The U.S. Air Force and military planners at the Pentagon really want to get rid of the A-10 despite 38 years of stellar service in almost every conflict the United States has been active in.
The USAF claims the A-10 is out of date, and that it’s role can be fulfilled by more modern options. Critics say the decision is a travesty of military thinking. Who’s right? Well it turns out you don’t have to look very far, because we already know what a world without the A-10 looks like.
Former A-10 pilot and Republican Rep. Martha McSally argues scrapping the A-10 will cost American lives. That alone should give military planners at the Pentagon pause. Our senior military leaders seem to have forgotten an excruciatingly painful lesson about air power the United States learned in Vietnam that cost hundreds of lives and millions of dollars.
Just like in Vietnam 40 years ago, “fast jets” are once again being touted to the American people by Washington bureaucrats as a serviceable replacement for a dedicated niche product. The A-10 isn’t that. It’s affectionate pet name is “Warthog,” or just “Hog.”
Pentagon planners in the 1960s can be forgiven for their errors in Vietnam. It was a time of new ideas and radical thinking. Military technology had advanced rapidly since World War Two, it was only natural to think that whatever was “newer” and “faster” would undoubtedly be “better.” Thinking like that fielded the first generation of F-4 Phantoms without any onboard gun because “Smart missiles” had supposedly rendered the gun in air combat obsolete. The first high-speed turning dog fights over North Vietnam against MiG 17s and MiG 21s proved that was not so.
The F-35 is today’s version of that thinking.
Like any “fast jet” the F-35 is highly vulnerable to ground fire. The unit cost is anywhere from $96 million to $116 million, so any losses will come with a very steep price tag.
There are countless times in modern American military history where the application of airpower by an A-10 on the front line has made the difference between holding the line and total defeat.
With the cost of losing an F-35 being so prohibitively expensive and the high likelihood of one being lost by the very nature of the role it will be tasked to fill, close air support calls in the future will go unanswered. Not for tactical reasons, but for budgetary ones.
In Vietnam, the primary plane to provide Close Air Support to United States and Vietnamese ground troops was the Douglas A-1 Skyraider. The A-1 was a Korean War-era propeller plane. It was the pinnacle of WW2 fighter design, a holdover from a bygone age. It was exceptionally well armored, heavily armed and thanks to its propeller engine, highly fuel efficient. Its loiter time (the time over target where it could fly in a holding pattern waiting for targets of opportunity or supporting troops) far exceeded its jet compatriots.
With the phasing out of the A-1s, the CAS mantle was taken on by the U.S. Navy and Air Force’s latest generation of “fast jets.”
What followed was a massacre. This was a role that “fast jets” were ill-equipped for, being too fast to be accurate and highly vulnerable to ground fire.
Of the United States Navy and Air Force aircraft combat losses in Vietnam, 437 of them where F-4 Phantoms, 59 were A-7 Corsair IIs, 51 were A-6 Intruders, 195 were A-4 Skyhawks, 198 were F100 Super Sabres and 283 were F-105 Thunderchiefs.
Only 294 American planes in total were lost during the Vietnam war due to air-to-air combat and surface-to-air missiles, the rest was from ground fire.
The reason for the “fast jets” failure in its new role was an intrinsic one.
In principle, a jet engine is a tube. Air is sucked in at the front where it is mixed with gasoline that explodes. The force of that explosion is then ejected out the back as thrust, and in doing so, turns an impeller that sucks more air in and the process repeats itself. It is a very simple concept with huge returns in speed.
In most “fast jets,” the engine runs the entire length of the plane. This design layout, when paired with a good airframe, can make a modern attack fighter one of, if not the most, adaptable tactical assets in a battlefield commander’s arsenal. The F-35 Lightning is the zenith of this concept.
A “fast jet” is little more than a very agile, very expensive, flying bomb. The engine must remain un-damaged. If even a few rounds are punched into the main fuselage by a 12.7mm DShK heavy machine gun (the gun favored by most of America’s past, present and future opponents) it can spell catastrophic disaster for the plane and the pilot.
Unless anti-aircraft fire severed a flight control cable, hit the pilot, engine or a fuel tank in the A-1 Skyraider, generally the only result was a hole in your plane. It was still airworthy.
Flying fast-moving, fragile, gas guzzling jets, low and slow over murderous enemy fire was a recipe for disaster. A farmer in a rice paddy could shoot into the sky with an AK-47, and if they got lucky, down a plane.
Having learned a very painful and costly lesson, the Pentagon put out a contract for a dedicated close support aircraft precisely to combat these issues. In 1977 the A-10 Thunderbolt II was born. It was built from the ground up to fly the most dangerous CAS missions. Its two engines were mounted aft of the pilot, away from the heavily armored airframe. Instead of swept wings built for speed the A-10 was built for low speed maneuverability. Watch any airshow video of the A-10 on YouTube and the ability of the A-10 to turn on a dime is still jaw dropping.
An A-10 pilot is protected from the ground fire they inevitably face by 1,200 pounds of titanium. The dual tail control surfaces enable the pilot to maintain control in the event of the plane being badly damaged. There are triple redundant flight control systems. The A-10 was a master stroke of aeronautical design and the living embodiment of the mantra “form following function.” It was not a pretty plane, it was not a sexy plane, but it was a highly resilient plane. So much so that it can still fly with only one engine, one tail, one elevator and half of one wing.
Pentagon planners saw the A-10 as the great equalizer in any theoretical battle with USSR armored forces on the European plains. Their calculations were proved correct in Operation Desert Storm where coalition A-10s made short work of Iraqi tanks. Over the years, through operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the A-10 proved it was unbelievably good at doing precisely what it had been designed for: flying low and slow, absorbing punishment and killing anything that was foolish enough to take a shot at it.
And now, despite being exclusively designed to fill a desperate need, the Air Force wants to kill the A-10.
Today “stealth” is the buzzword. But Air Force staff should be reminded that “stealth” only makes planes “invisible” to radar, not the naked eye. When an F-35 is eventually called upon in the future to provide close air support, I can promise you gunners on the ground will be able to see it just fine … and if they can see it, they can shoot at it, and if they can shoot at it, eventually they will hit it.
The niche role the A-10 fulfills is a specialized one, and in the combat America finds itself embroiled in today, a vital one. CAS is just as important today as it has ever been and in an age where American casualties have huge political consequences, the lack of a specifically designed tool to accomplish it will have severe political ramifications to future administrations.