Close Air Support:

Airborne Controllers in High-Threat Areas May Not Be Needed

NSIAD-90-116: Published: Apr 4, 1990. Publicly Released: May 4, 1990.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the: (1) Air Force's present and future need for airborne controllers; (2) effect of increasing air defense threats on the Air Force's ability to perform the airborne controller role; and (3) cost and operational implications of reassigning A-10 aircraft from an attack role to a controller role.

GAO found that the Air Force: (1) relied on ground controllers to identify and mark targets and used airborne controllers to relay information from ground controllers; (2) considered airborne controllers necessary in high-threat areas because they were capable of both relaying information when other means of communication were degraded and adding battlefield information to assist the attack aircraft; (3) planned to annually reassess the need to renovate OV-10 aircraft, since renovations cost about $640,000 per aircraft; and (4) planned to replace existing OV-10 and OA-37 aircraft when close air support aircraft became available. GAO also found that the Air Force: (1) planned to improve direct communications between ground controllers and attack aircraft and modify navigation and targeting systems using the Automatic Target Handoff System, which would cost an estimated $47,000 per aircraft; and (2) developed upgrades to the system's software to increase data transmission and provide added flexibility in radio jamming environments.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The committee has decided not to act on the recommendation.

    Matter: The House Committee on Armed Services may wish to consider whether the Air Force's planned changes for its forward air control aircraft should proceed before alternative means of communicating between ground controllers and attack aircraft are assessed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Air Force has completed the operational testing of the improved communications system called the Improved Data Modem. The test results were successful, and it plans to begin installing the system in 1994 on all close air support and forward air control aircraft. It plans no additional work in this area.

    Recommendation: Because the Automatic Target and Handoff System being installed on A-10 and F-16 aircraft could improve direct communications from the ground control elements to attack aircraft and thus make airborne controllers unnecessary in high-threat areas, the Secretary of the Air Force should expedite the operational testing of the system and use the results to reassess the need for airborne controllers in high-threat areas.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Air Force

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD stated that delaying ongoing programs until after analysis of the test results were analyzed and a reassessment is made of the role of the airborne controllers were assessed, would unnecessarily degrade the Air Force support to the Joint Force Commander.

    Recommendation: Because the Automatic Target and Handoff System being installed on an A-10 and F-16 aircraft could improve direct communications from the ground control elements to attack aircraft and thus make airborne controllers unnecessary in high-threat areas, the Secretary of the Air Force should make the reassessment before more funds are spent to renovate OV-10 aircraft and reassign A-10 aircraft.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Air Force

 

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