Research Questions

  1. What are the future needs for selected A-10C missions?
  2. What are the gaps in the ability of existing and programmed platforms to provide required capabilities to conduct missions in both contested and uncontested battle environments?
  3. What is the operational effectiveness of existing and programmed platforms to conduct missions in both contested and uncontested battle environments?
  4. What is the likelihood of conducting missions requiring troops-in-contact/close air support operations in contested environments as opposed to uncontested environments?

To comply with a congressional directive in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 regarding the capabilities to replace the A-10C aircraft, RAND Project AIR FORCE analyzed a range of missions assigned to the A-10C aircraft: close air support (CAS), forward air controller (airborne) (FAC[A]), air interdiction, strike control and reconnaissance, and combat search and rescue support (CSAR). RAND analyzed the needs that this mission set might generate over the next five years and assessed existing and planned forces' effectiveness and capability gaps in performing those missions. RAND found that U.S. Air Force–programmed forces can effectively conduct these missions with few gaps when flying in air defense environments characteristic of current counterinsurgency operations. Certain gaps — in responsive CAS, FAC(A), and CSAR, for example — could widen if A-10Cs are removed from the force. With or without A-10Cs, the Air Force–programmed forces will be challenged to perform some missions in environments with more capable air defenses, unless changes are identified and made to tactics, equipment, and training.

Key Findings

How Did We Determine Mission Effectiveness and Needs?

  • We organized our study into several analytic efforts to calculate effectiveness and identify gaps in platforms and functional areas such as weapons, sensors, and communications. Across these analyses, we considered the effects of operational and environmental factors, such as weather, GPS and communication jamming, camouflage and concealment, target type, and ground controller capabilities. Since the mission functions almost always included target acquisition, communication, and weapon employment tasks that had to be performed while maintaining high survivability, our specific research areas were focused similarly.

How Well Do Air Force Program of Record Forces Perform the Missions?

  • In analyzing the planned U.S. Air Force (USAF) fleet for gaps in effectiveness, we found few cases in which the planned force could not meet demands against lower levels of air defense. Risk would be significantly higher against medium levels of air defense if weaponry proliferates that that cannot be effectively countered with low-cost expendable countermeasures.
  • Against adversaries with moderately advanced air defenses, such as short-ranged surface-to-air missiles, greater standoff distances (typically around 5–10 nm) will be needed unless these threats can be quickly destroyed, continually suppressed, or effectively countered.
  • The most stressing case would involve conflicts with near-peer nations, in which Air Force aircraft could face advanced missiles and fighter threats that can reach dozens of miles or more. New concepts for conducting counterland missions or providing organic indirect fires may be required to operate against these threats if they cannot be countered rapidly and consistently.

How Does Current Effectiveness Change Without the A-10C?

  • If the A-10C is retired, FAC(A) and CSAR missions would be the most immediately affected, although they have been quite rare in recent operations. USAF's capacity for responsive CAS would also be reduced.

Recommendations

  • To perform the A-10's mission set in the future, the capabilities that will be needed must be considered in the context of both supporting and attacking ground forces. Air Force support capabilities should evolve along with the ground forces, so close consultation with the Army and Marine Corps should be a high priority on issues such as digital communications modernization. Imagery and video sharing between controllers and aircraft is a powerful tool, and future platforms should have the ability to create this shared situational awareness.
  • These are complex, highly dynamic, and high-risk missions that can require precise employment of weapons in difficult and dangerous circumstances. It is likely that a well-trained pilot can be effective in almost any platform, while a poorly trained one will have difficulty even in the best aircraft. It will be critical that the Air Force take advantage of current experience and expertise and to ensure that knowledge in these areas is spread to the most appropriate communities.
  • The need to strike a variety of targets creates a need to carry a diverse set of weapons. The need for a wide variety of munitions implies carriage of a large number of weapons, regardless of the number of targets. In highly intense cases, we found that a loadout sufficient to kill two armored targets per sortie was a minimum capability, with a preferred capacity closer to five kills per sortie. Laser-guided rockets with armor-piercing warheads could be a highly effective addition to the force.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by Maj Gen Timothy Fay, Director of Strategic Plans, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, and conducted within the Force Modernization and Employment Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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