The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by Walter J. Boyne
By Douglas E. Campbell
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2003

Focusing on the development of the A-10 Warthog, a new book gives an inside view of Pentagon politics.

The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2003, $34.95) 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 Fairchild A-10, provides a balanced portrait of the advantages (many) and disadvantages (relatively few) of the Warthog as he outlines the debate over close air support that has raged since World War II. The third reason is perhaps the most important, for The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate also gives an extremely accurate insider’s view of the way the Pentagon operates, with all its faults (many) and all its virtues (relatively few). Campbell’s analysis of the way the Pentagon’s advocacy system works illustrates the many constituencies that operate in the five-sided building, each with its own agenda, operating methods and interests. The author seems to describe 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 U.S. Air Force.

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

A strong proponent of the A-10, Campbell keeps 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 U.S. Army, which would like to have the organic air support enjoyed by the U.S. Marine Corps, where Marine pilots support Marine ground units. And while the Air Force 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, Air Force officials know that Army units want to see their close air support "down in the weeds," killing the enemy in the immediate front lines.The Air Force also knows that if it does not provide such close air support, the Army will seek to provide it and, horror of horrors, do it with fixed-wing aircraft as well as its own rotary-wing force. Under these circumstances, 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 the United States and its armed services than any hostile 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 the United States into a ground war in Southeast Asia won’t be covered here.) MacNamara’s forte was not in listening to the generals and the admirals who had spent their lives fighting and who knew which equipment was best for their services. Instead he relied on his mathematical computations of which airplane would cost the least, whether it was effective or not.

Among MacNamara’s brilliant choices was his insistence on his TFX program, which was supposedly 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 the 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. Air Force General Gabriel P. Disoway, a man with considerably more experience in close air support than MacNamara possessed, once likened the A-7 to the German Junkers Ju-87, which proved a formidable opponent to Allied aircraft so long as the Luftwaffe had air superiority.

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

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