The fact that the USAF is so willing to throw away 300 of the finest close air support platforms ever invented just to save the cost equivalent of 30 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters is total bullshit and both the American taxpayer and those who bravely fight our wars on the ground should be furious.
The Air Force wants to "replace" the A-10 some time in the future, hopefully, with something not nearly as "elegant," to use their own words, but still capable of the basic close air support (CAS) mission. Elegant is not a term not usually associated with this brutish killing machine, but there is little doubt that the Warthog accomplishes its mission with almost an artistic flare. This "something" the USAF brass touts is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In the meantime, our soldiers will be left getting close air support from "adequate" high-performance fighter aircraft, Predator and Reaper unmanned systems, and huge aircraft built originally as strategic bombers.
During an interview with Defense News Air Combat Command chief Michael Hostage stated:
"I would dearly love it to continue in the inventory because there are tactical problems out there that would be perfectly suited for the A-10. I have other ways to solve that tactical problem. It may not be as elegant as the A-10, but I can still get the job done, but that solution is usable in another level of conflict in which the A-10 is totally useless. It does not make any sense to cut the other program and keep A-10s if I have to give one up for the other. I really save the big bucks when I take an entire [platform] and shut it down because I save the squadrons of those airplanes but I also save the logistics infrastructure, the training infrastructure and all of the overhead."
The fact that General Hostage acts like he has no choice in the matter when it comes to shutting down the entire A-10 program, which equates to close to 300 aircraft and their support infrastructure, is bogus. Doing so would reportedly save only a measly 1% of the USAF's total yearly budget of close to $110,000,000,000, and that savings would only be programmed over the next few years.
The A-10 is a national treasure, and the hundreds, if not thousands, of American and allied soldiers it has saved over decades of combat operations will attest to this. Regardless of the Warthog's undeniable effectiveness on the battlefield the aircraft has always been the unwanted straight-winged step child of the USAF. In fact, the boys in blue have tried to kill the A-10 program since its very inception, and have repeated their assassination attempts time and time again. Strangely, these attempts usually come quickly after the aircraft has performed marvelously in combat and has saved the lives of our troops on the ground while taking those of our enemies with great prejudice.
It would seem that the supersonic, pointy nosed fighter jet culture that has always prevailed in the USAF's top echelon only praises the A-10 when they desperately need it, then when such a time passes, it returns to being their budgetary sacrificial lamb.
The USAF would want you to believe that the A-10 has no place in our future wars. Ones where the USAF is operating in an area-denial/anti-access situation. This is how Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel tries to sell this bogus rationale:
The A-10 is a 40-year-old single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield. It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses. And as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, the advent of precision munitions means that many more types of aircraft can now provide effective close air support, from B-1 bombers to remotely piloted aircraft.
So, the powers that be say that the A-10 is vulnerable over the modern battlefield. They speak as if this plane was designed to fight a counterinsurgency in permissible airspace in the first place. This is total, unequivocal nonsense. The A-10 was designed to fight in the ultimate of hostile air combat situations, over the forests and valleys surrounding the Fulda Gap, against a the crushing force of a westward advancing Soviet military. Basically, the A-10 was designed to fight World War Three and survive long enough to have an impact on what would be the world's most deadly battlefield.
Sure it may not have a stealthy airframe, but that does not mean that the A-10 is not survivable. In fact that means that the designers at Fairchild Republic, who originally built the Warthog, were realists when it came to the myriad of threats facing such a machine. The aircraft was designed to absorb enemy fire, not rely on perishable technologies to hide from it, something it has done and survived to fight another day many times over. Additionally, the Warthog was designed to operate at extremely low attitudes, even in dismal conditions under a low hanging cloud deck, which is in its own right a form of radar avoidance still highly relevant to air arms around the world today. In other words, the same "inhospitable environment" that Pentagon leaders are pitching to justify the A-10's final farewell, are exactly the same conditions the jet was designed to survive in some 40 years ago.
