Whither Close Air Support assets for UK Joint Operations
November 10, 2010
Close Air Support (CAS) or TACAIR as the American Armed Forces refer to it, is a highly skilled mission applying aerial firepower against targets in close contact with infantry and Marines on the battlefield.
The application of precision guidance to bombs and traditionally unguided munitions makes this mission massively important. Add to that the need for close working and communication between troops on the ground in contact and the pilot and you have a highly complex ecosystem which, if disrupted can render CAS impotent as a military capability.
Hence the post-decision uproar concerning the end of the Harrier VSTOL ("jump jet") force in the United Kingdom. Whilst there have been leaps and bounds in helicopter gunship support post the Gulf War of 1991, helicopters remain vulnerable to jet aircraft over the battlefield, lacking speed of engagement for one. The Harrier has been a unique asset, able to operate in very rough environments and take off without the need for any significant runway. A group of retired veterans of the Falklands War of 1982 have protested publicly the loss of the Harrier which totally emasculates Naval aviation for the foreseeable future.
The Apache AH-64 gunship in service finally with the Army Air Corps has become the principal close support direct fire (as opposed to indirect artillery) asset for the British Armed forces.
The sad truth underpinning this argument is the fact that deciding the successor to Harrier has been left low in the in-tray in favour of securing Aircraft Carriers, Eurofighter combat aircraft and other programs. Whilst in every spreadsheet metric the Joint Strike Fighter offered a superior capability, one day, at a price per unit to be determined - its qualitative flexibility has been left to one side.
The Harrier is truly a venerable asset and probably JSF will be in turn challenged by the Moore's Law-like development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The military themselves know the shelf-life of an aircraft and, one suspects, were delinquent in leaving decisions over its future to the fast-jet fraternity of the Royal Air Force - who have no place in their future for close air support.
The Americans had a similar problem with the A-10 Thunderbolt (or "Warthog"). Unloved by the US Air Force it was put on the back burner and then, once conflict recommences in Iraq, it becomes a key support capability to the Army and Marines and upgraded to A-10C standard.
The failure of the British Defence Establishment, leaving decisions over the fleet held by the RAF, to the RAF dooms capabilities such as close air support leads to discussion pieces like this, whilst military capabilities are being turned into razor blades.