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A Modest Defense of the Air Force Plan to Retire the A-10 Warthog

This is a repost of a bit I wrote last year about the Air Force attempt to retire the A-10.

I’m not saying retiring it is a good idea, merely that the Air Force has legitimate, if unpleasant, reasons for the decision.

National Review has a good piece making the case for keeping the A-10 in service. I do have a few nits to pick with it. First, any article that quotes Pierre Sprey today gets dinged. He’s simply not a serious voice on the topic.

Second, every article automatically reaches for the F-35 argument. Yes, eventually the F-35 will take the place of the A-10 as a CAS provider. And every article mentions the current shortcomings of the F-35. What those articles always fail to mention is that while the F-35 is entering into service, the real interim replacements for the A-10 in the CAS role will be the F-16 and the F-15E, until such time as they are phased out of service.

And finally, there is often something of a cult about the A-10 that argues not that it is the best at CAS, but that it is somehow the ONLY platform that can perform the mission. That would be something of a surprise to the United States Marine Corps. You know, the people that invented CAS? The service that doesn’t have the A-10? The service that currently uses fast jets like the F-18 and AV-8B for CAS, and seems pretty happy and competent at it? You know, the service that has bet the entire future of Marine aviation on the F-35B as the CAS platform of choice for the future? Maybe they know something the A-10 cult doesn’t.

Again, I love the A-10, and would love to see it remain in service. But GEN Welsh’s decision to retire it isn’t a conspiracy to avoid the mission and only buy sexy jets. It’s a tad more nuanced that than.

Original post below.

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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.

1. Money

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.

Money

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.

Closing

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.

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No, the Army doesn’t want the A-10.

We argued that some time ago the Army simply wasn’t interested in taking over the A-10 should the Air Force attempt to divest itself of the plane.

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.

And now, Army Secretary McHugh has made that official.

The U.S. Army has no interest in taking over the Air Force’s fleet of A-10 attack planes, even if it would save the venerable Cold War-era aircraft from the bone yard.

The service’s top civilian, Army Secretary John McHugh, rejected the idea of accepting hand-me-down A-10 Warthogs from the Air Force.

“No chance,” he said during a breakfast meeting with reporters on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. “That’s not even been a topic of casual conversation.”

“With our own aircraft fleet we’re taking some pretty dramatic steps to reconfigure and become more affordable, and the A-10 mission is not something we considered. That’s an Air Force mission as it should be and I’m sure the Air Force feels the same way,” McHugh said.

The Marines? They’ve leveraged the future of not just Marine Aviation, but the entire Marine Corps on the F-35B. They want nothing to do with the A-10.

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Small Diameter Bomb II headed for Low Rate Initial Production

The normalizing of precision guidance for munitions has lead to a trend of decreasing warhead size for many applications. There’s no sense hauling one five hundred pound bomb when you can get by with a 250 pound bomb, especially when you can carry two of the later.

For the last decade or so, the poster child of this trend was the Small Diameter Bomb, or SDB, a GPS/INS guided bomb of about 250 pounds, equipped with wings to allow it considerable standoff range, and a variety of fuzing options to allow it to attack either soft targets or hardened targets.

 

But the SDB has a couple of drawbacks, primarily that it cannot attack moving targets, or be retargeted after launch.

And so the SDB II program came into being. SDB II uses the same basic GPS/INS guidance architecture, but also adds terminal guidance capability, allowing it to either attack moving targets, or to shift targets via a secure datalink back to the launching plane.

SDB II art

Whereas just a few years ago, simply adding GPS/INS navigation to a bomb was pretty technically challenging, today the Air Force and prime contractor Raytheon are able to do that, and add not one, but three terminal seeker modes to SBD II. Millimeter Wavelength Radar, Imaging Ifrared, or Semi Active Laser Homing are all options, on each bomb!

It’s not mentioned much, but one has to suspect a large part of the justification of such a sophisticated seeker suite isn’t so much a desire to be able to pick off the odd pick up truck or tank, but rather to add to the selection of weapons the Air Force can use to roll back sophisticated air defense networks equipped with weapons like the S-300 and S-400 Surface to Air Missiles. 

Now, one single weapon, even the SDB II, isn’t a cure for high threat SAM networks. But combined with escort and standoff jamming (from, say EF-18G Growlers), HARM and JSOW missiles, and a plentitude of decoys such as the MALD-J, one can both blind and claw away at an Integrated Air Defense System to the point where more conventional strikes are no longer prohibitively risky.

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BUFF News

To call the Boeing B-52 iconic would be something of an understatement. The last B-52H rolled off the lines in 1962. Fifty-three years later, the Air Force still operates a fleet of 74 of the behemoths, and is tentatively scheduled to retire them around 2040, almost 80 years after the last delivery.

Foxtrot Alpha takes a look at a proposal that has again risen, one that would seem to be a no-brainer- replacing the ancient TF33 engines with a modern turbo fan.

The USAF is kicking around ‘creative concepts’ under which it could re-engine its fleet of 74 ever evolving B-52H Stratofortresses. With the bombers remaining in front-line service until at least 2040, and considering that flying with eight 1960s vintage TF33 engines is far from fuel efficient (burning 3k gallons an hour), re-engined B-52s should make great financial sense.

It’s been looked at before, and the old MAACO issue came up. Pay me now, or pay me later. And the Air Force chose poorly to pay later. What should have been a fairly easy choice in the days of Reagan defense spending was deferred for other priorities. Of course, back then, the Air Force thought the B-2 would replace the B-52, not just complement it.

The usual suggestions for the replacement engine show up in the article. One engine not mentioned that was a tad surprising is a somewhat less modern engine, the JT8D-219.