With modern integrated air defense systems being proliferated throughout the world, ones that can fuse multiple types of disparate sensor data into a common tactical picture, high-flying manned stealth fighters will become less and less of a relevant concept for infiltrating and surviving over enemy airspace. Once again, the A-10's low level capability may give it a decisive edge for battlefield interdiction when compared with the F-35, especially if laser countermeasure systems were to be installed throughout the A-10 fleet. In other words, the A-10 may have a better chance of surviving the threat of infrared guided short-range surface to air missiles while flying low over enemy territory than the F-35 has flying stealthily at altitude in hopes of sneaking past long-range radar guided missiles that are being supported by a "data-fused" network of various radars operating at different bandwidths.
Beyond the F-35 comparison, if the low flying, armor encrusted A-10 is vulnerable to modern threats, how on earth is a high-flying and thin skinned F-16s or F-15s, or especially the Army's AH-64 Apache attach helicopters, supposed to survive this theoretical combat environment? If the answer is jamming and electronic warfare, then the A-10 can be equipped with any system that F-15, F-16 or AH-64 can be paired with.
Combining the A-10's low altitude combat capabilities and the latest in self defense jamming and electronic warfare, including towed decoys, as well as taking into account the Warthog's extreme ruggedness, the A-10 is really the most potentially survivable non-stealth aircraft in the entire DoD's inventory.
A One Trick Pony?
Some say that the A-10 is a "one trick pony," and a "niche" capability. It is amazing that precision battlefield interdiction and close air support is now thought of as a "niche capability." Close air support enables America's primary land combat component, the US Army, to even be able to operate at all. Additionally, the ugly term "niche capability" can be more accurately applied directly to the F-15C Eagle fleet which is much more costly on a per hour basis to operate than the A-10.
Currently, the F-15C runs over $40k per hour to operate compared with the A-10 at $18k per hour. In fact, the A-10 is still cheaper to fly by a good margin than the single engine and "cost efficient" F-16C Viper. In actuality the A-10 is not a single role aircraft at all. It has a fairly wide array of mission sets that it can perform extremely well, especially in comparison to the F-15C's almost solitary counter-air mission. Just take Dr. Evil's word for it in this popular meme making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter:
Also, Dr. Evil forgot that the A-10 is actually a fantastic counter-air aircraft as well, not against high-flying fast jet fighters, but for hunting down helicopters and low flying fast jet aircraft. This is a very important but under-realized issue that does pose a serious threat to our ground forces, especially in mountainous, jungle or hilly terrain. An F-22 or F-15 is poorly suited for flying at extremely low levels and searching canyons and valleys for enemy attack choppers that may be operating in a dispersed manner. The A-10 can do this, and with simple upgrades it can do this extremely well (more on this in a moment).
If the USAF wants to make a case against "single-role" platforms during this down and dirty budget rationale battle then they have to be fair and take into account an aircraft's actual relevance and utilization over its lifetime. How many aircraft have American F-15Cs shot down in the past decade and a half? None. How many tanks, APCs, trucks, command and control shacks, buildings and enemy fighters has the A-10 destroyed in that same time span? Thousands.
Keep in mind that I do not in any way condone the disbanding of the F-15C community, in fact I highly support its existence under the current force structure, albeit for other reasons than the A-10. Still, the USAF's "F series" fighter jock dominated command culture is selling you a load of crap by telling you that niche capability "single mission" aircraft fleets need to go, while the F-15C fleet remains off the chopping block even though the F-16, especially upgraded with a modern AESA radar and the forfeited yet totally essential CAPES upgrade, could do a large degree of the F-15's air to air mission. If you add conformal tanks to the F-16 equation the gap between the F-15's capability and a totally upgraded F-16 force decreases even less. Once again I am not condoning jettisoning the F-15C fleet, what remains of it at least, but I want to highlight the force structure options that do exist.
Just because a tactical aircraft is not capable of firing AMRAAMs does not make it a niche capability. The fact that the DoD acts like this is so is an insult to our intelligence. It is called marketing, and with all the things the DoD does poorly, when it comes to axing existing weapon systems they are as good as any major Madison Avenue marketing firm at "shaping the conversation" and getting you to buy in to their plans. Remember, psychological warfare is a major tenant of any conflict, and axing the A-10 is just another battle for the DoD, although the theater of operations is Washington DC and it is fought with carefully contoured messages, questionable metrics, and "winning the hearts and minds" on Capitol Hill.
