While in Iraq the U.S. Air Force is sending A-10 Warthogs on successful sortie after successful sortie against the Islamic State, back here at home, Air Force brass are renewing their efforts to scrap the legendary plane.
In fact, the Air Force, thwarted in last year’s efforts to scrap the A-10, is deliberately underutilizing it in the campaign against the Islamic State. The military waited until three months into the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria to deploy the A-10 and has deployed only a small percentage of the available planes.
The Air Force is eager to replace the A-10 with the F-35, yet the latter is vastly inferior at providing supporting firepower for troops who are closely engaged with enemy forces. This close air support (CAS) as provided by the A-10 has proven invaluable on the battlefield. Retired Air Force chief master sergeant Russell B. Carpenter, who has been involved with or the lead controller on over 900 close-air-support sorties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo, put it this way: “I have worked with F-16s, B-1B bombers, F-15s, F-111s, F/A-18s, etc., and no other [close-air-support] plane comes even close to the A-10.” In other words, substituting F-16s and F-15s for the A-10 in Iraq is putting questionable procurement priorities above the importance of our present mission.
In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo, the A-10, affectionately known as the “Warthog” or just plain old “Hog,” has handily bested all other U.S. aircraft in destroying artillery, tanks, and other vehicles while supporting infantry engaged in combat-at “danger close” ranges. At the same time, it’s also the least expensive combat plane in the U.S. arsenal to operate and buy. With $2.85 billion in recent upgrades, including better wings and a complete upgrade of avionics, sensors, targeting systems, and communications, the A-10C is no longer an “aging platform.” In fact, the A-10C is the most technologically sophisticated close-air-support plane on the battlefield and will be so for decades to come.
Pierre Sprey, one of the designers of the A-10 and the F-16, is also critical of Air Force leadership and has stated, “The Warthog is the only plane in the U.S. inventory designed from the ground up to provide true combat-effective CAS. The Air Force’s brass is busy claiming that new high-tech missiles and electronics allow clumsy bombers and fast thin-skinned fighters to support the troops just as well. Recent combat proves that’s just PR spin to defend their pet megabuck procurements.”
Fortunately for our troops, the push to scrap the A-10 has been temporarily stymied this year by language included in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015. Getting the language included was no mean feat, and the hard work of Senators Kelly Ayotte, John McCain, and Saxby Chambliss should be applauded. Unfortunately, in spite of these senators’ best efforts, F-35 supporters sneakily inserted last-minute language into the agreement that could open the door for the Air Force to place 36 A-10s on backup status and transfer their support personnel to the F-35. Claims by the Air Force that A-10 maintenance personnel are needed to meet the huge maintenance demands of F-35 are false: Senator Ayotte’s office has shown that all pre-initial operating capability maintenance requirements for the F-35 can be satisfied using contractors and the reserve component.
Even if the F-35 meets current projections, its limited close-air-support capability will not come online until at least 2021, and its CAS will largely be limited to “firing and fleeing.” While lobbing in expensive precision-guided munitions from great distances can be useful in many scenarios, it is a far cry from the kind of CAS of which the A-10 is capable. Unlike air-interdiction missions, which can be conducted by relatively clumsy B-1B’s and B-52’s, CAS missions require operating in close coordination with and proximity to our troops. Operating close to the action requires a tough plane, and the A-10 excels in this regard. Twelve hundred pounds of titanium armor protecting the cockpit, redundancy of all major systems, and a plethora of other features make the A-10 the toughest fighter ever built. Warthogs regularly make it home after taking damage that would knock other fighters out of the sky — there are even documented cases of A-10s surviving missile hits.
But the A-10 is more than about survivability. Along with the ability to land and take off from short, primitive air fields, the A-10’s combat range and endurance — time spent over or near the battlefield — is far superior to that of the F-35 and other fighters. A-10’s carry powerful anti-tank missiles and can carry a full complement of bombs. But no description of the A-10 would be complete without mentioning the GAU-8 Avenger, a 2.5-ton nightmare of a gun that fires up to 4,200 rounds per minute and is capable of easily slicing through most armor.
The A-10s carry 1,150 rounds of 30mm ammunition, while the F-35A carries 180 rounds of far less powerful 25mm ammunition. Amazingly, the total kinetic muzzle energy of a 2.4-second burst from the powerful GAU-8 is equal to that of a round from the Navy’s experimental railgun.
