Large defense cuts are coming. If the military is to avoid becoming a hollow force it needs to find new ways to save money while still maintaining critical capabilities.
One area worth examining is roles and missions. There have been several attempts over the last few decades to find budgetary savings through a revision to the services’ roles and missions, most notably the 1995 Independent Commission on Roles and Missions which was stood up during the last downturn in defense spending. Unfortunately, past efforts have not resulted in significant changes to the way the military operates.
The current budget situation makes it imperative to look again at revising long-standing roles and missions. Now is perhaps the time to resolve a roles and missions issue that has dogged Army-Air Force relations for decades: close air support of ground forces. Unlike the Marine Corps which provides for integrated close air support through the Air-Ground Task Force, the Army has relied, albeit reluctantly, on the Air Force for that mission. The Air Force has had to consider requirements for close air support when it determines force size and types of aircraft. The A-10 Thunderbolt II is an example of an airplane built specifically for the close air support mission. At the same time, the Army has invested — at real expense — in an array of indirect fire systems and aerial platforms to provide the same close-in fire support.
Advances in technology created the opportunity for the Army to relieve the Air Force of the responsibility to provide close air support. The Army is now proliferating its fleets of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) — Raven/Puma, Shadow and Warrior — that provide direct support to virtually all echelons. The Army employs its UASs primarily to provide tactical ISR, although with a laser designator they can provide precision targeting information for indirect fire systems. Now the Army is experimenting with various options for arming its UASs. The Army has expressed interest in AeroVironment’s mini UAS, the Switchblade, and is said to be planning to mimic the Air Force and CIA by placing Hellfire missiles on its MQ-1C Sky Warrior. Both the Army and the Marine Corps are reported to be looking at ways of putting light precision weapons in their Shadow UASs.
In addition, the Army has deployed or is developing a variety of precision indirect fire systems such as the Excalibur, Army Tactical Missile System, GPS-guided Multiple-Launch Rocket System, the 155mm Precision Guidance Kit and Precision Mortar Initiative. These capabilities will allow the Army to engage the full range of potential targets from heavy armored formations to individual snipers.
To this already significant array of capabilities must be added the mobile firepower provided by the Army’s armed Kiowa Warrior and Apache helicopters. The Army also is working on ways to have UASs controlled from its helicopters allowing for the generation of mass fires by aerial platforms.
All in all, the Army now deploys sufficient ISR and precision strike systems to provide its own close-in fire support. It is time to take the requirement for close air support off the back of the Air Force, thereby allowing it to focus on the more critical tasks of achieving/maintaining air dominance and conducting long-distance operations.