Screw The Boneyard, What About Upgrades?
With modern data link capability and other physical upgrades the A-10 could do more than its designers ever dreamed it could. This includes hauling ungainly sensor pods between its high-set wheel wells for battlefield surveillance or even gaining a beyond visual range air-to-air missile capability using other sensor platform's targeting information that is transmitted via data link. These more "exotic" uses aside, the A-10's most immediate additional potential can be found in the maritime environment, especially when it comes to fending off swarming boat attacks on naval assets operating in the world's littoral regions.
A single A-10 could take on throngs of small boats swarming a US Carrier Strike Group or a commercial shipping flotilla as rapidly engaging multiple targets down low with its massive weapons load is what the A-10 was bred for. The USAF knows this and although anti-maritime operations have always been part of the A-10's mission list, investing further into training and upgrades in relation to it would could have a big payoff. Incidentally, the A-10 was actually envisioned as a potential maritime patrol and strike aircraft, in fact a version of such an aircraft was pitched along with a two seat night attack model decades ago.
Just adding new air-to-ground weaponry would give the 'Hog an even more vast and deadly aresenal. Namely, integrating the AGM-114 Hellfire missile onto the A-10 would give the jet many more precision weapon to unleash on a single sortie without adding to the aircraft's payload. Also, laser guided rockets would give the A-10 the ability to strike many targets on a single sortie that are of a high-risk/low-collateral damage nature. A single rocket pod could pack 19 laser guided rockets. When paired with a Hellfire missile capability, the A-10 of the future could carry dozens and dozens of precision guided weapons on each mission, turning these aircraft into arsenal ships that can rain down an unprecedented quantity of precision fire support.
Another argument that is posited by what seems like a small but powerful faction of A-10 assassins in Washington is that the jet is old and tired. Well, it is old, but so are much of the USAF's much more complicated F-15 Eagles, and let's not even discuss their Boeing 707 based tanker and surveillance aircraft fleets. The thing is ,that the A-10 is a relatively simple machine compared to its counterparts and has seen little in the form of upgrades throughout its already thirty plus year life-cycle.
The Warthog's biggest upgrade came in the mid 2000s in the form of the Precision Engagement package. This upgrade added new color multi-function displays, HOTAS, situational awareness data link, ROVER, a new mission computer, some radio upgrades and especially the ability to use a fully integrated advanced targeting pod. Basically, the Precision Engagement package was a stripped down and efficient way to finally bring the A-10 into the 21st century, but even this upgrade only came after almost half of a decade of bloody fighting over the sands of Middle East and the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Even though the A-10 remained in the early 1980's technologically, while its fast jet and bomber cousins were using the latest toys, the A-10 still outclassed them when it came to CAS. This odd deficit in technology between the A-10 and everything else dropping weapons over the battlefield become so absurd that Air Force had to finally bite the bullet and invest a few bucks into the Warthog.
On the structural side of the A-10 upgrade equation, there are 242 older "thin skinned" A-10's built, some of which were slated to get a new wing assembly that will last them another thirty years. Some Warthogs have already received this upgrade, the other 100 or so A-10s that were built with thicker wings towards the end of the jet's manufacturing run do not require such modifications.
Beyond these necessity based upgrades, the A-10 has been more or less fighting with the same systems as it was born with in the late 1970s and other upgrades would really help the aircraft reach its maximum potential. New systems such as the Scorpion Helmet Mounted Sight, which is already in limited use within the A-10 community, provides a massive boost to an A-10 aircrew's situational awareness and could potentially give the jet a revolutionary leap in air-to-air capability if the AIM-9X Sidewinder were integrated along with it. In fact there are few airframes where integrating an advanced helmet mounted sight would make more sense than the A-10, as its primary mission is down and dirty close air support, an environment where keeping the pilot's eyes out of the cockpit while jinking down low and employing the aircraft as a weapon system is paramount. Additionally, the Scorpion sight can display the aircraft's data link feed virtually within the pilots field of view, which is a great capability to have when keeping track of where the good guys and the bad guys are at all times is absolutely essential.
