A senior Air Force officer’s comments made in September illustrate the defense technocracy’s willingness to sacrifice proven and plentiful lower-tech weapon systems in pursuit of the alluring promise of technological advantage, endangering real combat capacity.
“Air Force Gen. Herbert. J. ‘Hawk’ Carlisle said Tuesday the raging debate over whether the A-10 or the F-35 is better equipped to perform close air support was totally missing the point on the future of the mission.
‘What we’ve got to talk about is how you do UCAS (unconventional close air support) better’, rather than which aircraft can do it better, the head of Air Combat Command said. ‘The discussion of what platform is going to replace the A-10 is ludicrous. We have to talk about how to do it better, and we do it better with technology’.
In a session with reporters, Carlisle called the A-10 ‘a fantastic airplane doing fantastic work down range’ in Iraq.
‘One of the questions I get is if you’re going to retire the A-10s why are you still using them in the fight? Well, that’s an easy answer. I don’t have enough capacity. I’ve got to use every single thing I’ve got. I don’t have enough capacity’ to handle the missions in Iraq and Syria without the A-10s, the general said.
However, Carlisle said, ‘It’s about how we do CAS, not what platform is replacing what platform’. In addition, the A-10 was not suited for operating against more sophisticated air defenses being developed by Russia, China and other potential adversaries, he said.
‘The A-10, it’s more difficult for that airplane to operate in a contested environment’, Carlisle said. ‘We would lose, which none of us want to accept, we would lose a good portion of those airplanes potentially in a contested environment’.
The F-35 Lightning II’s advantage was stealth, Carlisle said. ‘The F-35, it does very well. Its ability, stealth-wise, to penetrate contested airspace unobserved gives it an advantage over everybody else’.”
The general justifiably rues the lack of capacity. Yet, invoking the demands of a tough budget, he and others in the defense community would sacrifice the A-10 – which he praises for its actual combat performance – to fund the technological advantage promised by the F-35.
The F-35 itself is apparently progressing. Yet even when fully capable, it is fairly short-ranged (low loiter time) – worrisome to ground troops who would depend on it for close air support. The CAS mission requires an ability to withstand hits: will all that technology survive ground fire? And the airplane is so expensive we can buy it in only small quantities. How does that ensure “capacity?”
War requires reliability, capability, and survivability. Survivability addresses not just the system, but the capability itself: in WWII, technologically superior German Panther and Tiger tanks were destroyed, not by American superiority in quality, but by superiority in quantity: a single Tiger couldn’t beat five Shermans. With few of them in the field, the loss of every super-tank badly drained German capability.
To Stalin is attributed the observation that “quantity has a quality all its own.” If he didn’t say it, history does.
Likewise, superior technology must contend with risks inherent in the entire performance envelope: the vastly superior ME-262 jet had to land; to do so, it slowed. That’s when P-51 Mustangs pounced.
In his 1951 short story, “Superiority,” Arthur C. Clarke wrote of a future space war in which a superpower fighting a less-advanced interstellar enemy discards its sizable fleet of conventional weapon systems in favor of – in obsession with – the promise of technological advantage. Its new fleet is vanquished when the advanced weapons – late to the field, incompletely developed, and few in number – are destroyed piecemeal by swarming enemy ships that exploit the techno-chinks, as happened to the Tigers and the ME-262s.
Like Clarke’s fleet, our expensive super weapons will be produced in small numbers; they are slow in the development and increasingly temperamental. They are not invulnerable; and once their weakness is discovered, Stalin’s maxim fully comes into play. The F-35’s supremacy – and much of the rationale for the $1.5 trillion we’ve paid for it so far – is that its stealth design will enable it to conduct long range strikes undetected by enemy radar. Yet, its single huge engine emits an infrared signature likely detectable by sensors in Russian and Chinese fighters over distances that could negate the stealth advantage.
“You can only go so fast, and you know that stealth may be overrated,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert said last February. “Let’s face it, if something moves fast through the air, disrupts molecules and puts out heat — I don’t care how cool the engine can be, it’s going to be detectable.”
So, then what do we have; where is our capacity then?
The Air Force general speaks as if, after Iraq (and Afghanistan, and Syria, and . . .) there will be no more dirty, lower-tech combat environments with lots of determined, self-sacrificial foes, no more surprises; the assumption is apparently that the future belongs to the direct, technology-enabled clash of superpowers. And their super weapons.
And he’s not alone.
“What happens is that life gets in the way of the perfect plan,” said Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, in a January 24 broadcast of Defense News with Vago Muradian. “So when we made the decision on retiring the A-10, we made those decisions prior to ISIL, we were not in Iraq, we were coming out of Afghanistan to a large extent, we didn’t have a resurgent Russia.”
But life happened . . .
Yet, as Clarke implied in his short story, the argument isn’t “either-or”: we must certainly, by both evolution and revolution, exploit technology to enhance weapon system capability. The F-35 and other such marvels, if they can perform, will be valuable. The risk is a capacity imbalance driven by obsession with promising technology (that, like stealth, may be overrated and vulnerable) to the neglect of complementary systems that are adequate or can be adapted to be adequate – and can be had in quantity. The F-16, F-18, and the M1 Abrams tank are examples. So is the A-10.
“Military strength requires both quantity and quality of capability,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry in response to the president’s State of the Union speech. “The Obama administration argues that a ship today is more capable than one twenty years ago. Generally that is true, but a ship can still only be at one place at a time.”
This imbalance in capacity is perilous for a nation that must be ready to fight any type of war and likely more than one war at a time. This imbalance is already influencing our force structure; it is facilitated by those who, drawn by the siren call of technology, disregard the lessons of historical perspective – and prescient science fiction.
Lead photo: A10 at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. (Photo by Sr. Airman Corey Hook, U.S. Air Force)
Jeffrey E. Phillips, executive director, ROA
January 25, 2016