Assume a peer opponent, like the Soviet Union in its glory days.
Wait, no. That’s hard to think of. And not necessary.
Assume a relatively peer-ish opponent. Or even semi-peer. The diet coke of peer will do in a pinch. Maybe it’s a revanchist Russia, maybe China, or maybe just someone with their head screwed on right, like Serbia in the late 90s. Someone who has built a nice IADS. Invested in air defense. Trained on it. Got them in your head? Good. Now you’re at war…
We, of course, want to provide air support. And air support can take the form of interdiction or CAS, close air support. Right up at the line of contact. There’s plenty of good historical examples of how to do this right. And it’ll bring decisive firepower to assist. It’s worked in basically every war since the Second World War. If you can bring airplanes to help, you’ve got yourself a big win. And right at the front lines is where it matters the most. But the enemy is going to try to stop you, and therein lies the problem. Let’s consider those defenses.
As far back as the 60s, big medium and long ranged SAM systems were trouble. Remember Gary Powers? Okay, there’s that peer competitor again. But plenty of F-105s and even mighty B-52s were shot down by SA-2s over Vietnam. There. That’s not very peer. The SAM threat was bad. One counter was to build up a big strike package with SAM-suppression aircraft and jamming support. That’s perfect for the interdiction mission, the deep strike. But what about the CAS mission? Are we doomed?
No, we fly low! Perfect. And this is the approach of choice for the Panavia Tornado and the A-10 and the Su-25. If we’re doing close air support, and it’s the 60s or 70s, we only have to worry about anti-aircraft guns. And not like the big 12.8cm guns that defended Berlin in ’44, but small, mobile units. 23mm autocannons are the standard size for Russian units. So the A-10 was built to take shots from those 23mm guns, and it was built around a massive 30mm autocannon that outranged the Soviet 23mm guns. It could win a ‘high noon’ duel with the defending 23mm batteries, and then tear tanks apart with more 30mm gunfire plus bombs.
Perfect. Except that nobody likes to be looking at a losing score up on the board. The Soviets love their tanks, and they weren’t about to sit around while they got torn up from the air. They had enough of that back when they were facing Ju-87Gs back in the Great Patriotic War. They doubled down on missiles, specifically short range missiles. And here was the hard counter they were looking for. Short range systems, plus the famed MANPADS like Strela-3, Igla, and Stinger.
In 1991, lots of aircraft came at the Iraqi air defense system at low level. Again, we had the Tornado and the A-10 as big users of the attack profile. Both were not only doctrinally constrained to low-level attacks, but also had weapons systems that required the aircraft to fly low to be effective. And both aircraft took some significant losses, which forced changes in attack profiles. Back up to medium altitude, where they were relatively safe because the Iraqis weren’t very good at protecting their bigger (and longer ranged) SAM systems from coalition air defense suppression assets.
The Soviets experienced basically the same thing in Afghanistan, once the Mujahedin got Stingers. This forced their aircraft up to medium altitude, where they were safe from the missiles.
And now it gets worse. First, we’re not really doing close air support anymore. We’re dropping from altitude, and can’t actually see the guys on the ground. So we’re dependent on communicated coordinates. Don’t screw that up, or else the bomb might hit you.1 Second, at medium altitude, that big awesome gun on the A-10 is just a lot of weight and drag.
But, no problem, right? We can just use a bomb truck with plenty of gas, like the A-6E. That even has a lot of built-in targeting systems to squeeze maximum precision out of dumb bombs. The even bigger F-111 is another good choice. Or it would be except for those surface to air missiles. We saw in 1999 that an army with old, reasonably mobile SAMs like the SA-6 could make life hell for an attacker by using clever tactics, decoys, and good emissions discipline. And they didn’t even have the widely-exported S-300 family, which are much more formidable.
At medium altitude, there’s no cover, and a bomb truck like an A-6 or an A-10 isn’t going to be able to shake SAMs very well. There is another way to beat the big SAMs though: stealth.
As Muhammad Ali would say, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see. A little route planning, and boom. They won’t be able to touch you. Stealth is cool, but it demands internal carriage of weapons and not being predictable. Both of which make CAS extremely difficult.
But CAS is not doomed. And I’m not about to give the skeptics victory. The Small Diameter Bomb is a good start, since lots of those can fit in a stealthy 5th generation fighter. Remember, the formidable Stuka generally didn’t use giant bombs, and we have way more precision than Rudel could have dreamed of. Plus, we could always loiter on standby near, but not over, the battlefield. And we don’t have any good examples of a stealthy midsize bomb truck. We have big fighters like the Raptor, but only small bombers. A stealthy plane with some bomb capacity would be perfect here. Something F-22 sized or a bit bigger that can haul a decent bombload internally.
1.) By ‘might’, I mean ‘will,’ thanks to that asshole Murphy.