By Joe Stumpe|April 2017
The U.S. Air Force is having a hard time letting go of the A-10
It’s got a long history, a storied reputation, a cool nickname and a questionable future. This is the story of the U.S. Air Force’s A-10 jet — known as the “Warthog” — and the close-air support for ground troops that has been its primary mission.
Slated for retirement, the fleet of jets received a reprieve in February when the Air Force announced plans to extend its service at least through 2021. That gives the military more time to sort out what has at times been an emotion-charged debate over replacing it with newer, more expensive aircraft such as the F-35.
Consider this: In 2015, an Air Force general lost his job reportedly for telling airmen they should not communicate their support for the A-10 to members of Congress, even using the word “treason” in his remarks. U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a former Air Force A-10 pilot, have been some of the most vocal supporters of the A-10.
In a world where the latest technology gets most of the attention, the A-10 qualifies as old school. It flies low and slow — usually about 300 knots — while delivering deadly bursts from a 30 millimeter rotary cannon. That up-close-and-personal approach makes it a favorite of many ground troops, who count on it to kill and intimidate the enemy without endangering friendly troops.
“The folklore in our community is that the gun was built and then they went to the engineers and said ‘figure out how to fly this gun,’” McSally says. “It’s an amazing weapon.”
But technologically speaking, the A-10 is at least a generation behind planes like the F-35. The last of more than 700 produced was manufactured in 1984, although the 283 still in operation have undergone many upgrades. They would be vulnerable in contested airspace, which has led to questions about whether they are a good option going forward.
“The A-10 is becoming very, very aged,” says retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a nonprofit research arm of the Air Force Association in Arlington, Virginia. “At some point, you need to recapitalize the force.”
A single-seat twin-engine manufactured by Fairchild Republic, the A-10 Thunderbolt II is a product of the Cold War, originally intended to be flown if Warsaw Pact forces ever invaded Western Europe.
The A-10 wasn’t deployed in combat until the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Some of the most detailed information about the plane’s flights in that war can be found on a website maintained by the 2951st Combat Logistics Support Squadron, which kept them flying during the Gulf War. According to www.2951clss-gulfwar.com, a total of 165 A-10s and OA-10s (a version designated for forward air control) flew 8,775 sorties — about 16 percent of the total and the highest of any aircraft — destroying 987 tanks, plus thousands of artillery pieces, two helicopters, other military vehicles and enemy assets.
The site quotes an interview with a captured Iraqi captain who said the A-10 evoked terror not just through attacks “but also the plane’s ability to loiter around a target area prior to its attack caused additional anxiety, since Iraqi soldiers were unsure of the chosen target.”
Only five A-10s were lost in combat, although nearly half were damaged in some way. The site calls the A-10 “probably the most difficult plane ever built to shoot down due to its extreme maneuverability, self-sealing fuel tanks, wide separated jet engines on top of the fuselage, twin vertical tails, multiple independent hydraulic systems, manual backup flight control system and redundant wing spars.”
That doesn’t even count one of the plane’s best-known features — a 540-kilogram titanium “bathtub” around its cockpit. It’s able to maneuver at low speeds and under 300-meter ceilings due to its wing area — 47 square meters — and ailerons that take up almost half of the wingspan.
McSally’s 325 combat hours over Afghanistan and Iraq convinced her that the A-10’s design enables it to perform some missions better than any other plane in the U.S. Air Force’s inventory. Those are the type of missions where the pilot must determine with his or her own eyes what’s going on below, in a situation where enemy and friendly troops are in close proximity, and the plane itself is likely to be targeted.
“Right now we have nothing else in the inventory that provides that kind of capability,” McSally says. “It’s getting older, but it’s all relative, right?”
A-10s were also flown in the Balkans in the mid and late 1990s, in Afghanistan during the next decade and during the Iraq War starting in 2003. Since then, A-10s have operated against combatants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
The A-10 has been a workhouse but far from the only aircraft used for close-air support, which is defined as action against an enemy operating close to friendly forces. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for instance, the F-15, F-16, F-18 and AC-130, plus the Army’s helicopter gunships, all provided close-air support.
A-10s are only used where the U.S. military has clear air superiority — that is, “against people who have no air force,” says Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst for the Teal Group.
“In that environment, the A-10 is incredibly effective,” Aboulafia says. But “against a near-peer adversary, they’re dead meat. I think the Air Force for that reason has been interested in replacing them.”
But McSally and others say the existing A-10 fleet should continue to be effective for years, rather than turning its role over to the F-35 and other aircraft. The F-35 is the most technologically advanced plane in the Air Force and the costliest in history, with a current price tag of up to $132 million per plane, compared to $18.8 million for an A-10.
McSally notes that the F-35 is not designed to survive a direct hit, meaning it most likely would deliver its weapons from a high-altitude, “stand off” position. The F-35 can spend 20 to 30 minutes over a battlefield, compared to about 90 for the A-10.
