Happily, the Air Force has failed again in its crusade to kill off a great plane
This December saw the climax of one of the more peculiar conflicts in Washington. It was a battle over an Air Force plane. But it was not one of those standard-issue Washington procurement battles in which congressional bean counters seek to kill off a hugely expensive project that the relevant military branch insists is vital for American security. It was almost the opposite: The politicians were trying to save a weapon system, and the service brass, together with one of America’s aerospace giants, were trying to get rid of it.
The weapon in question is the A-10 ground attack plane, officially the “Thunderbolt II” but widely known as the “Warthog.” It has been around for more than three decades. It’s one of the outstanding successes of modern American military aircraft, and its effectiveness in recent wars has made it beloved by American and allied troops.
The effort of the Air Force to retire prematurely this storied plane has few parallels, not just because it has faced dogged, and ultimately successful, resistance from well-informed members of Congress, but because it has lasted 25 years and has its origin in what looks like a troubling moral and intellectual crisis among Air Force leadership.
Every service has its cultural eccentricities, its strategic fashions, its technological fetishes that cause it to see defense priorities in terms of its parochial interests. But the obsessional Air Force campaign to get rid of the A-10 suggests an especially perverse set of priorities. After all, the A-10 has been one of the great airborne success stories of the last two wars, and even now is enabling the United States to battle ISIS in Iraq in a way that is not just far more economical than flying fast jets from distant aircraft carriers or bases at the other end of the Gulf, but highly effective.
Ask anyone who has served on the ground—or worked near ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan—what aircraft they would prefer to come and give them close air support and they will say the A-10. They don’t just love the Warthog because it is deadly, though the distinctive “Brrrap” sound of its 30 mm cannon is dreaded by the likes of the Taliban. Ground troops prefer it because planes like the F-16, the French Mirage, and the British Typhoon are just too fast to carry out genuine close air support efficiently and safely and are much more likely to kill them—or civilians—by mistake.
Even early in the Iraq war when U.S. forces called for air support, some 80 to 90 percent of the requests specifically asked for the A-10. In 2006 a leaked email from a British Army officer involved in fierce fighting in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province prompted a political storm in the U.K. by talking about near misses of his own troops by RAF fast jets and praising the Warthog. “I’d take an A-10 over a Eurofighter [Typhoon] any day,” said Maj. James Loden of the Parachute Regiment. U.S. soldiers have similar stories. One experienced NCO in Afghanistan told National Defense magazine, “The A-10s never missed, and with the F/A-18s we had to do two or three bomb runs to get them on the target.”
The pilots of fast jets, no matter how good they are, simply have less time to see what is happening on the ground. They are more reliant on technology that can go wrong, and there is little question that they are more likely to inflict friendly fire and collateral damage casualties.
USAF brass don’t like to admit this. That’s partly because they tend to look down on both the A-10 and the mission for which it is so suitable, but also because it implicitly undermines their massive, desperate public relations campaign on behalf of the troubled, hugely over-budget F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a high-tech multirole plane that they claim, unconvincingly, will be able to replace the A-10 as a close air support aircraft.
Quite apart from the unlikelihood that the Air Force would ever want to risk a fragile $200 million stealth jet “down in the weeds” on low-level missions against ISIS, the Taliban, or their equivalents, it makes little sense to replace a plane designed specifically for a task with one that may be fundamentally unsuited for it. As Pierre Sprey, who played a key role in designing the F-16 and the A-10, has written, “As a ‘close air support’ attack aircraft to help U.S. troops engaged in combat, the F-35 is a nonstarter. It is too fast to see the tactical targets it is shooting at; too delicate and flammable to withstand ground fire; and it lacks the payload and especially the endurance to loiter usefully over U.S. forces for sustained periods as they manoeuvre on the ground.”
This is not to say that there are no valid arguments for replacing the A-10 at some point—especially if America’s armed forces start facing different enemies using more effective antiaircraft technology than the Taliban or even Syria have at hand. But it’s surely bizarre to go to the mattresses to get rid of an aircraft without having anything in the pipeline that can truly replace it.
The A-10’s original purpose was to give U.S. forces a chance of stopping vast Soviet tank armies if the Warsaw Pact invaded Western Europe. Accordingly, the engineers at Republic-Fairchild built a uniquely rugged aircraft around a powerful automatic cannon. The plane is ugly and ungraceful, but it can take off and land on rough airstrips close to the combat zone and requires relatively little maintenance. It has a long “loiter time,” making it ideal for search and destroy missions. It can take an astonishing amount of punishment from ground fire, its cockpit offers unparalleled visibility, and its pilot is well protected by a titanium armored “bathtub.”
