As the US Army rebuilds itself as leaner and more agile, the US Air Force is finding ways to meet the expected greater demands to provide battlefield support

Close air support (CAS) in the US military is finally losing the image that it is an expertise limited to a handful of specialist pilots flying outmoded and neglected aircraft, employing more fine-tuned art than automated science.

But whether the transition is moving fast enough is another question, with the US Air Force scrambling to adapt its fighter and bomber fleets to meet an expected rise in demand from ground forces for air support.

Two definitively CAS aircraft – the USAF’s Fairchild A-10 and the Lockheed Martin AC-130 gunship – have done the job for the US Army for most of four decades. Both are finally being modernised, matching their firepower with precision targeting, better situational awareness and defensive system upgrades.

In recent conflicts, necessity has pushed non-traditional aircraft, such as fighters and bombers, into the CAS role. Now the USAF’s stated goal is to divert precious modernisation funds to make both fixed-wing aircraft types more relevant and effective in supporting friendly ground forces in close contact with the enemy.

Technological advances that have long bypassed the CAS mission area are starting to make a belated appearance. Advances in munitions, air-to-ground communications and airborne sensors – especially third-generation targeting pods – are making it possible for aircrews with less training to be effective in CAS missions without increasing the risk of “friendly fire” fatalities.

Meanwhile, the army is seeking to become lighter and more deployable, with brigades manoeuvring outside the envelope of division- and corps-level artillery support. “These factors, combined with a new-found confidence in the accuracy and responsiveness of air-delivered fire, will result in increased army request for CAS and air interdiction,” says Beyond Close Air Support, an analysis completed this year by Rand’s Project Air Force think-tank.

Greater reliance

The army has learned to count on air power as much by necessity as design. According to the Rand report, heavy brigades that invaded Iraq in 2003 carried about 220t of ammunition each, less than half the supply allocated to the same units in the first Iraq war in 1991. Long-range artillery, attack helicopters and fixed-wing aviation were used to fill the gap. “The success of air power in providing day, night, adverse-weather, precision support for ground forces has convinced the army that it can make its forces more deployable and agile by reducing its artillery support (and the tons of associated ammunition, vehicles and fuel) and relying more heavily on air power,” Rand says. “The operational effectiveness of the army’s evolving force structure will depend heavily on how well the new forces work with the air force.”

Meanwhile, aircrews have started to accept a role that has traditionally been sidelined in air power doctrine. “There is a growing community of fighter and bomber aircrews who, based on their recent combat experiences, have embraced the CAS mission,” says Rand.

In some ways, the army is remodelling itself on the US Marine Corps’ long-standing integrated air-ground task forces, in which Boeing F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8B Harriers operate in close co-ordination with marines on the ground. “The Marine Corps explicitly invests in air power to compensate for having substantially less artillery and armour than heavy forces in the army,” the Rand study says.

Aircraft can deliver larger ordnance than artillery, often replacing a 16kg (35lb) artillery shell with a 225-900kg bomb. It can also be more accurate, especially in urban areas where the aircraft’s god’s-eye view of the scene can make a difference. On the other hand, artillery is more responsive. Co-ordinating and executing a complete CAS mission usually takes more than 20min. An artillery strike usually takes less than 2min. “Artillery will generally be more satisfactory than air power unless an aircraft can be placed on station before a target emerges, for example, when an AC-130 flies a protective orbit or an attack helicopter provides overwatch for ground units,” says Rand.

The difficulty of any CAS mission is ensuring that both the pilot and the controller on the ground requesting the strike are seeing the same picture. A-10, AV-8B and AC-130 crews compensate by flying low and slow over the battle area, which also makes them more vulnerable to, and an easier target for, hostile fire.

However, this dilemma is being eased by a growing proliferation of a new class of targeting pods – Lockheed’s Sniper XR, Northrop Grumman/Rafael’s Litening AT and Raytheon’s Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared (ATFLIR).

The US Navy deployed F/A-18E/F Super Hornets equipped with ATFLIR for the first time in Iraq in 2003. Last January, the USAF ordered Lockheed to immediately deliver eight Sniper XR targeting pods for Boeing F-15Es that were being deployed to Iraq. Having the sensor aboard allows both fighter types to zoom in on a target location from an undisclosed stand-off distance. Dave Goold, Raytheon’s senior manager of ATFLIR business development, says such sensors “enable pilots to find a target at range, have a better understanding of what the target is and then to designate the target with extreme accuracy”.

The pods were designed for targeting precision weapons, but have found other roles in Iraq. Morri Leland, Lockheed’s Sniper XR business development director, says the sensor has enabled the F-15Es to be used in a reconnaissance role for ground forces in Iraq. Unseen and unheard from the ground, the F-15Es are often used to monitor raids on buildings, alerting forces on the ground when suspects try to escape through a back door.

Now the USAF is looking to integrate a targeting pod on its Rockwell B-1B bombers. Full integration is on hold because arms control treaties with the former Soviet Union prohibit the B-1B fleet from carrying external stores. But it is clearly a capability that the USAF intends to pursue.

Well-suited B-1B

Rand’s analysis is that a large manned bomber, such as the B-1B, is well suited to a broad range of CAS missions. Says Rand: “One B-1B alone can carry enough payload to accomplish any of the tasks. Fighters, such as the Lockheed F-16, are best suited for tasks that require quick response and rapid re-engagement, not for tasks that require large amounts of munitions.”

Each of the targeting pods are earmarked for upgrades. One improvement will be to add a laser marker that will allow anyone wearing night vision goggles to see the location being illuminated by the pilot. The drawback, notes Goold, is that enemy forces equipped with night vision goggles will know as well. A future video downlink will allow pilots to transmit a snapshot to a portable ground terminal, where the controller can confirm the target location. Manufacturers are also working on an upgrade that will allow the ground controller to annotate the image and retransmit it back to the pilot.

Both USAF CAS-dedicated types – the A-10 and AC-130 – regularly train with ground forces, but have limitations. The A-10’s lack of a precision attack capability and substandard communications are being addressed by the Precision Engagement (PE) programme awarded to Lockheed. In August, Lockheed finished upgrading the 356-aircraft fleet with the Suite 2 operational flight program, which included the installation of the flight and fire control computer that enables integration of the PE hardware. Upon completion of the PE programme, the redesignated A-10Cs can be loaded with six smart munitions, including the Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munition and Lockheed Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser, the Lockheed Sniper XR or Northrop Litening AT targeting pod and a digital moving map.

After 2007, A-10Cs will be upgraded to the Link 16 data communications network. Until then, Lockheed is to bridge the gap by installing the SADL situational awareness datalink, which allows the aircraft to share information with ground forces.

Lack of survivability during daylight missions restricts the AC-130 to night flights. The first of four new AC-130Us are to be delivered in December. A 30mm cannon is replacing 25mm onboard guns. The USAF also plans to invest $16 million next year to start developing an electro-optical/infrared sensor for the gunship.

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Source: Flight International