Integrating the AIM-9X onto the A-10 would greatly improve the Warthog's air-to-air engagement range and the envelope in which a missile lock can be obtained. Basically, if a Scorpion-wearing pilot can see the target within the forward hemisphere of the jet, the AIM-9X can lock onto it and successfully engage it. This would amount to a massive leap in capability for helicopter and low flying aircraft counter-air missions. The Scorpion can also slave the aircraft's targeting pod and other sensors directly to where the pilot is looking, this way a quick lock on and laser designation can be made when rapidly engaging ground targets with precision weaponry.
Out of the all the possible Warthog upgrades, new engines are at the top of the A-10's wish-list. The jet sports the super reliable and fuel efficient General Electric TF34 turbofan, known as the CF34 in the civilian world. It was originally fielded on the A-10 and S-3 Viking but can be now found on all of Bombardier regional jets and the majority of the Challenger series of business jets. Much more powerful and fuel efficient versions of this motor now exist and they would greatly help the A-10 carry more ordinance higher, faster and longer. Sadly, being granted such an upgrade has been all but wishful thinking for the A-10 community as it is usually too busy fighting bad guys overseas or for its very survival here at home to ask for such a "luxury." Strangely enough, the USAF Thunderbirds fly Block 52 F-16Cs that have the latest engines in USAF inventory and have been fully upgraded to the latest cockpit and structural configuration. Once again, the USAF's priorities are puzzling to stay the least.
With all this in mind I find it laughable that people complain about the A-10s age and serviceability considering that the jet costs less than any other USAF tactical platform to operate and have been fiscally neglected for almost its entire service life. In fact, after some three and a half decades after its introduction into service, the A-10 is finally being cleared to go into battle with an external fuel tank! The reality is that with just a relatively moderate but stable upgrade path, even a smaller force of A-10's than what is currently fielded today could continue operating efficiently for another thirty years or more.
Born To Hunt Enemies & Protect Friendlies
The harsh truth is that the days when America can pick and choose its wars are coming to an end. Just because the DoD does not "want" a ground war or another counter insurgency operation in the near future does not mean we will not find ourselves in one as early as tomorrow. I think General Hostage should ask himself if he foresaw Russian armor rolling through Crimea and hundreds of Russian main battle tanks massed along Ukraine's eastern border as an impending contingency before a few months ago. I highly doubt it.
Take the hypothetical for what it is, but would General Hostage rather have F-16s taking out Russian T-90 tanks rumbling their way towards the Polish border or would he rather have the A-10 do the job? The answer to that question is not even worth thinking about as that mission is exactly what the A-10 was designed to do. Bottom-line, the world is a tumultuous place, and history has proven that ground wars maybe ugly, but America does find itself in one about every other decade or so whether we like it or not.
So why can't the F-16, or eventually the F-35, take up the battlefield interdiction and close air support role if the A-10 was sent to the boneyard? Well they can, and in the case of the F-16 it already does. The difference is that these assets were never optimized for such roles during their multi-role oriented design phase, which ended in a product of compromise by its very nature. The A-10 is unique in that it can get down low, rapidly build situational awareness and begin prosecuting targets much faster than the F-16 can. The F-16 and F-35, even with their incredible avionics (especially in the F-35's case), are not designed to fly down low, under weather if need be, to pick apart the enemy's ground formations, and absorb enemy fire in the process. In fact, many question if the USAF will even risk its $100M+ fragile stealthy F-35s in such a manner at all.
Traditionally, fighters like the F-16, F-15E, and eventually the F-35, strike from medium altitude using precision guided weapons and come down for strafing and show of force runs momentarily, and probably not at all against an enemy with robust air defenses. This remoteness in relation to the battle below means it takes more time for an aircrew to build up a picture of what is going on and who is exactly where, and this added time can mean lives lost.
The A-10 community's ability to get into the CAS fight faster than any other fixed wing close air support platform also stems from its almost laser like focus on this single mission. In comparison, the F-16 and F-15E pilots have to spend a large amount of their dwindling flight training hours for missions other than CAS. The biggest of which is air-to-air combat training which can including radar intercepts and basic fighter maneuvers. This may take up as much as 40% of an F-16 flight crew's regular training time, whereas in the Warthog a pilot's air-to-air training is limited to employing the cannon and AIM-9M/L Sidewinder against low flying aircraft and helicopters alone, something it does extremely well incidentally.