Like other modern fighters, the thoroughly modernized and upgraded A-10Cs can use costly precision-guided munitions, but because of their toughness and low-level flight performance, they can also often safely place inexpensive unguided munitions onto enemy targets near friendly troops. It’s the near-perfect merging of modern technology with battle-tested toughness and reliability.
The A-10’s capabilities are only part of the story of its success. The other critical part of the story is that the plane’s CAS-centric capabilities enable Air Force air crews, including support personnel, to work remarkably closely with ground forces. By continuously training with ground troops, A-10 pilots develop face-to-face working relationships that cannot be replicated by fast high fliers, who operate out of bases well to the rear. Intimate familiarity with ground operations gives A-10 pilots the ability to distinguish friend from foe using their own two eyes when intense electronic warfare might render other aircraft useless or even dangerous to our troops. “We are regularly able to use something that other planes often cannot, the Mark I Human Eyeball, and sometimes there is no substitute for that,” says Colonel William Smith, a retired pilot with over 3,000 hours of A-10 flight time and 128 combat sorties. “We live in the armpit of the guy on the ground,” he says.
This close working relationship often puts A-10 pilots in the position of being the last line of defense in preventing friendly-fire incidents. Ground forces in the heat of battle may provide incorrect or incomplete targeting information, but because of the A-10 pilot’s superior understanding of ground tactics and their close proximity to the action, they can correct for these potentially lethal mistakes on the fly. It’s different for high fliers. A tragic example of this: In 2014, a B-1B strategic bomber providing CAS in Afghanistan dropped two 500-pound bombs on U.S. Special Forces soldiers, killing five of them. Ground-support personnel made mistakes, but the B-1B crew’s lack of CAS expertise, its relatively poor agility, the opacity of its cockpit glass, its speed, and its altitude meant that the crew did not catch those mistakes. “If an A-10 had been tasked to execute the same CAS mission, I believe in my heart those soldiers would be alive today,” says Chief Master Sergeant Carpenter, a veteran joint terminal air controller (JTAC).
The ability to base the A-10 on primitive airfields closer to the battlefield means it can do more sorties per day, while regularly attacking multiple targets per sortie. Less rugged aircraft operate from bases well to the rear of the actual battlefield and consequently will take longer to engage targets. “If you’ve got a faster aircraft that takes longer to reengage or longer to engage” a ground target, “sometimes it’s over by the time they are able to come in for you,” retired Air Force master sergeant Eric Brandenburg says. “The A-10’s having that ability to fly low and slow and engage in real time is really a game changer. No other aircraft we have can do that,” says Brandenburg, a veteran JTAC.
Army officials are open about how much they love the A-10 — Army Chief of Staff Raymond T. Odierno has called it “the best close-air-support platform that we have today.” During Desert Storm, over the course of a few hours, two A-10s operating out of forward operating locations destroyed 23 Iraqi tanks and provided the cover that allowed a Harrier pilot to be recovered after being shot down. No other combat plane could have done that.
The A-10’s capabilities go well beyond combat. Its unmatched communications suites, endurance, and survivability make it an excellent forward air controller, guiding strike aircraft to their targets. A-10 pilots are also the best trained and equipped to execute highly risky combat search-and-rescue operations and to work closely with Special Forces. Warthogs are capable of operating in weather and altitude environments that helicopters and other jets simply can’t.
By using tactics and planning that leverage the extensive experience of the CAS community, the A-10 has proven it can survive in environments full of anti-aircraft guns and one-man portable missile systems. On the other hand, the F-35 is facing a future in which rapid advances in counter-stealth technology will mean increased vulnerability to integrated air defenses. F-35s carrying external weapons payloads comparable to that of the Warthog are not stealthy. Genuine CAS can often require taking your plane within visual distance of the enemy, which eliminates most of the advantages of having a stealthy plane. Does anyone really believe that senior military leaders will be sending fragile $200 million F-35s on the same kind of strafing runs and other low-flying air-support missions A-10s regularly execute?
For now, the Air Force’s efforts to scrap the A-10 have been blocked, but the battle is far from over. Charlie Keebaugh, president of the largest group of tactical-air-control party airmen, says the Air Force’s zeal to kill the A-10 “causes the [close-air-support] community to question if the folks in D.C. truly understand the challenges of the modern battlefield.”
The stakes are incredibly high, Keebaugh says: “By scrapping the A-10, the Air Force is guaranteeing more Gold Star families will be created.”
— Mike Fredenburg is a past contributor to National Review, the California Political Review, and the San Diego Union Tribune, and was the founding president of the Adam Smith Institute of San Diego, a conservative think tank and PAC.