Annual Savings Five-Year Savings from (Millions of dollars) Cumulative the 1997 Plan 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 Total Budget Authority 148 367 652 1,108 1,361 3,637 Outlays 120 314 563 959 1,238 3,194
Ground forces and air forces have typically operated in the same area and provided each other with mutual support. Forces on the ground have defended air bases from attack from both land forces and enemy aircraft. Conversely, air forces--in missions referred to as close air support and battlefield air interdiction--have attacked from the air targets that are beyond the reach of ground-based weapons. Those roles have become more complex, however, as ground-based weapons--helicopters and artillery in particular--have attained the ability to attack enemy assets at longer ranges. This option would relieve the Air Force of the responsibility for providing air support to the Army. A consequence of adopting this option is that the Army would have to rely on its own assets, such as attack helicopters and artillery, to attack targets beyond the range of direct-fire weapons such as tanks.
Even though the Air Force has had responsibility for providing close air support (CAS) to the Army for the past 50 years, several defense experts have expressed concerns and doubts about the willingness or ability of the Air Force to do so adequately. The CAS mission involves attacking hostile targets that are near friendly forces and requires close coordination with the Army. Although the Air Force has an airplane, the A-10, that is dedicated solely to the CAS mission, the service has periodically attempted to eliminate all of the A-10s from its force structure. The Air Force still has 168 A-10s, but that is far fewer than the 400 it fielded in 1988. Moreover, more than half of the remaining aircraft are in the reserve components.
The Air Force has traditionally allotted 25 percent of its fighter aircraft specifically to ground attack missions, which include close air support as well as battlefield air interdiction (BAI). Both those missions involve attacking enemy targets on the battlefield, but in contrast to close air support, battlefield air interdiction would be directed at targets far removed from friendly forces. As the number of A-10s has declined, the Air Force has assigned increasing numbers of its F-16s to those missions. Consequently, three wings of F-16s, or about one-quarter of all of the Air Force's F-16s, could be designated for the CAS and BAI missions. Since the F-16s are multirole aircraft, however, they are not likely to be as well suited to the CAS mission as the A-10, which was designed specifically for it. In addition, the F-16s could be called on to perform other missions of more importance to the Air Force than CAS. All of these factors highlight the concerns Army commanders could have that Air Force aircraft might not be available when the Army needed them to provide air support.
Perhaps in response to these concerns, the Army has developed and fielded its own weapons capable of attacking ground targets beyond the reach of direct-fire weapons. The premier example of such a weapon is the attack helicopter, which can attack armored as well as soft targets and performed ably in Operation Desert Storm. In addition, the Army is developing fire-support weapons with increasingly long ranges and precision-guided munitions capable of attacking some of the targets previously accessible only by aircraft.
With the Army fielding hundreds of attack helicopters and increasingly sophisticated fire-support weapons, it may be possible to relieve the Air Force of the primary responsibility for providing CAS. That change would simplify operations since the Air Force would not have to coordinate its air strikes so closely with the Army in order to avoid attacking friendly troops. Moreover, the Air Force could retire all of its A-10s and reduce the number of types of aircraft in its inventory, thereby realizing some budgetary savings. The Army could use its currently planned level of forces--attack helicopters and artillery--to attack targets that might today be assigned to Air Force aircraft.
This option would yield significant savings if it led to the elimination of all Air Force aircraft assigned to the close air support and battlefield air interdiction missions. Retiring all of the Air Force's A-10s and about one-quarter of its F-16s would reduce the size of the Air Force by about five wings. Such a reduction in force could save $120 million in 1998 and $3.2 billion over the next five years in operating costs compared with the Administration's 1997 plan.
Eliminating one-quarter of the Air Force's F-16s, however, could limit its ability to carry out its other missions. The F-16 is a multirole fighter capable of performing other tasks, such as air-to-air combat, besides providing air support to the Army. Cutting the F-16 fleet and the tactical Air Force by one-quarter would represent a major reduction in the Air Force's overall capability.
Shifting primary responsibility for close air support and battlefield air interdiction solely to the Army and eliminating Air Force assets assigned to those missions would also have other drawbacks. Having multiple means of attack is a distinct advantage for a commander because it forces the enemy to defend itself against multiple threats. Thus, if the United States can attack its enemies with fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and artillery all at once or in rapid succession, the defender's task becomes that much harder.
Another drawback to eliminating from the Air
Force all aircraft designated for the CAS and BAI
missions is the loss of the ability to react and deploy
quickly that is inherent in aircraft. Aircraft are
generally the first assets to arrive in theater, since
additional time is needed to transport Army
equipment, including helicopters, to trouble spots.
With fewer aircraft in the Air Force inventory that
are capable of CAS, delays may occur before
significant assets arrive in theater to perform that
mission. And a major lesson some observers have
drawn from Operation Desert Storm is that air power
can slow or even stop the advance of enemy ground
forces. Sharply reducing the number of U.S. aircraft
capable of providing close air support would
eliminate many of the aircraft that contributed to an
early victory in the Gulf War and helped to keep
down the loss of U.S. lives.