Small Wars Journal

Should the AF Retire the A-10? - A Seminar on a Seminal Question

Wed, 11/13/2013 - 10:43am

Should the AF Retire the A-10? - A Seminar on a Seminal Question

The Air Force has decided to retire the A-10 attack aircraft from its inventory.  To people who follow defense, particularly old timers, this cynical move is hardly surprising.

The purpose of the posting is to announce a seminar in Washington D.C. where experts will address some of the issues raised by this controversial decision.  The seminar is sponsored by the Strauss Military Reform Project will take place at 0930 on November 22 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  It will be open to the public and interested readers can find the RSVP details and the agenda at this link.  Readers are cordially invited to attend a public (and free) seminar discussing some of the issues raised by this decision.  A listing with links to relevant background reading material can be found here.

The remainder of this posting is intended to give you a little background, written admittedly from my perspective of being a long-time supporter of the A-10, dating back to my involvement as an Air Force officer in vulnerability studies and (peripherally) in some gunfire testing in the late 1960s and later as a civilian in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The A-10 is arguably the most effective combat airplane ever designed to provide close support to ground troops in combat.  This is a very demanding mission, because it is usually necessary when the troops are in trouble.  Pilots have to develop a feel for the battlefield and need to think like infantrymen.  The A-10 pilots are trained specifically for this mission, and work with ground forces in training exercises.  The A-10's staying power over a battlefield (i.e., long loitering capability) gives it a level of responsiveness that high speed jets like the F-15 can not equal.  Moreover, its excellent low speed maneuverability, its highly effective 30mm cannon, and its low vulnerability to enemy fire make it the most responsive and capable CAS weapon in our air inventory.  It is no secret that ground troops in the dusty of battlefields of Afghanistan love the A-10.

Nevertheless, the AF hates the A-10 with passions rooted deeply in its founding culture of precision strategic bombardment.

The history of this hatred goes back to the doctrinal debates in the Army Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s, the so-called precision bombardment of Germany and Japan, and the evangelism surrounding the AF's fight for institutional independence that ended with the AF's successful secession for the Army in 1947.  If you doubt the AF's evangelism surrounding the claim of the independent war winning capabilities of strategic bombing, watch and listen carefully to the dialogues in the movies "12 O'Clock High" or "Command Decision." (Available on Netflix)

Fundamentally, the AF's animosity toward the A-10 is rooted in the fact that the A-10 works for the Army, and the A-10 subordinates its operational art to that of the Army ground forces it supports.  This combined-arms outlook stands in sharp contrast to the Air Force's view of itself.  Since well before WWII, the AF has promoted its organizational independence from the Army by claiming it could provide a unique independent war winning capability -- precision strategic bombing and destruction of what it deems to be the vital organs of its adversary's supporting economic and political infrastructure -- for example, ball bearing production by Germany during World War II.  This claim leads to a vision of war that is diametrically opposed to one of being part of a combined-arms team. The AF's old old motto, 'Victory Through Airpower Alone," may have fallen into disuse after its litany of failed promises, not least because its theory of vital nodes has not been proven in real war, but the dream has never been forgotten; and today, it remains deeply rooted in the AF's cultural DNA.

Before rejecting this argument, readers should remember: The A-10 had to be forced upon the AF by the Secretary of Defense in the aftermath of the AF's poor performance in the close air support mission during Vietnam, a war where the AF chose to concentrate the bulk of its efforts on the strategic bombing of North Vietnam -- far more heavily, in fact, that when it bombed Germany.

Another indicator of the AF's dislike of the A-10 becomes apparent when one considers the historical fact that the A-10 production line was the only AF fighter/attack airplane production line that was shut down at the end of its production run in the early 1980s, during the glory days of the Reagan spending spree.  This was a period when everything got funding extensions.  The higher cost F-15 and F-16 production lines, in contrast, were kept open, and the AF bought far more than these fighters than originally planned in the 1970s.

Also, remember how tens of billions were spent during those glory days restarting the flawed B-1's production, producing only 21 super expensive B-2s -- both strategic bombers, and even restarting the troubled C-5, arguably one of the biggest cost overrunners in DoD's history.