Close air support is a very demanding mission, one where an aircrew's skill set can be rapidly diminished if training is not constant. As the war in Afghanistan winds down, and as US multi-role fighter units go back to their standard training regimens, many of these skills will atrophy. By keeping the A-10 in service, we know that the lessons learned over the last decade and a half of near constant wartime fast jet close air support action will not be lost. In other words, the A-10 community is a kind of close air support brain-trust that has more value than just the capability they offer to battle planners at any given time. This is a gray area of air combat, where knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge in combat operations can be wiped out by creating a "brain-drain" of the communities that are most focused on evolving and safeguarding this unique and demanding skill set. In this case that community is the A-10 community and canning the entire A-10 fleet would result in more than just a close air support brain-drain, it will be brain-execution.
It's All About The Gun...
During the late 1950s and early 1960s the Air Force brass thought the days of needing a gun on a fighter were done due to the advent of guided air-to-air missile technology. The resulting and extremely harsh lesson that a gun was still absolutely necessary for air combat was learned the hard way over the jungles of SE Asia. Fast forward thirty some odd years to the mid 1990s and the idea that strafing would be a highly common tactic for F-16 and F-15E crews in the new millennium would have been laughable. Sure, it was a skill that needed to be maintained, but the sheer amount of cannon shells fired by tactical aircraft over the last 13 years of constant warfare is truly eye opening. The gun remains the only feasible option for certain dire (and all to common) close air support circumstances. Just the opening "combat operations" events of Operation Iraqi Freedom, basically what took place before President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" blunder, saw over 300,000 30mm and 17,000 20mm cannon rounds fired.
Although F-16 and F-15E gun runs were commonplace over war torn Iraq by the middle of the last decade, doing so was still a dangerous business and there were losses. Low-level strafing is just is not the swept wing F-16 or F-15E's primary realm like it is the straight winged A-10's, but when there are troops in danger close contact with the enemy and a 500lb laser guided bombs would endanger them, the cannon remains the best, if not the only, tool for eliminating the threat.
The Warthog was designed around the massive GAU-8 Avenger cannon. This 30mm mammoth was originally designed to chew through soviet armor but has since been adapted towards anti-personnel duties to great effect. The F-15E and the F-16 pack the much smaller M61 Vulvan 20mm cannon, a rapid fire gatling gun designed more for air to air engagements than for ground attack. The Vulcan has been the primary cannon of America's fighter jet fleet since the F-104 Starfighter first flew back in the late 1950s. The F-35A will sport a more powerful but slower firing GAU-22 25mm cannon.
Besides having the most powerful, longest reaching aerial cannon ever installed in a tactical fighter aircraft, the A-10 also has many more rounds to dispense than other US fighters, and especially the F-35A. The Warthog packs 1,174 rounds of its coke-bottle sized PGU-13 and PGU-14 30mm ammunition in its massive drum magazine. This equates to roughly 15 "trigger pulls" per sortie. In contrast, the F-35A only packs 180 smaller 25mm rounds, which equates to two or possibly three trigger pulls per sortie at best.
Why the amount of "trigger pulls" a fighter aircraft has at its disposal matters, along with how devastating those triggers pulls can potentially be based on the size of the rounds being fired, is that when friendly troops are in "danger close" contact with enemy on the ground a fighter's gun may be a pilot's only safe option. In such a situation high explosive guided bombs, missiles or rockets are too risky to employ as their blast radius may kill friendly soldiers. These "blue on blue" incidents are every fighter pilot's worst nightmare. The A-10, with its big ammunition magazine, precision cannon firing capability, long loiter time and most importantly a pilot whose whole meaning in the force it to provide "platinum level" CAS, can make at least a dozen more precision gun runs on enemy positions than the F-35A could and about triple that of the F-16. Additionally, each one of these runs will be exponentially more deadly due to the GAU-8 Avenger's much larger cannon shell and the pilot's extreme degree of strafing experience.