The USAF, however, never embraced the A-10. It hadn’t really wanted the plane in the first place, but it had to field something like it or face the probability that the Army would demand the right to field its own fixed-wing aircraft. (Theoretically the Army has been forbidden to fly fixed-wing planes since the so-called Key West Agreement of 1947, which divided permission to field aviation assets between the older armed services and the new U.S. Air Force.)
As the Cold War came to an end, the Air Force saw an opportunity to mothball its 300 A-10s. But then Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the A-10 was deployed against Saddam’s armored divisions. Its success was so dramatic—even as other, faster, more expensive jets like the British Tornado failed—that its retirement had to be postponed.
The A-10 then turned out to be equally useful in the Balkan bombing campaigns, during which primitive Serbian air defenses were able to shoot down one of the latest, stealthiest, most expensive U.S. aircraft.
By 2003 the USAF had managed to hand off its A-10 fleet to the Air National Guard. Once the second invasion of Iraq had begun, however, there could be no question of not using the Warthog to provide close air support to coalition ground forces.
In the next few years, A-10s, mostly flown by Air National Guard pilots, became the mainstay of these missions both in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force and Navy used plenty of other aircraft types, and the Army and Marine Corps used their Apache and Cobra attack helicopters in support of ground troops, but the A-10 turned out to be the ideal counterinsurgency tool.
Even more frustrating for those who wanted to get rid of it, efforts to dismiss the A-10 as merely a “single-mission airframe” have been undermined by its surprising utility for other missions besides tactical ground attack.
In the Balkans it proved to be useful for combat search and rescue. During the first Gulf war, besides shooting up thousands of Iraqi tanks, the A-10 also shot down enemy helicopters, making it a star of what the military calls -“Battlefield Air Interdiction.” In Iraq and Afghanistan the A-10 turned out to be excellent for Forward Air Control (guiding other aircraft and artillery fire) in the tradition of Vietnam-era planes like the Mohawk and Bronco.
Right now in Iraq, A-10s are carrying out not just close air support but also the search and destroy sorties that the Air Force calls strike coordinated armed reconnaissance (SCAR) missions, for which it is ideally suited, unlike fragile, fuel-guzzling F-35s or even F-16s.
In 2013 the Air Force brass thought they could exploit the sequester to finally retire the A-10. Sure there was still fighting in Afghanistan, and mothballing the A-10 would mean using fast jets in its place, with all of the attendant downside, but the political opportunity was too good to miss. Indeed, it looked for a while like the A-10 was doomed. It didn’t help that the plane has no big aerospace lobby behind it, the last A-10 having been built in 1984 by a company that no longer exists. But Senator John McCain, supported by the Army and veterans’ groups, began a congressional insurrection on its behalf.
It was an uneven struggle. The Air Force and the Pentagon as a whole, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, pushed for the plane’s mothballing. Again and again they assured Congress that the A-10’s retirement would be no great loss as the soon-to-be-ready F-35 is more than capable of doing everything the A-10 does. Of course, the Air Force knows perfectly well that supersonic jet fighters are not well-suited to the down and dirty jobs that the A-10 does so well. But admitting that might mean admitting the shortcomings of the troubled F-35.
Certainly the ruthlessness of the USAF’s efforts to retire the A-10 during the last two years seems to be a byproduct of the service’s ardent commitment to the F-35 and its terror that the latter might be canceled or cut. You can see this in the way that the Air Force has dishonestly redefined “close air support” so that the term includes dropping bombs from high above the clouds, and also in its shiftiness about when the F-35 will be deployable.
The Air Force, like the Navy and Marine Corps, has plenty to be nervous about when it comes to the F-35. It is not only already the most expensive weapons project in history and late by almost a decade, there are many people within the defense establishment and even the Air Force who think it a misconceived and wasteful procurement catastrophe.