Moreover, despite the unconstrained programmatic hijinks in the 1980s, routine efforts to replace the A-10 in the mid-to-late 1980s with a more modern version of itself (i.e., a low-cost dedicated CAS platform) were sabotaged by the AF after the initial work was approved by the Secretary of Defense.

Finally, consider the fact that while the AF now says it must trash the A-10 for what it says are budgetary reasons, it also is lobbying hard to start a $500 billion next-generation strategic bomber program that will suck money out of the taxpayer for the next 50 to 75 years.

Despite the AF's long-term opposition to the A-10, it should be remembered that the A-10 has been a stunning -- some might say embarrassing -- success in every war in which it has been employed, beginning with the First Gulf War in 1991 -- a war, it should be remembered, where the AF reluctantly deployed the A-10 only after the theater commander, an Army general, insisted on it being deployed.  And in today's wars, Marines and Army grunts in Afghanistan will tell you, as they have told me, they love the A-10.

Yet, despite this success story, the AF now claims it is being forced to retire the A-10 as cost saving measure, while at the same time, it is cobbling together a plan to spend $500 billion on a new bomber. This crazy situation is made even more bizarre by the fact that retiring the A-10 won't even save much money, because it has, by far, the lowest operating costs per flying hour of any fighter/attack aircraft in the AF inventory.

The current 'plan' for its close support mission in the future -- really a ludicrous rationalization -- is that the AF will replace the low-cost A-10's low-cost, proven capability to support ground troops with the high-cost, highly problematic, multi-mission capabilities of  F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The F-35, as just about everyone knows, is a  deeply troubled, super-high-cost stealth fighter that is way behind schedule.  The F-35, predictably, is plagued with a host of technical problems.  If the F-35 ever becomes operational, it  will be completely unfit for the kind of knife fighting the A-10 excels at -- low and slow jinking around a battlefield saturated with small arms threats.  The F-35 will be far too vulnerable to these cheap threats (including light machine guns).  The F-35's poor thrust-to-weight and high wing loading guarantee poor agility at low speeds and long re-attack times; it will have nothing comparable in offensive capability to the A-10's 30mm gun; its low fuel fraction guarantees the F-35 will have no loitering capability.  Any battle damage the F-35 somehow manages to survive will be almost impossible to repair at the field level without depot-level contractor support, because of its high complexity systems and exotic stealth structures.  Moreover, the F-35's high cost and complexity will guarantee much reduced inventories, poor availability, and low sortie rates coupled with very high operational costs.

Readers who are interested in learning more about these issues and live near Washington DC are invited to a seminar discussing them.  Participants will address questions surrounding (1) the vital importance of the Close Air Support mission, (2) the controversial decision to retire the A-10 in favor of the F-35, (3) what it will take to provide a CAS capability in the future, and most importantly, (4) how the Defense Department should proceed to insure our ground troops will be given the support they need and deserve.

The seminar will take the form of a discussion among people having long experience in this mission area -- from a variety perspectives -- from aircraft designers, to pilots with A-10 combat experience and, most importantly, the views soldiers and marines on the receiving end of close support in ground combat operations.  In the interests of having a vigorous debate, pushbacks by people supporting the AF decision will be not only welcomed but emphatically encouraged and solicited.  The goal is to promote a free market of ideas.

This seminar will take place on 0930 Nov. 22  at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and will be sponsored by the Strauss Military Reform Project, a subsidiary of the Project on Government Oversight.  The details of the seminar and a list of relevant reading materials can be found at the links at the top of this posting.


Brian Harris

Thu, 11/14/2013 - 2:25pm

I've been having this argument with folks on another venue and the rational for axing the A-10 has been, in a word, horrifying. As a career CAS provider (albeit in the Army we call it CCA), I see CAS in the light of two fundamentals: Technical capability and crew proficiency:

Technical- A CAS platform must possess a series of attributes not found in every airframe.

