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Investigation

Documents Show Air Force Leaders Shirking Their Close Air Support Responsibilities

(Photos: U.S. Army / Sgt. Torrance Saunders; U.S. Air Force / Cynthia Griggs; Photo illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)

Documents recently obtained by the Project On Government Oversight cast serious doubt on the Air Force’s commitment to supporting ground troops. The Air Force has the responsibility per well-established executive agreements to provide the Army with effective close air support. But its leaders are much more interested in performing missions they consider more important and in focusing the spotlight on their service’s accomplishments. Their lack of commitment to supporting ground troops is laid bare in the official training guidance provided for commanders of the F-35A, the largest and most expensive weapons program in history, and one that is supposed to be the tactical workhorse of the Air Force for decades. The document that details training requirements for F-35 operational groups shows that Air Force leaders do not currently require F-35 pilots assigned to active duty, reserve, or National Guard squadrons to perform any close air support training. This is a remarkable omission for an aircraft program that Pentagon leaders and defense industry officials sold as a direct replacement for the combat-proven A-10.

The Pentagon defines close air support (CAS) as “air action by fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and requires detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.” Dropping bombs and firing rockets and guns at targets close enough to friendly ground troops that they can feel the blast effect is the most delicate combat role of military aviation. The mission is vital to the success of military operations, and the A-10 — an attack aircraft specifically designed to support ground troops, flown by pilots specialized in the mission — has proven itself innumerable times in combat.

Even a prominent and outspoken F-35 test pilot and program booster, Billie Flynn, acknowledges how delicate the close air support mission is. “In an Iraq or Afghanistan type scenario, when you need bullets or weapons close to friendly troops, dropping weapons from 25,000 feet will not be acceptable.” Flying low to deliver weapons effectively and safely in support of ground troops requires a great deal of training by both the pilots and the ground controllers coordinating the efforts of the air and ground forces.

But the training directives issued by the Air Force show its leaders are hardly willing to lift a finger to fulfill one of their key responsibilities.

The Air Force has the responsibility per well-established executive agreements to provide the Army with effective close air support.

Air Force leaders lay out general training directions to commanders for one or two year increments in documents called “Ready Aircrew Program Tasking Memorandums.” The memorandums tell group commanders what missions pilots should be trained to do and how many sorties they are to fly to gain proficiency. The guidance is different for active duty, National Guard, and Reserve pilots. The required number of sorties is based on experience level and the role each pilot has in the squadron. A combat-mission-ready pilot has more required training than a pilot serving mainly in a staff role, for example.

The most current version of the memorandum for the Air Force’s F-35 units went into effect on October 1, 2022, and covers fiscal years 2023 and 2024. The F-35 memorandum breaks down all of the program’s roles into primary and secondary missions. Pilots are expected to be proficient in the primary missions and familiar with the secondary ones. According to the memo, pilots proficient in a particular mission will be able to perform the mission in their first combat sortie in theater without additional training. Familiarity with a mission means the pilots have been taught the basics of the mission but are only expected to “operate in a permissive environment and are able to handle some basic contingencies and unusual circumstances.” Pilots at this level would likely need additional training before being sent on a combat mission.

For Air Force leaders, the F-35’s primary missions are exclusively offensive counter air missions, or those that are meant to suppress or destroy an adversary’s air power. Air Force doctrine describes counterair as a set of missions “directed at enemy forces that directly or indirectly challenge control of the air.” Targets include “aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, ballistic missiles, airfields, fuel, command and control facilities, and network links.” The training guidance requires an inexperienced combat-mission-ready F-35 pilot to fly 68 offensive counter air training sorties during the current 24-month period, or 34 a year.

The memorandum categorizes close air support as a secondary mission, or one in which the pilots merely need to be familiar. Yet it is difficult to see how even that low bar can be achieved because, according to the memorandum, Air Force leaders do not require any close air support training sorties for F-35 pilots. Just to drive home the point: No F-35 pilot of any experience level in any component of the Air Force is required to fly a single close air support training mission in 2023 or 2024.