Part of the problem is that the F-35 was marketed on “commonality”—one airframe for all three services—but built around the Marine Corps’s demand for a jet that can take off and land vertically like the Harrier jump jet. The resulting design compromises meant what should have been the best fighter in the world is slower than and aerodynamically inferior to the modern Russian and Chinese designs it might come up against. As a 2008 RAND Corporation study put it, the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”
Perhaps the Air Force should have realized this earlier, and fought for a top-of-the-line plane without a fat waist that makes it slow to cross the sound barrier and all but incapable of agile maneuver. Instead it has put all its trust in the F-35’s “stealth” characteristics—i.e., its low observability by certain kinds of radar, and the way its sensors enable it to engage enemy aircraft beyond visual range. If everything works well, the F-35 can spot an enemy far away and then destroy it with a long-range missile and not have to worry about being slow and ungainly.
However, the F-35 is only stealthy from the front, and even then its cross section is readily observable by old-fashioned low-frequency radars, still used by the Russians and many other countries. Moreover, while stealth technology was exciting and seemed as unbeatable as a Harry Potter invisibility cloak back in the 1980s when the F-35 was conceived, in the 30 years since, adversaries have been working on clever countermeasures and/or developing their own stealth planes.
But even before the F-35 program, with all its implications for the reputations, promotions, and future employment of USAF brass became publicly problematic, the Air Force disliked the A-10, for reasons that had little to do with mission effectiveness and much to do with considerations like aesthetics, self-image, and interservice rivalry.
The A-10 is an ugly, unglamorous aircraft and therefore unappealing to those whose world is steeped in the “knights of the air” mythology of air-to-air combat. It is relatively simple and inexpensive—and therefore has little added value for officers who might want to curry favors with the aerospace industry.
Moreover, despite its age, the A-10 is relatively inexpensive to fuel and operate. That sets a bad precedent for an organization that has struggled to justify the purchase of fragile high-tech aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 that often need days of repair after each mission.
Finally (and perhaps most damning of all), the point of the A-10’s existence is to support personnel from rival services: The Warthog does the grubby job of assisting soldiers and Marines in their work. But the USAF is traditionally and primarily interested in two missions far removed from such tasks—strategic bombing and air-to-air combat.
It may sound extraordinary that senior Air Force officers could be almost unconcerned with the safety and success of American ground troops, or that they would make such a fetish of the purchase of expensive, glamorous, high-tech pointy-nosed toys as to undermine the overall military capacity of the United States, but that seems to be the case.
Last fall, the Air Force tried a final gambit. Its spokesmen claimed that the F-35 program would be even more over budget and delayed if the A-10 weren’t “divested.” The latter’s defenders responded that getting rid of all 280-odd A-10s would save enough money to buy just 12 F-35s.
But the USAF wasn’t done yet. It claimed in November that the F-35’s crisis was a matter of maintenance personnel shortages and that the program could not flourish without the 800-odd maintenance people who currently work on the A-10. This was not true. As the well-informed War is Boring website quickly pointed out, there are thousands of maintenance personnel working on other aircraft types (including rarely used B-1B bombers and F-15 interceptors) who could easily be diverted to support the F-35.
Fortunately, Congress wasn’t gulled, and the latest National Defense Authorization Act forbade the USAF from retiring the A-10. It helped that the politicians fighting for the A-10 included not just McCain but also Sen. Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire, whose husband flew A-10s in Iraq, and Representative Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel who herself flew A-10s in combat.
ISIS also played a role in saving the A-10. A single squadron of Warthogs would have been enough to stop the ISIS blitzkrieg into northern Iraq—especially given that during the summer the Islamist force moved in long, vulnerable convoys of pickup trucks. Though it will be harder to dislodge ISIS forces now that they are hiding in Iraq’s towns, the Pentagon has deployed an Indiana National Guard A-10 air wing to Iraq, where it has been in action supporting Kurdish forces.
While the A-10’s supporters have won for now, the underlying problems with the Air Force remain. There’s an argument to be made that if it is institutionally unwilling to take seriously the mission of delivering close air support to American troops, as seems to be the case, then it would make sense to abolish its near-monopoly on fixed-wing aircraft and hand the A-10 over to a resuscitated U.S. Army Air Corps that would be pleased to have it.
And perhaps the USAF should also give up other unglamorous tasks that are about supporting soldiers, sailors, and Marines. It could become a smaller force that operates interceptors, strategic bombers, tankers, and America’s strategic missiles. It’s a solution that could keep the fighter jockeys happy (at least until they are all replaced by unmanned aircraft) without undermining the effectiveness of America’s military as a whole. Of course, it would be far better if the service simply came to its senses and made the national interest, rather than the promotion of the F-35, its first priority.