Endurance: It must have loiter time. Engagements can take a long time to work up, approve and prosecute. I have circled a target for over 30 minutes before being authorized to release ordinance. Additionally, sometimes CAS is just a function of BEING overhead. Presence has been an effective tool in the past 12 years.

Situational awareness and understanding: The CAS pilot needs to be able to SEE what’s going on, and the “soda straw from space” technique with targeting pods is not conducive for dynamic CAS employment in a fluid environment. This means you have to get low, which leads to…

Durability: It needs to be able to take a hit. This isn’t to say it can’t be destroyed. Guess what! Someone is gonna die doing CAS, period. Someone is gonna get shot up and crash. Let’s at least have an airframe that can take a hit and limp home, if not continue mission. The A-10 has done this countless times. Because it’s scary isn’t an excuse to not do it. And stealth sounds cool, but they haven’t mastered stealth against the human eye yet.

Weapons variety: Every engagement scenario is different. You need a variety of ordinance to execute the right pass for the right target. This means the aircraft needs to have a variety ON HAND, which equals payload capacity.

Proficiency- The CAS pilot is different than the air to air guy. He needs to be an expert in his craft.

Understanding ground tactics: Not only must the pilot be good at talking “pilot”, he also has to understand ground maneuver tactics and speak the language. We are good, holistically, in having a joint terminology, and this goes a long way, but there is more to it than knowing the difference between “Laser off” and “Terminate”.

Training time: I’ve never flown in a dogfight, but I suspect it takes a while to master the art. Such does flying at low level amidst enemy fire, avoiding friendly fire, and prosecuting targets hidden within the terrain. It’s not something that comes natural. How on earth can we expect ANYONE to have the required skills to not only master air to air combat but also air to ground? The jack of all trades concept briefs well at budget hearings, but in the end it WILL cost lives.

In my experience as an Army Aviator, I have worked with several fixed wing platforms and their crews. Without going into detail, I will say this: the ability to drop a bomb on a grid does not make you a proficient CAS pilot. There is a host of intangible skills required to be an expert at this vital form of combat, and not every airframe or its crew archetypes possess what is required. That’s not a negative critique, just a fact.


Thu, 11/14/2013 - 12:30pm

At what point is the Army going to publicly ask to change the Key West/Johnson-McConnell Agreements? The reasoning is that the Army just doesn't trust the Air Force to do what it is 'obligated' to do under these agreements. A gentlemen's agreement between two Chiefs of Staff apparently wasn't adequate (neither between Generals Johnson and McConnell, nor between Generals Casey and Schwartz).

Perhaps codifying the requirements for tactical airlift, CAS and persistent ISR would help? Right now, with the potential elimination of the A-10, the immediate mothballing of the C-27 fleet, and the reduction in Predator platforms, the Air Force is telling us that it is no longer interested in meeting its obligations in a satisfactory manner.



Thu, 11/21/2013 - 9:05pm

In reply to by R Speir

R Speir,

You make some fascinating comments and your experiences are very interesting to me. It makes me want to hear more! As a former Marine aviator, it's extremely frustrating to see some of the decisions that have been made within Marine aviation over the last 30-40 years. The AV-8 aircraft, while having unique capabilities, has never truly been utilized in the manner it was intended. Granted, I understand that when this platform was being developed there were different concerns about what future battles would be fought, but overall when you compare an AV-8 to an A-10 they are strikingly different in capabilities. While the A-10 is not VSTOL capable (nor ship capable) it's loiter time, armament and survivability make it much more suited to the CAS role than the AV-8 (and much cheaper). Another interesting note, only half of the AV-8Bs purchased by the Marines are still in existence with the rest having been mostly lost in training mishaps. What would be nice, especially since the Air Force doesn't seem interested in the A-10 or CAS, is to move the A-10 to the Marines and Army who have a vested interest in the CAS mission and let the Air Force do it's "deep strike/air superiority/strategic bombing" missions that it so loves. Of course, one can dream right? The F-35 and MV-22 are huge mistakes for the Marines in my opinion. Of course, I understand the sentiment of the day back then to "spend money" but here we are 30 years later and "spending money" is no longer a luxury.

