War Over the Warthogs

Air Force and Congress fighting over plan to ground soldiers’ favorite warplane

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Air Force photo

A snarling A-10, complete with its seven-barrel 30mm Gatling gun under its snout.

It’s old, it’s slow, it’s ugly, and—unlike a Swiss army knife—the Air’s Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt II can only do one thing: help grunts on the ground. So think of it as the military equivalent of Grandma’s tarnished turkey-carving knife that only comes out at Thanksgiving. It does a fine job on the old bird, but can a cash-strapped Air Force afford to keep the A-10 flying when its sole mission is to save the lives of U.S. troops in trouble?

As the Pentagon’s budget vise squeezes the Air Force, it is considering a decision to ground its 326 A-10s forever to save money, including $3.5 billion between 2015 and 2019. The idea has triggered a dogfight between the Air Force and A-10 backers on Capitol Hill.

Ground-pounders are caught in the crosshairs. “As an Army guy, I will tell you, the A-10s are very close to the Army, and we’re wondering what will do that mission,” General Frank Grass, the National Guard chief, said Tuesday. “But when the nation cannot afford the force it has today, something has to go.”

The notion is painful to the Air Force’s top officer who spent 1,000 of his early flight hours piloting A-10s. “If we have platforms that can do multiple missions well, and maybe not do one as well as another airplane…the airplane that is limited to a specific type of mission area becomes the one most at risk,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in September. “I think there’s some logic to this that’s hard for us to avoid, no matter how much I happen to love the airplane.”

While soldiers love the airplane they call the Warthog, they’ll get over it, the Air Force’s top warfighter believes. “If a bad guy goes away,” said General Mike Hostage, chief of Air Combat Command, “the Army’s not going to argue about how it went away.”

The Air Force would eventually fill much of the A-10’s troop-support mission with its new F-35 fighter, which has been plagued by problems and cost overruns. “The Air Force is growing increasingly desperate to eliminate competition in its force structure to the F-35,” says weapons-watcher Winslow Wheeler, who spent 30 years monitoring Pentagon procurement on Capitol Hill and at the Government Accountability Office, and now runs the nonprofit Straus Military Reform Project. If the Air Force prevails, “the biggest cost will be in the Defense Department’s ability to support soldiers and Marines engaged in close combat on the ground—a mission no aircraft can perform as well as the A-10.” Other Air Force planes that the service says could be tapped to help ground troops include the AC-130, F-15E, F-16, B-1 and B-52.

In contrast to the F-35’s woes, the A-10 stands as a poster child on how the nation should buy its weapons.

“Close attention to key mission characteristics (lethality, survivability, responsiveness, and simplicity) allowed the concept formulation and subsequent system design to result in an effective close-air support aircraft, and design-to-cost goals kept the government and contractor [Fairchild Republic] focused on meeting the critical requirements at an affordable cost,” a candid 2010 Air Force report said. “The A-10 did not meet all its cost goals, but it came much closer to them than most major defense development programs did in that time frame or since then.”

General Electric GAU-8/A

National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

The A-10’s GAU-8 gun alongside a Volkswagen.

The A-10’s titanium-clad cockpit and self-sealing fuel cells protects its lone pilot. Manual flight controls back up its hydraulic system. These give the A-10 pilot the confidence to fly low and slow to take out enemy armor or troops with the eye-watering seven-barrel GAU-8 Gatling gun protruding from under its nose.

It made its combat debut in the 1991 Gulf War, where it flew more than 8,000 sorties while destroying a big chunk of the Iraqi military: 987 tanks, 926 artillery pieces, 501 armored personnel carriers, and 1,106 trucks. Only six A-10s were lost. It has since flown in action over Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, again. Tales like this have made it the grunts’ best friend.

“The A-10 was somewhat forced on a reluctant Air Force by the needs of the Army,” that 2010 Air Force report said. “The Air Force believed that fighters that were not otherwise engaged could take on close-air support when needed.” The Army disagreed: it “needed an aircraft that could carry a great amount of ordnance, loiter in the area for some time with excellent maneuverability, and had the ability to take hits from enemy ground fire.” Ultimately, the Air Force agreed to field the A-10, many experts believe, “to keep the Army from taking over the close-air support mission.”

Last week, 35 lawmakers told Pentagon leaders they would “oppose any effort” by the Air Force to ground its A-10s beginning next fall because it would “unnecessarily endanger our service members in future conflicts.”