The memo also details required simulator training during the same time period. F-35 pilots are required to fly dozens of simulated missions, but not a single one is a close air support mission.

The only F-35 pilots likely to experience any close air support training are the few attending the Air Force’s premier pilot course. Even this small caveat provides further evidence of the Air Force leadership’s lack of commitment to supporting ground troops. The Project On Government Oversight obtained a syllabus for the Air Force’s Weapons Instructor Course at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base. The course is the Air Force’s version of the U.S. Navy’s “Top Gun” course made famous by the two eponymous movies. According to the course description in the syllabus, students attending the course receive graduate level classroom and flight instruction to plan and execute complex operations as part of a joint force.

The Air Force’s real commitment to joint operations, particularly close air support, does not appear to be genuine based on a review of the course of study laid out in the syllabus.

The F-35 Weapons Instructor Course covers 108 training days. Students spend 249 hours in the classroom and fly 21 sorties during the four-month course. Only two of the sorties are devoted to close air support training. And buried in the fine print of the syllabus is a note from the course designers that make it clear close air support is not a priority: “CAS fighter training objectives are permitted, but are secondary to approved syllabus objectives.”

The F-35 Was Sold as an A-10 Replacement

Air Force General Mark Welsh once surprised lawmakers when he said that the F-35 would not replace the A-10. Then the chief of staff of the Air Force, Welsh made this extraordinary statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 3, 2016, at a time when it was becoming increasingly apparent that the F-35 would not be an effective alternative to the A-10 in protecting ground troops. But that is not how the F-35 program was originally sold to the American people.

Before a new weapons program enters development, service leaders must first describe the broad role it is to fill. This information is detailed in what the Pentagon called the operational requirements document at the time. The F-35 program’s operational requirements document has never been released publicly, but Dr. Michael Gilmore, the operational testing director from 2009 to 2017, read directly from the document during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 26, 2016. He confirmed that the F-35 has, from the very beginning of the program, always been intended as the successor to the A-10 program.

During that same hearing, Frank Kendall, at the time the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, further confirmed the F-35 would fill the close air support role, but said it would do so very differently from the A-10.

These documents show Air Force leaders are not doing much to train their pilots to support ground troops.

Air Force leaders are certainly fond of saying close air support is a capability, not a platform. General Arnold Bunch Jr., then the head of Air Force Materiel Command, reiterated his service’s commitment to the mission at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber conference in September 2021, saying close air support “is not an airplane. We have done CAS with B-52s, with B-1s, with F-16s, with F-15Es. We can do CAS with many platforms. We are not stepping away from our commitment as a service to provide close air support to service members.”

It is true that aircraft other than the A-10 can be pressed into service to support ground troops, but the capability only exists if pilots are trained to perform it. These documents show Air Force leaders are not doing much to train their pilots to support ground troops.

The Project On Government Oversight reached out to the Air Force to find out how it intends to fill the close air support role when its leaders did not see fit to include any relevant training requirements for F-35 pilots, and to find out why they consider the close air support role to be a secondary mission. A spokesperson responded, saying, “Close Air Support (CAS) is a required element of the F-35A Ready Aircrew Program (RAP) designed to align with the latest Combined Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC) expectations. Additionally, CAS training sorties require integration with a forward air controller (FAC) to be an effective training event.”

The Project On Government Oversight submitted questions to the Army and to the secretary of defense’s office to get their reaction, but both agencies did not respond to our requests for comment.

The Value of Attack Aviation

After Congress created the Air Force as an independent service in 1947, James Forrestal, the first secretary of defense, gathered all the top military leaders to assign roles and missions to each of the services. The specific functions of each were agreed to and clearly laid out, and then-President Harry Truman approved the resulting agreement in 1948, making it a formal order from the commander in chief. Per the agreement, the Air Force is to “furnish close combat and logistical air support to the Army.”

Starting in the 1920s, leading airmen ignored or marginalized the close air support role and instead pushed the idea that military aviation led by aviators could win wars independently from ground or naval forces. Air Force leaders fought against close air support during the negotiations over the Key West Agreement, and gave little priority as they built up the United States’ air capacity.

