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Assessing One of the Primary Rationales to Retire the A-10

 
A U.S. Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker aircraft prepares to refuel an A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft from the 124th Operations Support Flight over Utah Feb. 23, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stephany Richards/Released)
 A U.S. Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker aircraft prepares to refuel an A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft from the 124th Operations Support Flight over Utah Feb. 23, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stephany Richards/Released)

Based on the briefing that the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) Mark Welsh gave on Friday, December 13, the news media has published yet more articles focused on the A-10 close air support aircraft and CSAF Welsh's continuing effort to retire it as soon as possible.  Find those articles here (Washington Times), here (War Is Boring), here (Defense Daily), here (Arizona Daily Independent), here (DefenseTech.org), and here (Breaking Defense). 

Perhaps the most factual-seeming argument that Welsh uses to support his intent to retire the A-10 is that there are many other aircraft successfully performing close air support today in Afghanistan, namely the F-16C, F-15E, B-1B and the B-52.

More specifically, that argument supposes that any aircraft capable of delivering guided munitions to specific locations on the ground-even from 20,000 feet at .8 mach-can perform close air support at least well enough to permit the Air Force to unload the CAS-specialized A-10.  That argument was debunked time and time again by multiple speakers at a seminar sponsored by the Straus Military Reform Project and POGO on November 22.  (No wonder Air Force commanders tried to prohibit Air Force personnel from attending the Straus/POGO seminar.)

Find both short and long summaries of the seminar's major points here, but note especially the comment from an A-10 pilot:

"Anybody can carry [precision guided] GBU-12s, but that does not mean you can do close air support."

Also note the explanation for this comment, which was offered by multiple speakers:

Close Air Support-immediate, extremely accurate and persistent fire support and observation for troops directly engaged in combat-is primarily a people issue, not a hardware issue: Air and ground commanders--at all levels--must want it to occur, and the air and ground operators performing CAS must "live among each other's armpits" in order to understand each other's tactical needs, achieve split second implicit communication and innovate ever new and increasingly powerful ways of combining air and ground assets.  Wherever cooperation this close has occurred, CAS has been overwhelmingly successful in saving the lives of troops in contact with the enemy, greatly reducing the "friendly fire" events that devastate units at the moral, mental and physical levels, and achieving operational victory.

If the Air Force succeeds in "divesting" the A-10 fleet, the existing cadre of dedicated, highly skilled CAS experts will be dispersed, leaving only partially trained multi-mission pilots with weak ties to the ground forces:  that is to say, pilots who will see CAS as a secondary mission and who will necessarily perform it from inappropriate altitudes and distances, at inappropriate speeds, from inappropriate aircraft.  Because of their inherent vulnerability, maneuverability and other limitations, the helicopters in the Army and Marine Corps, the Short Take Off and Vertical Landing jets of the Marines Corps and "fast mover" fighters and bombers of the Air Force cannot replicate the capabilities of the A-10.  In particular, the Air Force's and the Marines' new multi-role jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, cannot match the A-10 on virtually any the primary characteristics of an effective close air support aircraft; for CAS it is a major step backward.

Moreover, the combat veterans also described the operating characteristics that any aircraft performing close air support must have -

  • A cadre of CAS pilots who thoroughly understand the mission and constantly train it;
  • Ability to fly low and slow enough to find targets independently, distinguish real targets from civilians and friendlies, operate in bad weather (below ceilings of 1,000 feet) when the enemy likes to attack and turn around and re-attack in a matter of seconds;
  • Three hours of fuel and weapons enabling an extended lethal presence over the battlefield, and the ability to do that up to three times a day;
  • Operating off rough airstrips (such as has been the case in Afghanistan and Iraq's western desert) and living in tents to foster close coordination with the ground force;
  • Extreme survivability from armor, triple redundant flight controls, adequate countermeasures and tactics; (for example, against modern Iraqi and Serb air defenses in 1991 and 1999, A-10s proved far more survivable than predicted and at least as survivable as far more costly, so-called "more capable" aircraft, such as the F-117);
  • A simple, rugged airframe that can be maintained and repaired quickly;
  • A highly effective, precise weapon--usable when the enemy is ten yards from friendlies--such as the GAU-8 gun with enough ammunition for ten to twelve firing passes.
  • A diversity of other munitions to compensate for those that may be defeated by countermeasures in future war (GPS guidance) or that may not be useable for extremely close-in attacks (laser guidance);
  • Radios (and commensurate training) to communicate effectively with all levels of ground forces;
  • High combat capability per dollar to produce a force that can be bought and maintained in large numbers at affordable cost.

These reasons are why Soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan say they "love" the A-10 and vastly prefer it to the other platforms.  Almost all of these characteristics are either absent or barely present in the aircraft that CSAF Welsh wants the US ground force of the future to rely on.  If one considers the F-35, the preferred Air Force and Marine Corps solution for future CAS, that aircraft is even worse.

Finally, the argument is frequently made today "Don't worry; we will not be fighting a boots on the ground war (like Afghanistan) in the future."  It is a presumption that was also popular before it was proved wrong after September 11, 2001, after August 2, 1964 and after June 25, 1950.

CSAF Welsh's arguments are designed for the typical Washington mindset; they sound logical but on inspection they hold little water.  To test my assertion, I urge you to read the materials that describe the seminar the Straus Military Reform Project and POGO held in November (and that describe a follow-on briefing for Hill staff).  Those materials include the hard won lessons of ground and air combat veterans of the Vietnam, Balkan, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars; videos of close air support in Afghanistan, and historic and contemporary bibliographies.  Find those materials and more here.

Winslow Wheeler, Director, Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight

By: Winslow Wheeler
Director, Straus Military Reform Project, CDI at POGO, POGO

Mr. Wheeler's areas of expertise include Congress, the Defense Budget, National Security, Pentagon Reform and Weapons Systems

The goal of the Straus Military Reform Project is to secure far more effective military forces and much more ethical and professional military and civilian leadership at significantly lower budget levels.

We would like to thank Philip A. Straus Jr. and family for their generous support.

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