The internets have been abuzz about the Air Force Chief of Staff’s decision to retire the A-10 Warthog. Untold numbers of pixels have been spent vilifying the chief, and pointing out what a lousy idea it is.
And it probably is.
But there are three strong arguments supporting his decision.
2. The future battlefield
3. Availability of other CAS platforms
For the record, I am and always will be a fan of the A-10, and wish that it were to remain in service indefinitely. But barring Congressional intervention, it looks increasingly as if the demise of the Warthog is nigh. And Congressional intervention is by no means even a good idea.
Let’s take a look at the three arguments supporting GEN Welsh’s decision.
First, money. Yes, the Warthog is relatively cheap to operate. But there are large fixed overhead costs with maintaining a type in service. There’s the training pipeline for pilots and maintainers, there’s the spare parts pipeline, and the technical contracting for the depot level overhaul and upgrades. Simply reducing the size of a particular fleet does relatively little to reduce these costs. Savings are only achieved by actually removing an entire type from the service.
And before you say “well, fine, give ‘em to the Army” or Marines, or what have you, understand, neither service wants the A-10 so badly they they are willing to pick up those associated costs, nor incur the major doctrinal upheaval integration of the A-1o would entail. That doesn’t even get into where the Army or Marines would find the manpower to operate the Warthog. It simply will not happen.
But the era of austere budgets is upon the DoD. Sequestration is upon us, and GEN Welsh has to make cuts, like it or not. And one way or another, the cuts he has to make will impair the Air Force’s ability to accomplish its mission. He has to decide which cuts impose the lowest future risks. And the choice of the A-10 can be seen as the lowest risk from a range of options that go from bad to terrible.
The future battlefield
Let’s actually look at the past a bit first. The A-10 was designed very much with the lessons of the Vietnam War in mind. Fast mover jets such as the F-100 and F-4 struggled to provide the quality of close air support in South Vietnam that the Army wanted. Designed as high-flying supersonic fighters, they were too fast to visually identify small, fleeting targets on the ground. They were also quite vulnerable to small arms fire and other low-tech air defenses. And their design and thirsty turbojet engines meant they could only spend a short time on station before they needed to head home for fuel.
Simultaneously, the Air Force was having generally good results with former US Navy A-1H and A-1E Skyraider aircraft. The Skyraider could carry and impressive warload, was capable of operating at low altitudes with a long loiter time, and was rugged enough that most of the time, small arms fire wouldn’t bring it down. The gasoline engine was a real drawback, however, complicating maintenance, and logistics. The Skyraider was also quite slow, meaning its transit times from base to station were long, and if it was usually rugged, it was also something of an easy target.
The Air Force, as Vietnam drew down, began to look at the most daunting battlefield it faced, a potential war in Western Europe with the Soviet Union and the rest of the Warsaw Pact. Air Force planners knew the Air Force would be called upon to not only make deep attacks against fixed targets such as airfields and bridges, but also the vast swarms of Soviet tanks and other armor. Don’t forget, this was an era when the primary air-to-ground sensor was the unaided human eyeball.
The air defense threat was also evolving. Rather than primarily small arms as faced in South Vietnam, in any potential Soviet invasion, three weapon systems would be the greatest threat. The ZSU-23-4 radar controlled 23mm gun, the SA-7 MANPADS heat-seeking shoulder launched missile, and its big brother, the vehicle mounted SA-9 heat-seeking missile.
When the A-10 was designed and built, it was done with both the mission of killing tanks in the relatively close confines of Western Europe, and with countering those three specific threats very much in mind. The A-10 was of course built around the (eyeball aimed) 30mm GAU-8 cannon, and it was always envisioned that its other main armament would be the optically aimed AGM-65 Maverick guided missile. Virtually all the armor and active and passive countermeasures built into the A-10 were geared toward defeating the ZSU/SA-7/SA-9 threat.