Reliance on fighter aircraft's cannon for "danger close" aerial fire support will be abated to a small extent by the introduction of low-yield precision munitions, such as laser guided rockets. Yet the cannon's ability to work as a surgical attack tool or a highly accurate "area suppression" weapon cannot be matched by anything we currently know of in the weapons development pipeline. Also, laser or GPS guided munitions don't always hit their targets. There is a probability of hitting within a "circular error probable" for every air to ground weapon, and "smart weapons" are no different. If a JDAM strikes within a 12 meter circle 90% of the time, that means when friendlies are real close to that circle, they have an 8% percent chance of being struck by the same weapon that is trying to save them by killing their enemy.
The cannon on the other hand is a "dumb" weapon, but the pilot shooting it sure is smart and motivated. So when they put the pipper on the target, and if he or she is certain of their skills, they can be assured that the pipper's center point is where the cannon shells will end up impacting. This results in the potential to unleash bursts of cannot fire aimed extremely close to friendly forces. Simply put, there is no replacing the cannon when troops are about to be overcome by the enemy, and the A-10 has the best cannon, and platform to shoot that cannon from, man has ever devised. Giving that up without a direct replacement would be a total insult to our ground forces and it could end in more of them coming home in plastic bags should, or maybe I should say when, another ground war comes to pass.
The A-10 Is Tough And So Are Its Proponents...
My thoughts on the A-10 are in no way unique just to me. Every single JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller), formally known as a forward air controllers (FAC), I have talked to have told me that the best asset to have in the "CAS stack" is the A-10. As someone who has "been there and done that" states:
"The A-10 is the most requested asset for CAS period. The aircraft was built for the job and the pilots were as well. Not only are they good with the targeting pod, but they are fantastic with a pair of binoculars. They can give us LGBs (laser guided bombs) from up high or they can tear up the bad guys at eye level with the gun. That gun is a powerful psychological weapon as well, the enemy knows the distinct "burp" sound and it is very morbid and demoralizing to them when it announces itself. Second to the A-10 the AC-130 is really fantastic for certain applications. After that the menu just gets less appealing. The fast jet guys do a great job, Harriers in particular, but none match the A-10's unique abilities. It has saved and taken many lives, I can attest to that."
There are many others within the active military and those who have recently retired from active duty that are coming out to warn of the dangers of retiring the A-10. Including some combat vets who owe their lives to the mighty Hog.
Can other platforms provide quality close air support? Yes, and they do so on a daily basis. Can they regularly fly below the cloud cover and rapidly deliver laser like precision fire support, as close as 50 meters from friendly troops, over and and over again without having to run to the tanker every 30 to 45 minutes? Absolutely not. In other words, other aircraft can drop bombs and strafe enemy formations and equipment, just not nearly as good as the A-10 and that fact results in friendly lives saved and enemy lives lost.
The A-10's absurd effectiveness was once again proven to an almost alarming degree during a recent large scale war game. The opposing forces (OPFOR) dismantled our Army units in simulated battle during the first part of the exercise, that is until the mighty Warthog showed up and rapidly reversed the trend. Not only that, but the A-10 also became the bane of the opposition helicopter forces, virtually knocking down their choppers time and time again.
What makes this almost childish move by the USAF worse is that even though Congress has passed a law blocking the retirement of the A-10 and has not voted on the current budget that was proposed to see the whole Warthog program shut down, the USAF has pulled funding for the A-10 Weapons School (like the Navy's TOPGUN but platform specific), modernization, and training flight hours. These cuts would happen as soon as October 1st once the fiscal year rolls over. Additionally, some in Congress are outright claiming that the USAF has inflated the metrics, as slim as they already may be at $3.7B over about half a decade, by retiring the A-10 fleet as a whole.
Meanwhile, a growing faction of powerful Senators are not budging on their insistence that the A-10 remain operational within the USAF until a replacement can be vetted and fielded. Senators Ayotte, McCain, Graham and Chambliss have also struck down an asinine House Armed Services Committee "plea deal" that would see the entire Warthog fleet parked in "type 1000 storage," the freshest regenerative state that an aircraft can be stored in at AMARG. The idea of parking the jets in the desert and disbanding the entire infrastructure that supports and operates them is an incredibly stupid idea as the A-10 is as much about a concept of operations and a knowledge base than just an airplane itself. Standing the fleet up again, after years in storage, would be all but fiscally impossible short of doing so in response to World War III. The fact that this idea was even floated shows just how dense and uneducated those in power are about the realities of modern aircraft and the complexity of their operations.
