After years of infighting, the U.S. Air Force finally gave in and spared the A-10 Warthog from the slaughterhouse. The alarming part is that it took a new war and a looming Cold War for the jet’s masters to acquiesce, and they still plan on to begin killing the respected attack aircraft far before most realize.
Even worse, the A-10's slated replacement is the very aircraft that the USAF artificially pitted it against in the first place, the F-35A—a jet that has no chance of carrying out the same unique mission set that the A-10 does today.
The A-10 is as famous for its ability to save friendly troops under fire and eviscerating enemy targets as it is for its brutish looks. The Warthog, which is neither fast nor sexy, has long been the target of the USAF for elimination, but seemingly every decade since its introduction into service in the mid 1970s, the A-10 survived the flying branch’s assassination attempts on it.
Yet few thought that after absolutely dominating the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan, this renowned guardian angel of troops on the ground would be once again thrown on the chopping block.
Bogus arguments, questionable cost savings predictions, skewed metrics, muzzle orders by superior officers, even embargoed videos showing the A-10 in action were all facets of the USAF’s latest hit job on its own airplane that it historically loves to hate.
Here is that A-10 video that was supposedly suppressed by the USAF:
Now, as the A-10 “has been devastating to ISIL (aka ISIS) from the air,” at least according to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and touring through Eastern Europe as a deterrent against Russian aggression, the Pentagon had little ground left to stand on when it came to their wish to retire the famed attack jet once and for all.
Even the arguments and half-truths that have been proliferated by the Pentagon in recent years regarding the A-10 cannot stand up to the fact that it remains massively relevant and in great demand.
While recent headlines about the A-10's reprieve have been jubilant , the idea that it took massive geopolitical events like a new war to keep the relatively cheap aircraft in service is not a good indicator that the USAF has learned its lesson. In fact, it is just yet another symptom of how priority-blind the leadership within the service has become.
What’s even worse is that although the official story is that the A-10 will be around for another six years, the reality is their numbers will start to dramatically dwindle long before reaching 2022 (more like 2021) under the USAF’s current plan.
A-10s will begin to be retired in 2017, not 2022 as most think. Then over the following years the A-10 fleet will quickly recede into obscurity, exiting the inventory once and for all by 2022.
In other words, the Hog is still being led to slaughter house, just a little slower than what the USAF originally planned.
The USAF is basically continuing to drastically expand the A-10 fleet’s potential service life just as they are retiring it.
First off, the A-10 fleet continues to receive new wings and its sensors and cockpit have been fully upgraded and modernized under the A-10C/precision engagement package program. The vast majority of the Warthog fleet (about 284 jets today) will have decades of life left in them just as they are being flown to the boneyard.
Also keep in mind that the A-10 is a fairly simple aircraft and in most cases upgrades can be done to it in a much easier fashion than its higher-performance stable mates. In the end, the A-10, just like the B-52, can fly well into the 2040s and even past that if need be relative ease.
What’s even more peculiar, if not strangely amusing, is that during the height of the fight over the A-10's fate the USAF actually floated the possibility that they would replace the A-10 with a new, specially built aircraft. This idea got a lot of attention, even though it was entirely implausible. The USAF said it can’t even afford to operate the A-10s it already owns, let alone designing, procuring and operating a totally new and more advanced type.
This was just another distraction from the real A-10 debate, something that the USAF have become masters at over many decades of trying to kill off the popular attack jet.
The other major issue here is that supposedly the A-10 will be replaced on a one-to-one basis with F-35As. This sounds nice but it does nothing to remedy the fact that the F-35A cannot do what the A-10 can and never will, like fly below the weather, in tight airspace, and deal devastating and persistent direct fire attacks onto targets in dangerously close contact with friendly forces.
The A-10's ability to do so is the least-kept secret in the USAF, but don’t take it from me. In the book A-10 Thunderbolt II: Operation Enduring Freedom 2008-14, Brigadier General Thomas Dale, who oversaw A-10 combat operations at Kandahar Airfield, gives a real-life assessment of the fact that the A-10 is at home where no other tactical aircraft is:
“We started to get more and more requests for specific tasking for the A-10, and its capabilities in the east of country. If you look at a map of Afghanistan, the south is dominated by flat open desert, while the east is filled with significant mountainous features. There are also weather patterns unique to these ares that challenge the ability of any aircraft to provide direct support to our ground units. Nevertheless, there was a requirement to operate under the weather in tight valleys in the east. Although other airframes were available to the Coalition in-theatre, and they could have performed such a mission, they weren’t optimal for it.”
It is unfair to posit that the F-35 can do the A-10's job; nor can the A-10 do the F-35's various mission sets either. The truth is they complement one another very nicely, and keeping the A-10s active for decades to come will likely save the USAF money, not the other way around. Also, the F-35A is a $100+ million dollar machine.
