Revamping Close Air Support

By Keithly, David M. | Military Review, March/April 2000 | Go to article overview

Revamping Close Air Support


Keithly, David M., Military Review


WITH THE US ARMY about to update Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, and the US Navy in the process of developing its format written doctrine, now is the time to rethink close air support (CASE. This is the time to clarify joint and service doctrine, which are not attuned with one another and must ,be brought into harmony.' Considerable doctrinal ambiguity and fundamental misconceptions about CAS persist.2 The former chief of the Air Force's Current Doctrine Division and co-author of Air Force Manual 1-1 Basic her Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air Force; recapitulated the widely held Air Force notion of CAS in the November 1992 edition of Military Review: "Although GAS is considered the least effective application of aerospace forces, at times it may be the most critical in ensuring the success or survival of surface forces."' By contrast, the 1994. Air Force publication Presentation to the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces depicted "a declining need for CAS," promoting "the elimination of CAS as a primary responsibility for the Air Force and Navy."`' The Roles and Missions volume underscored the Air Force ambition to cast off its "full close air support capability."s

Does CAS represent a pivotal mission or not? Apparently, the Air Force is unsure. In the 1960s, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, exasperated that the Air Force paid what he thought mere lip service to close air support, threatened to terminate the Air Force's CAS assignment altogether.' Piqued by the prospect of losing a mission, even one that had in practice become ancillary, the Air Force, in an effort to accommodate the secretary, accepted the Navy's A-7 project to develop a basic, relatively inexpensive aircraft designed primarily to support ground forces. Several voices at the time championed new CAS doctrine.' Little actually happened.

The United States cannot afford discord and lingering misconceptions about such an important operational task. With technology enlarging capabilities prodigiously, even exponentially, it seems ironic that some old debates recur.$ And how are ground forces -to regard the disharmony associated with close air support`? Regrettably, precisely the way one Marine engineer officer did when he wrote, "In other words, if the Army,.and the Marines would avoid combat and stay out of there, the Air Force would not have to waste its aerospace forces in an ineffective manner."9 Targeting the Navy, the same officer chided Rear Admiral Arthur Cebrowski for saying that "when talking about aircraft that cost as much as they do and an inventory as small as it can get, those are... precious commodities, and they're not going to be squandered just because some fellow calls for fire and wants to see that particular aircraft doing a profile that he read about in some book years age."10

Such interservice bickering about CAS is not new and has long since become tiresome. It echoes Brit ish army fault-finding early in World War II when troops stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk were dive-bombed while the Royal Air Force (RAF) was nowhere in sight-fighting beyond where the troops could see the aircraft. Such unpleasant memories die hard because the issues are emotion laden and politically charged. British troops felt they had been left in the lurch by the RAF and harbored resentments throughout the war."

The upshot of service apprehensions in the United States has been perennial: unfading misgivings; -ground forces safeguarding organic air assets; the Marines' practice of assigning an air squadron to each corps as the best method to achieve integration of air and ground fire. Services desire ``their Own aircraft" for trs' confidence, commanders' convenience and artillery's supplement. The Marine position has been perhaps the most telling--name, that since Marines fight as a team, they should deploy as a team, which includes maintaining organic close air support. The logical implication is that US forces either fail to, or at least cannot be entrusted to, fight as a team. …

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