Luckily, the House Armed Services Committee came to their senses on the naive A-10 storage deal and has now submitted a defense budget that includes the A-10 in it and limits the decision on retiring the A-10 until a number of studies are conducted to discover the obvious- the jet cannot be directly replaced.
In a seemingly rare but candid move, the Pentagon has responded to the House's budget markup in a very negative light. This sets a very intense political stage now that the Senate has to take up the bill, but the good news is that support for the A-10 and skepticism for the DoD's justification for wanting to retire it is growing, not shrinking, up on Capitol Hill.
Tough Choices, Weak Decisions...
Looking at the retirement of the A-10 as an almost corporate decision is unnerving to some due the aircraft's close ties to soldiers' well being on the ground. I would like to ask those in charge who think retiring the A-10 is a logical way out of their fiscal mess what they are going to tell the mothers and fathers of the kids that come home in black bags due to the USAF providing "not as elegant" close air support. What would this dialogue even sound like? Maybe something like "we are sorry, we just could not risk sending the F-35 program further into a death spiral by making up the cost of keeping the A-10 in our inventory via cancelling a couple F-35s." $3.7B equates to just 2% of the USAF's total F-35A buy. Kill 30 F-35As to save close to 300 A-10s? How is this even an issue? Another way to put $3.7B in perspective is that in 2011 the US spent roughly three times that per month in Afghanistan.
It is so sad that the A-10 Warthog is once again a pawn in the USAF's budget give and take. The pointy nosed, supersonic USAF culture has always wanted to shoot down the A-10, praising it when it is proving its worth in spades, and treating it like cheap trash when it is not.
The jet should have never served with the USAF in the first place as the USAF's distaste for the A-10 was rearing its ugly head as far back as its development. The Army would have been a much better place for these rugged machines. Yet the US Army has no budget capacity available for the A-10 today and the Air Force, being the bratty service that it can be, would never allow the Army to have a fixed wing close air support jet, especially not one that the USAF has operated under the "fighter" moniker. The USAF would not even let the Army have twin-turboprop tactical transport aircraft, instead the USAF bought them, got them flying, then sent them to the chopping block. Great stewards of the American tax payer's dollars right?
The alternatives to retiring the A-10, as threatened by the USAF, include slashing 350 F-16s. The USAF F-16 community is multi-role in nature and is the mainstay of the entire USAF. It has already been turned into a shadow of itself in comparison to just a decade ago. Axing the entire B-1B Lancer force of 66 airframes would also fill the A-10's budgetary hole they say, but seeing as we are supposedly "pivoting" towards long-range warfare in the Pacific Theater this won't happen as it contradicts the policy that the Obama Administration and the DoD have touted so heavily.
The B-52 remians nuclear capable so no dice there. The F-15C fleet, which will shrink to under 200 examples already, defends our own borders here in the US and is a necessity seeing that the Pentagon, and both the Bush and Obama Administrations for that matter, shamefully ordered just 187 F-22As. A good portion of the C-130 force and the entire U-2 force are already on the chopping block, and cutting tankers is not an option, at least for now.
There have been murmurs about retiring the KC-10 Extender fleet, but those jets are the youngest and most versatile tankers we have so I highly doubt that will come to pass anytime soon. Not surprisingly, for the USAF's "everything is on the table" budget slashing attitude, the one thing that is not on the table is the largest procurement program in the history of the USAF and the most troubling example of broken defense acquisition of the present decade, the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.
What I am getting at here is that the current force size of the USAF has already been shaved down over and over and over again to what is now a skeletonized force considering the missions demanded of it. Cutting readiness and training is very dangerous both militarily and geopolitically. Last year, about one third of the entire Air Combat Command was grounded due to the sharp axe of sequestration, poor planning by the DoD, and totally screwed up budgetary priorities within the USAF. This is not acceptable as employing a complex fighter aircraft as a weapon is a perishable skill.
