One size fits all generally results in something that is ill fitting, at best. So it is with many attempts — built around the commendable push for cost savings — to field multirole weapons platforms.
The push to retire the widely beloved A-10 Warthog and shift its close-air support mission to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter had many critics who charged that the shiny new toy did not have nearly the battle-proven CAS capabilities to safeguard ground troops on par with the A-10.
Last week, Air Force leaders eased off their determination to decommission its fleet of A-10 attack aircraft and plug the CAS gap by having F-16 fighters, B-1 bombers and other jets perform the mission until the F-35 is fielded. Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, told reporters the Air Force was defining requirements for a follow-on CAS aircraft.
That's the wisest, if belated move. The nature of close-air support has evolved with ever-better sensors, command and battle management systems, and precision weapons. A new aircraft dedicated to the CAS mission could take advantage of new technologies, including defense systems to counter sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses not encountered in the uncontested battle spaces of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Setting the requirement is the first move toward developing a potential follow-on aircraft for the A-10, one dedicated to the close-air support mission, often referred to as A-X. The Air Force has been studying the idea of procuring a single-role A-X for at least a year now and in 2015 played host to a joint-service summit to identify options for the CAS mission.
Holmes said the Air Force will now will weigh the capability and affordability of three alternatives: building a new A-X, using existing aircraft to meet the CAS mission, or extending the life of the A-10. He said several current and development aircraft could meet the CAS mission, including the A-29 Super Tucano attack plane, the AT-6 trainer aircraft and Textron AirLand's Scorpion.
For an A-X, the general cautioned that a lot will depend on Congress and whether another round of mandatory budget cuts under sequestration occurs in fiscal years 18 and 19. Meanwhile, A-10 supporters in Congress want the planes kept in service, largely to guard installations in their districts from any future base closures.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh will review the requirements documents this spring. The optimum outcome will be an aircraft dedicated to the CAS mission, one that sustains the survivability and effectiveness of the Warthog and takes advantage of new and emerging technologies. Wasteful spending, of course, can never be tolerated. But neither should cost savings for the sake of cost savings.
One would be hard-pressed to find a mission more important that protecting the troops on the ground. They deserve nothing less than an aircraft designed solely for that, with no corners cut.