The missing piece of the “hi/lo” mix debate

Editor’s note: Guest contributor Ed Beakley is a retired Naval aviator who flew the A-7 on 170 combat missions in Vietnam. He has extensive experience as a test pilot and R&D manager and is a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. He is also the founder and project leader at Project White Horse.

War on the Rocks has been posting for some time now articles on air supremacy, close air support (CAS), future of airpower, etc. I continue to follow, given that they’re well thought out and written mostly by operators. But they remain consistently flawed for one significant reason: They equate “Air Force” and “Air Power,” never addressing the role that Navy and Marine air have and so will continue to be part of the airpower equation.

One case in point, as the authors of “Rethinking the Hi-Lo Mix, Part I: Origin Story” note, expense began to diminish number of aircraft and thus gaps in ability to “cover” the world. Really? So exactly who fought the air war in the Pacific that allowed the B-29s to launch in range for the Army Air Corps war-winning strikes (fire bombing and nukes) to Japan? Leaving Navy/Marine air out of the design and operations discussion is fatally flawed. But moving to another point…

My time at the Naval Postgraduate School gaining a Masters in aero engineering was centered on several different aspects of aircraft design — basic design, VSTOL (vertical/short take-off and landing), survivability, advanced control theory, power plant selection/blending with overall design. The most memorable point was the early introduction of comparison of current tactical aircraft, their missions and the aerodynamic and performance features of each. It was black and white that to optimize design for one mission meant giving up something — sometimes a lot — in other missions.

That has not changed even with the wonderfulness of computers to allow statically unstable designs to fly now with enhanced maneuverability. Range is one of the major losses in all this wonderfulness.

Cost to design, build and maintain for all services, and deck space for Navy/Marine, drives the cutting down on variants and therefore multi-role focus. Smart weapon technology helps but there IMHO is still a line in the sand.

[I actually have more to say in support of “one a/c for all things” being fatally flawed but will hold for another post. Will close with just couple of comments on A-10/F-35/CAS issue.]

The USAF, Navy and Marine approaches to airpower, while overlapping, have some serious differences — and that’s not necessarily bad. But in this case AF language, if you will, has gotten them into a serious do-loop. The Joint Strike Fighter term recognizes the multi- service, bomb dropping (strike mission) and commonly used term “fighter” for tactical a/c around the world. Unfortunately many get caught up in the term “fighter” and are easily drawn into whether the F-35 can beat an F-16 in a close in dogfight. Similarly they equate “strike” with close air support, which is simply not true. CAS means troops-in-contact and therefore control established. Strike really means (or used to mean) bigger attacks on larger and highly defended targets. The active terminology lost in all of this is the previous use by the Navy of “attack” — and attack squadrons (A-7, A-4, A-6) — and attack pilots clearly differentiated from air-to-air-air or “fighter” squadrons. This is not an Air Force usage. For them everything but big bombers (B-52, B-1, B-2) was fighter. Words maybe, but the debate on CAS, A-10s and F-35s is hosed up.

The JSF or F-35, by mission and threat-based design, should have been the “A/F-35”, an aircraft whose primary reason for being was attack with capability to do some CAS, lead penetrating strikes, launch long range air-air missiles and something new: Take an AWACS-type capability closer into the battlespace. It would be in essence the “Shepherd of the air battle.”

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