Air Force Brass Ignores War's Lessons to Wipe Out A-10s

Snow weighs down the tail of an A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft static display in Heritage Park March 6, 2012, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The base had received more than 8 inches of snow in the previous week. Average annual snowfall in the area for March usually exceeds 7 inches. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Araos/Released)
Snow weighs down the tail of an A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft static display in Heritage Park March 6, 2012, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Araos/Released)

The Air Force is so blinded by the allure of the multi-mission F-35 that it cannot, or will not, understand the nature of close air support (CAS) on today’s battlefield; how very close our young troops are to the enemy and the special equipment, controllers, and pilots it takes to perform CAS.

Until recently, without the knowledge of Congress, the Air Force was moving fast on a secret plan to help fund the F-35 by abolishing the A-10 fleet.  Thanks to some closet patriots contacting the Hill, the cat is now out of the bag, but the damage has already been done.

A-10 training hours have been cut back and the last class of A-10 pilots is going through training. Three A-10 units have been deactivated or are in the process of being deactivated. Next year there will be no A-10 class at the Weapons School.  Each step has increased the unit costs of the remaining A-10s and soon the fleet will be too expensive to keep. By the time Congress is aware of the plot, there will be no A-10s.

The plan to get rid of the A-10 has been  on the desk of General Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force Chief of Staff. His decision will be one of the most important of his career, because this is not about losing an aircraft; it is about losing the CAS mission. There is no other aircraft in the Air Force inventory that can do what the A-10 does. The stories from the battlefield are countless. One will suffice.

In Afghanistan a Special Forces team attacked the compound of a Taliban leader. The Taliban reacted with heavy fire and the Air Force combat controller with the team was severely wounded. A Predator was overhead but could not get a shot. Nor could an F-16 which ran low on gas and departed. When two A-10s arrived, the gravely wounded controller called for them to make their gun runs “danger close.” The pilots fired high explosive cannon shells that impacted a mere 65 feet from the team. The A-10s broke up the attack and provided cover so the friendlies could leave the kill zone.

Every member survived. Every member returned to base. The combat controller, who had almost bled to death on the battlefield, survived and was awarded the Air Force Cross.

Few aircraft in history have so directly saved the lives of so many combat troops and civilians as has the A-10.

Pentagon insiders report that the  Air Force fears the efficacy of the A-10 so much that today combat controllers are not allowed to call for the aircraft. Rather they are ordered to radio the results they desire and headquarters will dispatch the appropriate aircraft.  Today when troops are in contact and the enemy is close, controllers call for an aircraft with two-hour loiter time and more than ten combat trigger pulls, attributes possessed only by the A-10.

The Air Force says the F-35 can perform CAS. That would mean using GPS coordinates and standing off at high altitude to fire missiles or drop bombs. No $160-million F-35 is going to get down in the weeds where a single bullet can take it out. A host of small arms fire hitting an A-10 can be fixed with what amounts to duct tape. No F-35 can maneuver under an 800-foot ceiling with two-mile visibility as can an A-10.  No F-35 has more than three combat trigger pulls before running out of ammo. The A-10 has twenty. No F-35 has the battlefield survivability of the A-10.

But the Air Force has staked 60 per cent of its aircraft budget on the claimed multi-mission versatility of the F-35, and that is what General Welsh wants to protect.

By all accounts, General Welsh is a highly-respected leader and a fine man. But he has been on the job only a year and is facing so many issues, some strategic and immediate, that he has not had time to conduct due diligence regarding the A-10. If he allows the A-10 to wither away by the end of 2015, he will have broken faith with the young men and women on the ground in faraway places. He will have deceived Congress about the force structure of the Air Force. He will have violated his doctrinal obligation to protect America’s ground troops.

He will probably get his F-35. But he will have paid for it with the blood of brave young warriors.

Photograph of Robert Coram

By: Robert Coram, .

Robert Coram is the author of Boyd: the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War and American Patriot: the Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day. He is currently working on a biography of Air Force Brigadier General Robert Lee Scott. Coram lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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