Thus the last thing we should cut is readiness with the force that we already have. So this all comes down to one glaring issue that has pushed the USAF to sacrifice incredible amounts of end strength and readiness in exchange for a capability that is questionable at best, antiquated at worst. That is once again the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
I don't want this piece to be hijacked by the F-35, but the F-35 program effects almost every other weapon system in the USAF at this point, and the A-10 is not immune in any way to its budget crushing weight. The realities surrounding the Pentagon's obsession with this controversial aircraft are alarming. Think about it in perspective, we are talking about cutting the A-10 entirely here, another three hundred combat aircraft gone from the USAF's dwindling inventory, and these are the most cost effetive out of the entire lot. All for the equivalent of buying just 30 F-35s.
The USAF's fleet of fighters has continued to be bled dry for this program while at the same time the USAF complains about a fighter gap and the age of its fleet. At what point is enough, quite literally enough? Is it more important to continue shoveling tens of billions of dollars at this program when we are actually discussing giving our soldiers on the ground "good enough" close air support? This is becoming a very unhealthy situation for the DoD and for the American warfighter. Considering we cannot even afford to fly and operate the relatively simple combat aircraft we already have now, how on earth are we going to afford to operate an aircraft that is at least twice as much to operate per hour than the aircraft they will replace? The uncertainty surrounding the F-35 is unbearable, the sacrifices are damning and the results have been questionable at the very best so far. And in reality, the one aircraft that the F-35 should never replace is the A-10.
When it comes to defense budgets, if you want to save money you don't do it by chopping the most cost effective assets you already own, and you don't do it through slashing training and readiness, you do it through making hard procurement decisions. If dropping thirty or so F-35As from the USAF's procurement initiative will send the eternally fragile program into an unrecoverable tailspin then we should not continue investing into such a volatile and questionable program. Unmanned technology is already the disruptor of a millennium when it comes to the F-35's most high-priority roles, those being striking fixed targets deep within enemy airspace and surveying the battlefield clandestinely, yet the Pentagon is betting the farm on a manned system that is supposed to remain effective for forty years.
For some perspective, forty years ago there was no stealth technology and your scientific calculator had more processing power than the vast majority of computers on earth. Considering that the F-35's low observability is already being questioned, and flying wing drones are much better suited for broadband stealth, is such a long-term investment into this vehicle logical in any way? At least we know the A-10's survivability via its low-altitude combat environment, ability to absorb fire, and plug and play jamming technology won't suddenly expire.
Finally, it is a hard to hear the Pentagon Brass act as if cutting the A-10 is the first thing that comes to mind in regards to balancing the books during sequester, especially when there have never been more command staff on the Pentagon's payroll. This executive heavy infestation is dubbed "star creep." So many "cooks in the kitchen," so to speak, may impede delivering a more efficient force. It seems like a new program office opens weekly headed by someone with a star of their shoulder and entirely new commands are proposed regularly. Maybe it is time for the USAF, and the DoD as a whole, to look at its own ghastly executive payroll as well as taking the clever to the force's end strength and procurement budget. Hey its all about "leading from the front" right? Right!?
The bottom-line here is that saving $3.7 billion dollars over next few years is not worth giving away the cheapest and most traditionally survivable attack aircraft in the USAF, yet along worth telling the kids we send to fight our bloody ground wars that their lives are not worth .21% ($1.2B per year divided by $550B) of the annual Pentagon's budget. Quite frankly, I think it is alarming that we are even having this debate at all and it is indicative of just how diseased the USAF, and the Pentagon's overall priorities have become.
The A-10 is the best CAS platform mankind has ever designed, if the Air Force wants to chop its inventory of Warthogs to 200 jets and leave the rest in storage then fine. The war is wrapping up, we get it, an elastic force is understandable going forward. But should we choose to send the finest among us into harms way in a foreign land again — and seeing as how this new millennium has gone so far I doubt that really is a question — we should all demand that the finest air support possible go along with them, and that is unquestionably provided by the A-10 Warthog.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com
All photos are via the USAF/DoD aside from the Dr. Evil meme (Public Domain) and those that are branded with the Foxtrot Alpha log.