The basic JT8D, most familiar to folks as the powerplant of the DC-9, is itself a low-bypass turbofan adaptation of the J52 turbojet that powered the A-6 Intruder and EA-6B Prowler, and later marks of the A-4 Skyhawk.

The –219 uses an increased bypass ration fan to increase thrust, decrease specific fuel consumption, and as an added bonus, lower the noise footprint.

The –219 was specifically designed to replace the JT3D series of engines on 707 based airframes. And of course, the JT3D is the civilian designation of the TF33 powering the B-52. The –219 has already been selected to replace the engines on the Air Force’s fleet of 16 E-8 JSTARS radar surveillance planes, though the funding fell through.

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You’re probably also somewhat familiar with the Air Force’s Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. Where the retired airplanes of the services are (almost literally) put out to pasture. Many are used as sources of spare parts, and others merely awaiting recycling into beer cans.

What you may not realize is that it is fairly common to pull aircraft out of there and put them back into service. The term of art used is “regeneration.” While some aircraft types are regenerated fairly often, others, not so much.

For the first time, a B-52H has been regenerated.

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) – History was made in Tucson at the world famous “Boneyard.” Perhaps you were lucky enough to see the B-52 Stratofortress fly over the Old Pueblo on Friday.
For the first time, the Air Force regenerated a B-52 from the Boneyard, which is technically called the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (309 AMARG). AMARG is a one-of-a-kind specialized facility within the Air Force Materiel Command structure.
 

One of the things that makes this interesting is that the B-52 fleet falls under the auspices of START II nuclear forces treaty. All earlier marks of B-52 were very visibly chopped up (with the exception of a few museum pieces).

No mention was made of why a BUFF had to be regenerated. Which, to me raises the question, which one already in the fleet needs to be retired, and why? Hmmm.

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HH-60W as the Combat Rescue Helicopter

I’m not sure why this older post about the Combat Rescue Helicopter Program has suddenly attracted a lot of traffic today, but it has.

There was a post elsewhere from back in December talking about the HH-60W at DefenseTech.

And here’s a post, undated, from SOFMag. This particular post hits on the same chord I was harping on years ago.

That being said, the HH-47 offered significant improvements in performance over the HH-60 – and beat the competitors by wide margins in some areas as well. It had a range of over 2000 kilometers without aerial refueling, which is significantly higher than the S-92 (just under 1500 kilometers) and the US101 (about 1400 kilometers). The maximum unrefuelled range of an HH-60 is just under 820 kilometers. This means that the HH-47 would be able to search longer than both the present CSAR helicopter and its competitors for a downed pilot, or search further away than the other options without having to refuel. This means that there will be much less risk to the HC-130 tankers (which were first deployed in 1964). The HH-47 would also have had a higher ceiling (18,500 feet) than the HH-60 (14,000 feet), or its competitors (the H-92’s ceiling is 13,780 feet, while the US101’s is 14,000 feet).

The OBVIOUS choice for a CSAR platform was a variant of the MH-47. Common sense, however, is not the metrics by which weapons procurement programs are run.

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A Dirty Little Secret about the A-10

As usual, the emotions are running high surrounding the Air Force’s intent to retire the A-10 Warthog. Congress says no to Air Force plans. Air Force digs in its heels. Members of the Air Force sing its praises to Congress. Deputy Commander of Air Combat Command tries to shut that praise down:

A top U.S. Air Force general warned officers that praising the A-10 attack plane to lawmakers amounts to “treason,” according to a news report.

Maj. Gen. James Post, vice commander of Air Combat Command, was quoted as saying, “If anyone accuses me of saying this, I will deny it … anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason,” in a report published Thursday on The Arizona Daily Independent.

Obviously, that’s a pretty stupid thing for MG Post to say. You can read the rest of the story for the background and the PAO trying to unspin the General’s dumb statement.

But as usual, the comments section has something that gets mentioned every single time in the last 20 years the retirement of the A-10 has been discussed:

You can be sure he does not want these planes transferee to the Army, who would be glad to take them an use them for the next 20 years.

And therein lies a dirty little secret.

The Army would never try to take over the A-10 fleet.

In the midst of a drawdown that might see the Army slashed to as few as 420,000 active duty troops, there is simply no way the Army could find the warm bodies to fly the A-10, let alone maintain and support it. And it’s not just the operators at the tip of the spear. While the A-10 is capable of austere operations by Air Force standards, it would require investments in training and support equipment that the Army has no need for. For instance, the armament of the A-10 alone would require entire new career fields with associated training and personnel management costs.

The money and manpower requirements would come out of other Army programs (likely the attack helicopter community). And given that the Air Force, whether it has A-10s or not, will still be tasked to provide Close Air Support and Battlefield Air Interdiction, the Army would simply not see the costs to other priority Army programs as in any way justifying taking on a new role, let alone one with very old aircraft with increasing maintenance costs.

And no, the Marines don’t want it either.

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Air Force Weapons School invades Nevada

The Air Force Weapons School is actually something of a combination schoolhouse and think tank.

It’s the capstone course for the tactical employment of various platforms (with tracks for each, such as fighters, bombers, and in this case airlift).

But more than simply teaching tactics, it also uses its exercises to develop new tactics to defeat emerging threats.

The days of massed airdrops on a divisional scale may well be over. But the threat of an airdrop on a somewhat smaller scale is still  a useful option, and may indeed be called upon again, especially in a relatively benign air defense environment.

In this instance, the paratroopers of the 82nd are pretty much a token force, about one rifle company in size, but one suspects there was enough leadership present to bring back to home station the current thinking on planning and executing such a mission.

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