Up until the 1970s when the A-10 program was fielded, the Air Force did not regularly maintain the capability to provide close air support because it didn’t have a permanent cadre of trained units ready to support the ground forces each time the U.S. entered a conflict. Pilot skills eroded completely, and Air Force aviators had to scramble to improvise a close air support capability while under fire in each operation — World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Meanwhile, many troops on the ground died because they lacked the air support they needed. The lack was particularly egregious during the Korea conflict. The Air Force never was able to provide effective close air support in that war, having lost that capability in the five years after the end of World War II. The ground forces fighting for their lives on the peninsula in the early 1950s had to depend on the Navy’s pilots for close air support.

The Air Force seemed to have learned its lesson at long last, so that by the onset of the 1991 Gulf War, America finally had an effective close air support force — the A-10 — on the first day. The Air Force retained a close air support capacity through the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

The F-35 training memorandum shows that Air Force leaders are yet again largely ignoring their responsibility to support ground troops, in clear violation of long-standing orders.

Moreover, seeing how Air Force leaders prioritize training sorties for a multi-role aircraft like the F-35 shows just how valuable the A-10 program has been through the years: Having an aircraft program specifically designed to fill the attack role in the Air Force provided a home for specialist pilots who devoted their careers to working closely with ground forces. Because the A-10 is not a multi-role aircraft, Air Force leaders could not task A-10 pilots to train for other missions. That simple fact provided the attack pilot community the breathing room necessary to develop techniques and procedures to effectively work with ground forces and to sharpen their skills.

A review of the training requirements for the A-10 program show how much training it takes to be an effective attack pilot. The current “A-10 Ready Aircrew Program Tasking Memorandum” covers only a single year, unlike the F-35’s two years, but the close air support training requirements in that time are extensive.

An inexperienced active-duty Air Force A-10 pilot is required to fly a minimum of 12 day and eight night close air support sorties in 2023. The total number of sorties, however, will be much higher than that. The memo gives unit commanders a certain number of optional sorties for each pilot that can be used for any primary or secondary mission training. Sources inside the Air Force say it is extremely rare for any commander to assign optional sorties for anything other than primary mission training. The same inexperienced regular Air Force A-10 pilot has 32 commander’s option sorties in 2023, and most, if not all of them, will almost certainly be used for close air support training missions. So, A-10 pilots will likely fly approximately 52 close air support missions, while their counterparts flying the F-35 will most likely fly none.

Attack pilots need to be proficient in their technical training, since dropping bombs and firing guns at targets in close proximity to ground forces is inherently dangerous. They also need to train with the forces they support. One veteran A-10 pilot, Brian “Master” Boeding, stressed the importance of regular training. “Our enemies have often times engaged our troops when the weather is poor & at less than 100 meters, thus routinely training to these skill sets is so very important. Like all things aviation and combat, CAS skills are perishable … and the stakes are too high to not train dedicated crews (ground and air) in purpose build close air support aircraft,” Boeding said.

Conclusion

The fight to save the combat proven A-10 has never been about keeping this one airplane in the inventory. Rather, the struggle has been about preserving a critical combat capability that will be lost if Air Force leaders finally succeed in their decades-long effort to rid themselves of a program they never wanted in the first place.

Today, Army leaders predict that future wars will continue to come down to soldiers fighting in close combat despite all the advances in military technology. In such a fight, effective support from the air will likely make the difference between victory and defeat, and between life and death for those young Americans.

It is clear that Air Force leaders don’t take this reality seriously. They are widely expected to come to Congress this year seeking permission to retire the remainder of the A-10 fleet. If Congress grants them that permission before a dedicated replacement for the A-10 is fielded, the warfighters in future wars will not have the support they need. Many of them will die needlessly because the Air Force refused to prioritize the most important combat role of military aviation.


EDITORIAL NOTE: The Project On Government Oversight has reviewed in full the documents that inform this investigation. The author recognizes the sensitive nature of the information contained in the documents and therefore redacted sections not directly related to the close air support debate.