The Air Force is looking to trim older platforms (that’s airplanes to you and me) from its inventory to free up money to operate and maintain the rest of its fleet. We wrote briefly a couple days ago that the KC-10 was among the platforms being considered. Heck, the Air Force is even looking at retiring the F-15C fleet. But no proposal will generate more howls of outrage among the public and especially among the ground pounders than the thought of retiring the A-10 Warthog fleet.
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — As an old Warthog pilot, Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke III spoke in near mournful tones Wednesday of the likely mothballing of the venerable A-10 close air support aircraft and tank killer.
“Can we save the A-10?” was the question from the audience Wednesday at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference here.
Clarke, director of the Air National Guard, came at the question in roundabout fashion. He loved flying the A-10 Thunderbolt, better known as the “Warthog,” Clarke said. He noted that the plane was “near and dear to land warriors” for its GAU-8 Avenger, a 30mm rotary cannon that is the heaviest such weapon mounted on an aircraft.
But the Air Force was “looking at reducing single mission aircraft,” Clarke said, and under the sequestration process “we’re not getting any more money – that option is out.”
The Air Force “has to have a fifth generation force out there” of stealthy, fast and maneuverable aircraft, and the low and slow A-10 just didn’t fit in, Clarke said.
“We’re on board with moving towards Air Force 2023,” the concept for the future of the force which has no room for the A-10, Clarke said.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, also declared his affection for the A-10, which happens to be an aircraft he has 1,000 hours flying.
“I love that old ugly thing,” Welsh said.
However, the chief of staff explained the service has to take part in finding over a trillion dollars in cuts to the defense budget over the next ten years because of sequestration. In this budget environment, he said the Air Force will likely be unable to afford the Warthog.
I think this is pretty dumb. The Air Force just spend a ton of money on refurbishing most of the active Warthog fleet to extend their service lives and make them capable of employing modern smart weapons.
But I can also see why the Air Force thinks this is a viable option. And a large part of it is the existence of those smart weapons. When the A-10 was conceived and bought almost 40 years ago, there simply weren’t a lot of smart weapons, and the few that existed were hideously expensive. Most Close Air Support missions would rely on old fashioned dumb bombs and cluster munitions (and yes, of course, the gun). To be at all accurate, you had to get down in the weeds, which suited the A-10 just fine. Other jets, such as the F-4? Not so much.
Fast forward to today, and virtually no CAS missions are flown that don’t employ a precision guided weapon, most commonly the JDAM GPS guided bomb. With JDAM and similar weapons, there’s no real need to get close. The pilot doesn’t have to see the target. He simply has to have the coordinates, plug it into the bomb, and he’s reasonably assured a direct hit. That’s something other jets like the F-16, the F-15E Strike Eagle, and soon the F-35 are more than capable of doing. And have been doing for some time now. Heck, the B-1B has been doing it over Afghanistan for years now, and is a popular weapons because of its huge payload and good endurance.
Further, we’ve had the luxury in the wars of the past decade of almost total air dominance, with virtually no enemy air defense capability. But the Air Force knows this will not always be the case. The proliferation of modern MANPADS short range air defense missiles will make future COIN battlefields hazardous to low flying aircraft. Syrian rebels have had some success against Assad forces, downing both helicopters and jets. So using a high altitude jet flying above MANPADS range with some standoff capability via JDAM or other weapons makes a lot of sense. Conversely, a lot of the CAS capability, ISR capability, and long loiter time ground commanders ask for can be provided by assets like the MQ-9 Reaper. And if a Reaper is shot down, you don’t have to go rescue the pilot. And should a more conventional war break out, the A-10 would be at even greater disadvantage against a wider array of air defense systems.
So while I think retiring the A-10 would be a bad idea, I don’t think it is an indefensible one.
But I know I’m gonna need earplugs for the howls of outrage about to come.