Review: The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate

This book should be required reading for every student of military history for three reasons. The first two reasons are alluded to in the title, for author Douglas E. Campbell, a fan of the fabulous A-10 aircraft, provides a balanced portrait of the advantages (many) and disadvantages (relatively few) of the Warthog as he outlines the debate over close air support which has raged since World War II.

The third is perhaps the most important, for The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate also gives an extremely accurate insiders view of the way the Pentagon operates, with all its faults (many) and all its virtues (relatively few).  This analysis of the way the Pentagon’s advocacy system works illustrates the many constituencies that operate in the five-sided building, each one with its own agenda, operating methods and interests. The author does this almost inadvertently as he details the background of the close air support debate and the emergence of the A-10 as an (initially) unwanted child of the United States Air Force.

Campbellwrites very well, reflecting his extensive background as an A-7E  and  A-10 pilot, and hi s doctorate in history from Texas Tech. It’s a good thing that he does, for the story he tells is immensely complicated, far more involved than the title indicates, and one that could easily bog down in the inevitable obscurity of acronyms, titles of office and the numerous personalities involved.

A strong proponent of the A-10,Campbellkeeps his prejudice for the airplane in check as he dispassionately discusses its pros and cons against the background of the great Army/Air Force debate over close air support.  At the heart of this is the basic dilemma of the Air Force. It wants above all things to assist  the United States Army which would like to have the organic air support that is enjoyed by the U.S. Marines, where Marine pilots support Marine ground units. And while the USAF believes that it can do the job of close air support best by interdiction, i.e. the suppression of enemy forces and supplies at distances far beyond the front lines, it knows that the Army units wants to see its close air support “down in the weeds”, killing the enemy in the immediate front lines. It also knows that if does not provide such close air support, the Army will seek to provide it, and horrors of horrors, do it with fixed wing aircraft in addition to its own rotary wing force.

Thus the Air Force is forced into the position of allocating a portion of its budget to a mission that it believes in, but believes in less than some of its others, including strategic bombardment and interdiction.

The A-10 debate was also affected by a man who did more harm to theUnited Statesand its armed services than any foreign government, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. MacNamara. A brilliant self-promoter who could out-quantify anyone in the room, MacNamara had a genius for insisting on the wrong aircraft at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. (His genius for getting us into a ground war inSoutheast Asiawon’t be covered here.) MacNamara’s forte was not listening to the generals and the admirals who had spent their lives fighting, and who knew which equipment was best for their services, and instead relying on his mathematical computations of what airplane would cost the least, whether it was effective or not. Among his brilliant choices was his insistence on his TFX program, which was going to outfit the Air Force and the Navy with a common swing-wing air superiority fighter, reconnaissance and close air support airplane. Another was his forcing the procurement of 225 General Dynamics FB-111As (stretched and re-engined F-111s) as strategic bombers instead of the demonstrably more efficient Rockwell B-1As. And in this book, we find the willful Secretary demanding a dedicated close air support aircraft that would replace both the Air Force’s Republic F-105 and the Navy’s Douglas A-4. MacNamara accepted the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II as an interim replacement, but pressed for Vought A-7 as the premier close air support airplane, despite strong Air Force opposition. The opposition was based on the fact that the A-7 had no air to air capability. General Gabriel Disoway, a man with more experience in close air support than MacNamara had in Edsals, likened to the German Junkers Ju-87, which was formidable when the Luftwaffe had air superiority, but could not exist where it did not.

The author handles the emergence of the A-10, its operational use, and its possibilities for the future in an engaging, informative style. Most people have an instinctive liking for the A-10, andCampbell’s presentation makes it evident why we do. It is the kid from the other side of the tracks who tackles the establishment and makes good—always a heart warming story.

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