The F-35’s real mission is establishing air superiority, McSally says.
“Let it focus on that instead of chasing around 30-year-olds on mopeds in some of these countries,” she said. “That’s not a good use of the F-35.”
McSally emphasizes that she’s a supporter of the F-35 but adds, “Why would you put something that valuable in a position to be potentially shot down by somebody with an AK-47? Why are you using your Ferrari for something your pickup truck can do?”
McSally says the Air Force’s original plan to keep the A-10 in service until 2028 makes sense to her. Aboulafia agrees, saying it “makes eminent sense to upgrade and sustain the A-10 fleet. There’s nothing about these planes that would need replacement.”
Aboulafia discounts two more proposals that have been floated: producing a new generation of A-10s or buying a fleet of light attack planes, such as a Textron Scorpion.
“A replacement for the A-10 is basically the A-10,” he says. “They’re not going to be able to find the cash to create a new A-10, and even if they could, it would look like an A-10.”
As for the light attack planes, he says, “Compared to the A-10, they’d be like bicycles compared to a car. … I’m not a fan of casualties, so I’m going to say it’s a bad idea.”
Deptula calls light attack planes “a good thing to look at” and says the Air Force “shouldn’t be continuing to upgrade airplane designs that are 40 years old. We need to capitalize on technology changes that have been introduced over time.”
Deptula points out that a variety of aircraft can perform close-air support, some better than the A-10 in certain circumstances. In Afghanistan, he says, other aircraft have carried out about 70 percent of the close-air support mission. Where there are greater distances to fly, for instance, “a B-1 is probably a better platform to operate than an A-10 is.”
“Close-air support is a mission, it’s not an aircraft,” he says.
Deptula says much of the A-10 discussion has been “emotionally based.”
“If you’re ground personnel coming under fire from an enemy force, do you really care whether the boom came off an A-10, an F-35, a B-52 or anything else? The answer is no.”
Deptula says comparisons of operating cost can be misleading. In an area where the enemy presents a medium-level air defense threat, the Air Force would need other aircraft to make the skies safe for the A-10.
“Total up all of the costs and measure that against the one F-35 it would take to accomplish that mission,” he says. “It’s not about individual unit cost. It’s about cost per mission.”
None of this means, by the way, that Deptula doesn’t like the A-10. “The A-10’s a great aircraft, and close-air support is one of the most important [missions] — if not the most important — because we’ve got friendly lives at stake.”
“The mission’s going to get accomplished,” he says. “The question is what’s the most cost-effective way to do that.”
Deptula notes that the Air Force “never wanted to get rid of the A-10” but only moved in that direction because of the Budget Control Act of 2011.
That’s pretty much the view of Air Force officials, who say the federal budget cap left them no alternative but to cut somewhere. Mothballing the A-10 would have saved an estimated $4 billion.
Plans to shelve the A-10, however, ran into opposition in Congress. Last year, Thornberry, the Armed Service chairman, introduced legislation that would stop the Air Force from retiring the A-10 until it can prove that an effective replacement is available. Thornberry wants the military to prove that a replacement can fly low, slow and for long periods, demonstrate air-to-ground assault and land without a paved runway if necessary.
Air Force officials say comparison testing is underway, but rather than characterize that as a fly-off between the A-10 and F-35, they say multiple aircraft are being evaluated.
They acknowledge that the A-10’s 30 mm cannon gives it unmatched punch, but note that laser-guided rockets carried by several aircraft — including the A-10 — are a good substitute. In terms of cost, they say the A-10 is not as cheap to operate as some people think: The aircraft costs $17,000 an hour to fly, compared to $20,000 for the F-16. Light aircraft, which would be significantly cheaper than either, are in play as a possible supplement to the A-10, not a replacement.
President Donald Trump’s call for $54 billion in additional military spending has further lessened the necessity of doing anything immediately.
Whatever happens during the Air Force’s deliberations, officials expect the large majority of remaining A-10s to remain in operation past 2021.
The Air Force wants to shift debate away from the A-10 or any other single kind of aircraft to the service’s desire to have a balanced portfolio of options. Still another consideration is that close air support may look different in the future with the advent of drones and other technology.
In remarks to defense writers earlier this year, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein recalled that the Air Force divided Afghanistan into four quadrants — north, south, east and west — and only the rolling terrain and open fields of the southern section were optimal for A-10s. MQ-9 Reaper drones, B-1s and F-16s were flown elsewhere.
“The longer we have this discussion about the A-10 and don’t connect it to how the A-10 fits into the family of systems,” Goldfein said, “the more we are having a 20th-century dialogue about close-air support.”
But McSally says the A-10 belongs in any conversation about close-air support.
“It’s not just because I flew it. It’s not nostalgic in that sense. I am very clear-eyed and have the personal credibility about the unique capabilities of this airplane.”
“Against a near-peer adversary, they’re dead meat.”Richard Aboulafia, the Teal Group, describing a weakness of the A-10s