For reasons of congressional action (and inaction) that will be clear to the readers of these pages, the Pentagon’s budget is being squeezed. And for reasons that have never been entirely clear to anyone, whenever the Pentagon’s budget is squeezed, it is the A-10 Thunderbolt II — affectionately referred to by its Air Force pilots as the “Warthog,” or simply the “Hog” — that is the first to feel it. Alack, last week the Defense Department announced plans to eliminate five A-10 squadrons from service: one active-duty, one reserve, and three Air National Guard. On paper, the A-10 is slated to remain in service, at reduced numbers, through at least 2028, when the F-35 Lightning II (a panacea or a boondoggle, depending on whom you ask) is slated to take over its mission. But with the Warthog flown by all but one of the six combat squadrons marked for decommissioning under the Pentagon’s austerity measures, the writing appears to be on the wall.
Why go after the Warthog? Well, a good prima facie reason might be that it is old. Consider: The Fairchild/Republic A-10 has been the United States military’s primary tank-smiter and dispenser of troop-supporting firepower for so long that neither Fairchild Industries nor Republic Aviation exists anymore; for so long that the aircraft it replaced, the propeller-driven A-1 Skyraider, was first flown while Hitler’s Wehrmacht still held territory west of the Rhine; for so long that many in the Pentagon were actively scheming for its retirement before the first Iraq War.
Not only is it old, but a number of military observers have long argued it is also unloved, at least by the Air Force hierarchs. Imbued since its founding with the ethos of air superiority and interdiction bombing — i.e. the destruction of an enemy by targeting his productive and logistical capacities along the full depth of the battlefield — the Air Force views close air support of ground troops as an afterthought, developed the A-10 only begrudgingly, and regards the lanky, loping Warthog as the redheaded stepchild of the tactical fleet.
Or so the theory goes. Whether this attitude still prevails in the Air Force, amid the Pentagon-wide emphasis on joint operations, is a matter for speculation. But there can be no doubt that this old orphan is one of the cheapest, sturdiest, and most mission-relevant platforms the Air Force operates today, which helps explain why it was able to fend off extinction not once, but twice before.
Though it was designed in the late Sixties and early Seventies to thin the ranks of Soviet T-62 tanks pouring into Germany’s Fulda Gap in a hypothetical Third World War, by the 1980s many in the Air Force grew convinced that the A-10 was insufficiently nimble to operate on a high-tech battlefield against enemies who would be lighting up the skies with guided surface-to-air missiles. So they began testing a block of converted F-16s, upgrading the sleek, single-engine jet with a 30mm cannon and strengthened wing structure to carry heavier ordnance loads. But the modifications faced engineering setbacks, and plans to phase out the Hog in favor of the supersonic fighter were squelched when the disgruntled U.S. Army told Congress that if the Air Force didn’t want to fly the Hog, they would do it themselves. That the A-10 became one of the most storied weapons of Operation Desert Storm didn’t hurt either. A second attempt to mothball the A-10 in 2003 — again in favor of high-flying, supersonic fighters — was nixed for similar reasons; that is, around that time the Pentagon figured out the Warthog was quite good at picking off the Baathists and jihadists in a crowd of friendlies and civilians. This is why, whatever the blue-shirted generals may think of it, the Warthog has become the sweetheart of many a grunt in desert fatigues.
The contrasting opinions of the A-10 between the front and rear echelons is not lost on Colonel Martha McSally (USAF, retired), who is no less than the former commander of the 354th Fighter Squadron, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the seven members of the first class of American women to pilot combat aircraft, and the first woman ever to drive a Warthog angry. “The Army and the Marines on the ground are our biggest lobby,” she tells me. “We’re always on the chopping block when they are looking for budget cuts. But then we’re always the first called to service when there’s trouble.”