war will be fought between China and an American-led coalition in the western Pacific region. Nearly every defense policy decision today is shaped by the “pacing challenge” posed by China. The Marine Corps has already completely reshaped itself to meet this single, narrow scenario, with very little official debate or discussion beforehand.

Now Air Force leaders are using the current China narrative as cover for their traditional antipathy for the close air support mission. They claim the combat-proven A-10 cannot survive in a fight with a sophisticated adversary like Russia or China. People making this claim have yet to back them with actual testing results. Instead it is simply repeatedly regurgitated as a talking point that furthers the Air Force’s institutional agenda: to focus their mission, and budget, on programs such as air superiority and strategic fires that don’t require participation from the other services.

Now Air Force leaders are using the current China narrative as cover for their traditional antipathy for the close air support mission.

The claim also calls into question the Air Force’s own effectiveness. According to their force design, the Air Force would quickly gain control of the skies before ground troops kick off a campaign, so unless the Air Force had failed at gaining air superiority over the enemy’s territory, why would A-10s be in danger in a contested air environment? Does the Air Force propose that we send these aircraft in alone over Chinese or Russian territory? Because that would be crazy.

That’s not to suggest the A-10 or a dedicated replacement would not be useful in a war in the Pacific. The aircraft has been upgraded several times through the years, and A-10 pilots constantly update their tactics to deal with any potential challenges they may face. And as long as there is an Army and Marine Corps with troops ready to fight anywhere, they will need effective close air support.

The Air Force talking points completely miss the intended purpose of the aircraft. The A-10 is a close air support platform, meant to support troops on the ground with precise — and devastating — air support. At the point a conflict has progressed to having troops on the ground, the air environment is much less contested. The ground forces would also be working to help protect the aircraft by suppressing ground-based air defenses. If the sky is still swarming with enemy aircraft, we wouldn’t have troops on the ground, and so wouldn’t be deploying A-10s.

That being said, A-10s actually can effectively operate in an environment with enemy air defenses present, as was seen during Desert Storm in 1991 and in the early weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. This is because the aircraft are mutually supported by ground forces and other combat aircraft. The A-10 can also take an enormous amount of punishment and still survive and protect the pilot because it was specifically designed to do so. Even more important, A-10 pilots have developed procedures to defeat enemy air defenses.

In that regard, there is serious reason to doubt the Air Force’s oft-repeated claims about the A-10’s purported lack of survivability. The Air Force conducted a head-to-head close air support fly-off test between the A-10 and the F-35 in 2018. A major aspect of the test was to see how well the A-10 would fare in heavily defended airspace, but very little about the results have been released publicly. If the F-35 had crushed the A-10 in testing, there can be little doubt that Air Force officials would have been trumpeting that fact in every Tactical Air Land Forces hearing and F-35 press release over the past five years.

Instead, we have heard nothing about its results and they have never been made public.

Rather than justifying their efforts to get rid of the A-10 with broad and vague assertions that the aircraft “is not survivable against modern threats,” Department of Defense officials could just release the fly-off report. They are unlikely to do so, however: Several sources with direct knowledge of the tests have revealed to POGO that the A-10 performed well and survived as well as the F-35.

Rather than justifying their efforts to get rid of the A-10 with broad and vague assertions that the aircraft is not survivable against modern threats, Department of Defense officials could just release the fly-off report.

What happens if China isn’t the next enemy the United States fights? And history strongly indicates it won’t be. Former defense secretary Robert Gates once acknowledged the poor track record of Washington’s national security intelligentsia’s forecasting. “Our record of predicting where we will use military force since Vietnam is perfect — we have never once gotten it right,” he said shortly before leaving office in 2011. “There isn’t a single instance: Grenada, Panama, the first Gulf War, the Balkans, Haiti, you can just keep going through the list, where we knew and planned for such a conflict six months in advance.”

LaCamera’s warning takes on an extra measure of urgency in that context. While the defense establishment ties itself in knots preparing for a future war against China, those in charge are reducing the flexibility of the military to respond to other contingencies in very much the same way the then-new Department of Defense did in June 1950.

U.S. forces who were rushed to the Korean peninsula after North Korea invaded lacked the ability to effectively integrate air and ground operations. The leaders of the newly independent Air Force focused most of their resources training for the air superiority role and preparing for strategic bombing missions against the Soviet Union. The Fifth Air Force units sent to Korea in the early days flew the F-80C Shooting Star, a fighter bomber not suited for the close air support role. It had a high fuel consumption rate at the low altitudes where it needed to fly to provide effective support for the Army. Also, its high airspeed limited its ability to loiter over the battlefield. The Air Force ended up parking most of the F-80Cs and switching back to what today might be called “legacy” F-51 Mustangs that had been in storage since the end of World War II. In the interim, the Navy and Marine Corps, which still maintained close air support aircraft and expertise, were tapped to provide the necessary close air support. They were integral in preventing the Chinese Peoples Volunteer Army from overrunning the entire 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir after the Chinese forces had evaded U.S. intelligence and crept more than 100,000 men across the border to attack UN forces.

More importantly, and particularly relevant today, Air Force leaders hadn’t properly trained their pilots in how to provide close air support. The Fifth Air Force pilots fighting against the North Koreans had been trained to fill the air defense role and so the soldiers on the ground suffered as a result.

The Air Force’s current efforts to retire the A-10 fleet will leave a similar capability gap in the future when the next war suddenly begins. It is for that reason that today’s debate goes far beyond the A-10 aircraft. Preserving the A-10 fleet now is important to save the expertise both in the air and on the ground necessary for effective joint air and ground operations. Keeping the A-10 is merely a temporary expedient until an effective dedicated attack aircraft replacement is fielded and the close air support specialists can seamlessly transition to it.

The Air Force’s current efforts to retire the A-10 fleet will leave a similar capability gap in the future when the next war suddenly begins.

Air Force leaders have made it clear they believe close air support is not worth their best efforts. Evidence can be found in how they train their pilots. Earlier this year, POGO revealed that pilots flying the F-35A, an aircraft sold to the American people as a direct replacement for the A-10, currently have no close air support training requirements. Further evidence of Air Force leaders’ lack of commitment to supporting ground troops are the proposed cuts to the tactical air control party community. These highly specialized ground controllers serve as the liaison between the ground forces and the pilots flying overhead. Air Force leaders want to cut their ranks by nearly half over the next few years. Without these controllers, Army units will not have the ability to call for airstrikes.

If members of Congress buy into the Air Force’s talking points and go along with the service’s plans — and it looks increasingly likely they will — our ground troops fighting a future war will face similarly devastating situations as their 1950 counterparts. The Air Force will be unable to provide the necessary support at the very moment the troops who are in harm’s way will need it most. Young Americans will suffer as a result.

Civilian and uniformed policymakers have an opportunity now to prevent history from repeating itself by preserving the close air support capability and providing some real transparency into the fly-off test between the F-35 and A-10 before we make divestment decisions based solely on talking points that will have far-reaching consequences.

We should learn from past mistakes in previous wars. Historians writing about the next war will rightfully condemn us all if we get this wrong.