One of the leaders of the effort is Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a member of the armed services committee. “Many soldiers and Marines are alive today because of the unique capabilities of the A-10, as well as the focused close-air support training and dedicated close-air support culture of A-10 pilots,” the lawmakers’ Nov. 13 letter said. Ayotte should know: her husband, Joe Daley, flew A-10s in the first Gulf War.

In some ways, the F-35’s woes could be the A-10’s salvation. Ayotte is readying an amendment that would order the Air Force to keep its A-10s flying until its F-35s are fully operational. That’s currently slated to happen in 2021.

The Air Force, apparently, isn’t taking any chances. On Tuesday, the Northrop Grumman Corp. announced it had landed Air Force contracts totaling $24 million “required to keep the A-10 weapon system viable through 2028 and beyond.”

9 comments
zeustiak
zeustiak

The idea that the Air Force would put a hundred million dollar aircraft that close to ground fire is ridiculous.  The A-10 needs a replacement, not a useless stand-in.  

SteveColtman
SteveColtman

I have no great enthusiasm for the F-35 as it is, but the thought of it being used in close air support, especially in insurgency-type wars just makes me despair. CAS aircraft have to be based maybe thousands of miles from home, in austere locations with few local resources. So every nut, bolt and cannon-shell needs to be air-lifted in at great expense. In such a circumstance a simple and reliable aircraft which needs only a modest maintenance crew is what you need. In addition, CAS aircraft are at risk on the ground from enemy attack if they are based close to the soldiers they are supporting. However, an expensive asset like the F-35 would never be exposed to such risk, it would be based further away, somewhere safe, but then have a longer response time and/or need expensive tankers to keep it aloft. I am not suggesting we go so far down market as to employ converted crop-dusting aircraft (as S. African mercenaries are currently doing in East Africa) but to use something as exotic and expensive as the F-35 to drop one little bomb on one low-value target is financial madness. The most asymmetrical thing about asymmetric warfare is the budgets. And this does not address the issue of pilot training. It is all very well having swing-role aircraft that can, in theory do everything but there must be limits to how good one pilot can be at CAS, and dogfighting, and recce, and deep strike etc.

DoctorAmmo
DoctorAmmo

It's so nice to see our sister service showing her love for us Air Force guys.  We're usually the butt of their jokes, with our air conditioned tents, fancy dining facilities (chow hall is just too far below our standards), and fancy fitness centers.  ;-D

ThomasHall
ThomasHall

The A-10 named the Thunderbolt after the P-47 Thunderbolt of WWII fame has been a good plane providing ground support and far cheaper than the F-35 pork, boondoogle. The Air Force generals always love the latest most expensive aircraft while wasting taxpayers money with these massive defense contracts that have added trillions to the National Debt which was less than $800 billion through Carter. Reagan tripled it with massive government and defense spending, GHW Bush added to it will costly military invasions and GW Bush more than doubled it yet again with 20+ years of combined wars based upon lies, arrogance, incompetence and greed projected to cost $6 trillion as the lifetimes of war bills and costly VA healthcare come in. Notice that the GOP's 435+ war profiteers made billions while wasting hundreds of billions in failed nation-building while failing our troops.

cent-fan
cent-fan

"Last week, 35 lawmakers told Pentagon leaders...  "

Well, there's your problem right there. 

RichardBrubaker
RichardBrubaker

Most of the KIA from friendly fire in Operation Freedom came from these.One Battalion commander said he rather face a couple of Iraq Regiments then have one Air Force A-10 overhead.

RobertNguyen
RobertNguyen

Please keep the A-10 - buy less of the F-35. On the basis of cost - the F-35 is too expensive and ill fitted for ground support mission.

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

Nothing better illustrates the dysfunction of the military budget than this fight. On the one hand, a relatively cost-effective aircraft that excels at the type of conflict mission our military is likely to encounter over the next generation. On the other, a trouble-prone, over-budget, but flashy aircraft that appears to be filling none of its designated roles well. This should be a no-brainer decision, except that the F35 has a lot more potential to drive profits to the pockets of the military-congressional complex.

JetJock
JetJock

@RichardBrubaker Not sure who you're talking to. Virtually every Army guy I talk to can tell stories about how A-10s saved his butt.