Fast forward to 2001 and from there to the present. Aside from the initial assault into Iraq in 2003, American airpower has been working in a permissive, almost benign air defense environment. Only the smallest numbers of modern MANPADS missiles have been used by our enemies. And of course, in that benign environment, the A-10 has done a bang-up job. But with the war in Iraq over (for us, at any rate) and our involvement in Afghanistan winding down, the Air Force is again obliged to look at other possible future battlefields. Critically, they have a duty not only to look to the most likely, but more importantly, to the most challenging. The obvious “worst case” scenario these days is a war with China, which for our purposes, however unlikely, at least provides proxies for the threat weapons many other potential crises may present.
Without getting down in the weeds of improved kinematics and ECCM and such, suffice to say that today’s modern MANPADS are far, far more deadly than the SA-7/SA-9 of yesteryear. And the proliferation of effective, mobile short, medium and long range radar guided Surface-to-Air Missiles in potential conflict regions means the permissive operating environment of today is not likely to carry over to tomorrow. US troops, long accustomed to being able to call upon Close Air Support, with no thought to the risks imposed on the airborne asset, may find themselves in an environment where little or no CAS is to be had, particularly in the early days of a conflict, before an enemy Integrated Air Defense System can be, well, dis-integrated. The A-10 today finds itself more and more vulnerable to modern air defenses, and for various reasons, can not realistically be expected to reduce those vulnerabilities to any significant degree.
Availability of other CAS platforms
The A-10 may be the airplane that instantly comes to mind when someone mentions Close Air Support, but in fact, it only flies a small fraction of the total CAS missions today. By some estimates, 80% of CAS is flown by other platforms, be they UAVs, F-15E or F-16, Navy and Marine TACAIR or others.
The A-10 was deliberately designed to be low tech. Guns, dumb bombs, unguided rockets were bread and butter. But the advent of first the Laser Guided Bomb, and now the GPS guided JDAM bomb, coupled with virtually every strike fighter having a sophisticated infrared targeting pod means virtually every weapon used in CAS today is a precision guided weapon, and virtually every strike is controlled by a Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground. This revolution has greatly increased the ability of fast mover jets to provide timely, accurate and deadly CAS to troops in contact, and at closer ranges to friendly forces than ever before possible. The Warthog’s famed ability to get in the weeds and go low and slow is no longer so much a strength as a liability. Indeed, only in the last couple of years has the A-10 been upgraded to allow it to use precision guided weapons. Were it not for that upgrade, the A-10 would be almost irrelevant in the modern CAS environment.
Senator McCain, blasting the Air Force decision to retire the A-10, scoffed at the thought of using the B-1B bomber for CAS. In actuality, in the permissive environment in Afghanistan, it has proven to be not just capable, but in many ways, the most desirable CAS platform. It carries the same Sniper targeting pod the A-10 carries (making it every bit as accurate). It also has a stupendous load capability of up to 24 2000lb JDAM bombs. Indeed, a reengineering of the bomb racks is increasing the numbers and types of weapons the B-1B is carrying, almost certainly far and away more than any single engagement might call for. And with its intercontinental range, the B-1B can loiter on station over a fight for as much as four hours, far longer than the routine 1.5 hour station time one might expect from a Warthog.
And let us not forget the improvements on the Army side that will reduce demand for CAS. The introduction of Excalibur guided 155mm artillery, and the GMLRS guided rocket (with a range of about 70km) give ground commanders an ability to call upon timely precision fires, fires that as little as five years ago could only be answered by CAS with precision weapons. That trend to increasing accuracy (and range) of fires will only continue.
The withdrawal of the A-10 may not be a good idea. But nor is it evidence of a conspiracy of fast jet generals determined to kill a long-hated platform (GEN Welsh was himself an A-10 driver, and proud of it). The Air Force is not trying to get out of the CAS business. Indeed, the vast majority of tactical aviators with any combat experience today, only have experience with CAS. It’s what they know, it’s what they do.
What is happening is the Air Force has to save money somewhere, and from where the Chief of Staff sits, retiring a plane whose mission can be fulfilled by other platforms is the lowest risk approach.