The glaring truth is that the Air Force simply does not need a top-of-the-line stealth fighter to take out insurgents on mopeds, or to repeatedly strafe targets after they ambush allied soldiers in some remote valley. The A-10 can do these jobs far better than the F-35 can and at a fraction of the cost. Since taxpayers have already ponied up for the A-10s and their upgrades, there’s only the cost of keeping this lower-end close air support capability operational to contend with.
The F-35A that is supposed to replace it costs $100+ million a piece and are much more costly to operate per hour (estimates are double to triple that of the A-10.)
It is not as if the F-35 is incapable of close air support; far from it. But it will do the job in a more removed manner like its fast-jet brethren. It was simply never intended to fight down in the weeds and give the level of quality close air support that the A-10 was.
That is not a mark against the F-35. It has only become an issue since the USAF pitted the two types against each other so that they could justify the A-10's retirement. They even went so far as planning a CAS fly-off between the two types , a competition that makes little sense as the capabilities of each aircraft are, once again, very different to begin with and are not direct interchangeable.
Even the B-1 can do close air support, but it provides somewhat of a generic mission capability, delivering bombs from on high while leveraging its long-endurance and large weapons load to add additional value to the mission set. Only the A-10 is purpose-built for the close air support mission and its crews are entirely focused on accomplishing it.
There are other things the A-10 can do that the F-35—and no other jet in service with the USAF for that matter—can do, such as operate from austere airfields or hard-packed surfaces with no real runway at all. This tactic was used with success during Iraqi Freedom and it came in very handy during the early years of operations out of Afghanistan’s crude and war-torn airfields.
This is a capability that the A-10 force still trains for regularly today, and without it the “boys in blue” will be left with a fragile jet force that can only operate out of air bases with long airstrips and developed infrastructure.
A-10s pilots executing austere airfield training recently:
Another absolutely critical mission set that the A-10 currently provides, and that the USAF has no replacement for, is combat search and rescue (CSAR) escort, often referred to as the “Sandy” role. After over a decade of misfires the USAF in re-investing over a billion dollars into new combat search and rescue helicopters, but without the A-10 their already ridiculously dangerous mission will become even more volatile.
The Warthog’s ability to closely guard CSAR helicopters as they infiltrate their way to downed airmen or others in need, and the A-10 pilot’s ability build situational awareness quickly while operating at very low level, is invaluable for such missions. Additionally, their extremely precise direct fire capability using the jet’s devastating 30mm cannon or rockets allows the A-10 to engage enemies at much closer ranges, and much quicker than aircraft that must use bombs and missiles at higher altitudes and speeds to provide close air support.
The fact that there is no CSAR escort aircraft to take the A-10's place alone should be enough of a reason to keep the aircraft in the USAF’s inventory for the foreseeable future.
In the end the USAF has just delayed the A-10's demise to a small degree because they really had no other choice, their immediate retirement scheme was becoming a steep uphill battle. You could say logic got in the way. The aircraft is fighting the country’s wars and carrying out its foreign policy abroad successfully, and at a bargain basement price.
Still, the USAF’s new A-10 retirement plan is more insidious than their old one, as it slowly kills the A-10 program over time. Such a tactic makes it harder for the public and especially Congress to intervene. In that sense, the fight to save the A-10 is far from over, and pressure must be kept on the USAF to cancel their incremental retirement scheme all together.
Ideally, the USAF would take this temporary ceasefire in the A-10 debate to come up with an alternative plan to embrace the A-10 over the long-term and in doing so provide planning for its operations and upgrades well into the coming decades. This injection of stability allows the USAF to operate the aircraft to its maximum potential and at the lowest possible cost.
That makes much more sense than continuously leaving A-10 community on an ambiguous footing. If anything else, the day that the first A-10s are retired will likely act as a wake-up call and we will almost certainly nose dive right back into this same debate. Operating a weapon system under the chronic threat of retirement, especially as it is bringing the fight to enemy efficiently, is both sad and totally inefficient.
The problem is that any tactical jet platform that exists to suck up a penny of potential F-35 dollars is on the chopping block. With the F-35 lobby being so strong and there being zero light between the aircraft’s prime contractor and the Pentagon, carving out even tiny scraps of the USAF’s annual budget (we are talking just a percentage point or so here) for the A-10 is a major challenge.
Anything that will allow the Pentagon to buy one more F-35 in an attempt to get the unit cost down and the total construction numbers up seems to be game plan, and as always, the A-10, no matter how relevant it remains, is the USAF’s go-to sacrificial lamb.
Sadly, even with the Warthog’s latest budgetary reprieve this is not happening, and the A-10 program is still a terminal patient, it just has a few years to live now instead of just few months—and ultimately, its death is an insulting blow to the soldiers who find themselves fighting our land wars in foreign hell-holes around the globe.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.
Photos via USAF