Airmen at Odds with Air Force Brass Over Future of Beloved A-10 by Dan Sagalyn, PBS
The Defense Department decision to retire an Air Force plane built specifically to support ground forces has ignited a firestorm of criticism from the airmen whose job is to embed with Army ground forces and spot enemy targets. Meanwhile, one top Air Force commander is defending his service’s decision to eliminate the A-10 Warthog, despite acknowledging the aircraft’s value.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in February announced his intention to retire 343 Warthogs, saying the aircraft “is a 40-year-old single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield. It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses.” …
But a number of highly trained airmen called “JTACs” — who embed with ground forces and call in air strikes against enemy forces in close proximity — told the NewsHour the A-10 would perform well against a near-peer competitor of the future. JTACS — pronounced “jay-tacks” — is short for “joint terminal attack controllers.” …
<blockquote>Its low and slow characteristics, and its limited range, “basically rule it out for anything other than close air support,” the Air Combat Command chief said. “I can’t use it for interdiction. I can’t use it for air superiority. I can’t use it as a multi-role platform. It is good for one thing and one thing only. And it’s really good at that. And that is close air support.”
However, another former JTAC told the NewsHour the Air Force continues to field many other types of weapons that are capable of solely one mission.
“Air Force leadership is quick to point out that the A-10 is a ‘one-trick pony’, but then again so is the F-22, B-1, B-52, C-17, [and] ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile],” said one retired senior master sergeant who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan eight times in support of special operations units.</blockquote>
Add to that list the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) that seemingly could be modified to include aerial refueling and supply or SOF airdrop to justify the $550 million to $800 million cost depending on criteria measured. If the savings desired are $3.7 billion over 5 years, it doesn't take many LRS-B to pay that bill.
However, the General correctly points out that there are advantages in being able to defend yourself near the front lines from enemy fighters and to withstand radar air defense threats which an F-35 can. It doesn't matter how good the A-10 is at CAS if it can't support it due to modern air defenses and threat fighters. The F-35 also would be better at penetrating enemy defenses to assist CSAR. Finally, the F-35 can perform air interdiction to knock out threats before they get to close proximity of our troops.
In another quote from the article, a JTAC mentions the A-10 being designed to survive Soviet threats.
<blockquote>“The A-10 was designed in a period of time that anticipated robust integrated air defense systems against the Soviet Union,” says retired Chief Master Sergeant Russell Carpenter, a 30-year veteran and specialist in leading JTACs. “It was developed with the intent to operate in an environment where the enemy contested the airspace. It was designed to operate in support of ground forces and built to take punishment from surface-to-air fires.</blockquote>
However, recall that at the time of the A-10's design the main radar threats were the ZSU-23/4 and SA-6. The threats are far greater now and no amount of titanium bathtub will keep an A-10 in the air against them. Recall that in the 73 Yom Kippur war, the Israelis lost numerous non-stealthy aircraft to Egyptian air defenses like the SA-6. And that's before adding today's enemy Su-27s, Su-30, and Su-35 and tomorrow's threat stealthier fighter aircraft.
The article also does not address sufficiently the ability of a Reaper, Predator, and Army Gray Eagle to provide CAS and in the Army's case, close combat attack that does not require a JTAC. These aircraft have far greater endurance than the A-10 and fly slower to better discern ground threats. A ground commander can provide his initial's for danger close engagements sans a JTAC and roll in Apaches and fire Hellfire from Gray Eagle in very close proximity to friendly troops and civilians. If the environment is sufficiently permissive to allow an A-10 in the area, it will equally be survivable for Apaches, Marine Cobras (and F-35B), and lethal remotely piloted aircraft and Army unmanned aircraft.
Which would you prefer if you were a Green Beret or Ranger or Marine on a deployment VERY far from anything resembling civilization: fire support via a Drone, with it's signal stream degraded by God knows how much, flown by God knows who (maybe it's out of NV, maybe it's not). Or Fire support from an aircraft with a human pilot who's got eyes on there and then? A-10's are popular because they're tough, nasty, loud, and very reassuring. This isn't to say that Apache's or reconfigured Blackhawks aren't equally effective, but everyone knows A-10 pilots are lunatics, who LOVE the type of crazy strafing maneuver that other pilots (who aren't as confident in the survivability of their aircrafts) hate.
Air support isn't just about delivering a knockout punch. Sometimes LOUD, LOW and Crazy is exactly what the men on the ground need and/or want, as it keeps their enemy distracted and uncertain.
(Sorry. Full Disclosure: I LOVE A-10's!)
Alexander Scott Crawford