PS-The part about "floating a draft paper on Friday afternoons" made me laugh. Sounds like games that us in the military would play on their counterparts even today.

R Speir

Thu, 11/21/2013 - 12:00am

In reply to by Condor

The simple answer to your question about the A-10 for the Marines, Condor, is that, when we were forcing the A-10 on the Air Force, Marine Corps Aviation was myopically fixed on the AV-8B. From the top to the bottom of Marine Aviation, the A-10 was viewed as a turkey; so much so that one had only to mention purchase of the A-10 for the Corps to elicit derision, ridicule, and an occasional invitation to step out side and settle the issue man-to-man. Non-aviators in the Marine Corps were a different matter. Many quietly viewed the AV-8B as a questionable choice for the CAS mission, and some of them looked at the A-10 with much less skepticism. However, similar to the case with the Army Air Corps, Marine Aviation was/is a separate force within a force--at least as far as their chosen equipment went.

I was a civilian in OSD/PA&E/ Tac Air Division from 1973-79 (along with Chuck Spinney), so I got to witness, and participate in, these force structure battles. I wrote many of the issue papers that opposed the AV-8B for the Marines and supported the A-10 for the USAF. Periodically, we would raise the issue of Marine A-10s, but only to harass the USMC aviators at Headquarters for some sneaky trick they had pulled. Floating a draft concept paper on that subject on Friday afternoon was a sure way to keep them working all weekend on rebuttals. There was never any serious consideration on our part of attempting to force the Marine Corps to buy an A-10, not because it didn't make sense, but because it was just a political mountain too high to climb. Remember, at that time (mid to late 1970s), the A-10 was not yet proven in combat, so we had no point of departure to argue the idea against Marine Aviation's' support for the AV-8B.

During the 1970s, Naval Aviation, as well as the USAF, were undergoing force modernization. OSD had forced the F-16 on the Air Force along with the A-10, and we were looking to counter the Navy's desire to essentially purchase an all-F-14 force (maybe with a few AV-8Bs thrown in). Early on, the most logical way to equip Marine Aviation ground attack squadrons was with A-4Ms. The A-4M was, for all practical purposes, an in-production new aircraft--better engines, new avionics, and, maybe surprisingly, a very good STOL capability. However, the Navy/Marine Aviation management decided that was not to be, and directed McDonnell executives to terminate their support for the aircraft (the A-4 tech rep who frequented our office told me this).

Two political events ultimately dictated the current structure of Marine tactical aviation. During the Carter Administration, we (OSD) succeeded in winning decisions to inject the F/A-18 into the Navy/Marine Corps force structure, while keeping the AV-8B in low-level R&D. As I said, the Marine A-4M squadrons had new aircraft, and there were a few fast-depleting squadrons of AV-8As still around. We were able to make the case to keep the old attack aircraft around until the F/A-18 could replace them; that would have had to be done even if the AV-8Bs were the replacement. Unfortunately, when Carter lost the election and the Reagan Administration flooded the DoD with money, the AV-8B was given new life and subsequently purchased. In that environment, there were no alternatives to what the higher-level military management wanted, principally because the ultimate objective was to spend money, not to buy force effectiveness.

As a former Marine aviator and one who's worked directly with A-10s, it is extremely disappointing to see this day finally coming to fruition. Personally, I think it signals a decay within the Air Force's leadership to let such a useful, successful and CHEAP platform go the way of the Dodo. Not only has this aircraft been so successful at what it has designed to do, it's done it for pennies on the dollar compared to so many more of the "complex, sexy" weapon systems that so dominate our collective military culture. The real tragedy is that this aircraft or a similar replacement will be needed for well into the future. No remotely piloted aircraft will ever fill the niche known as CAS, not to mention what it means for the guy on the ground to look up and see an aircraft such as an A-10 rolling onto the bad guys.

Not to to bash just the Air Force, it's extremely disappointing that the Marines didn't go with some version of the A-10 as it was basically purpose built to perform the CAS mission that Marines hold so dear to their operating doctrine. It's almost a crime that the Marine Corps has staked it's aviation future on the likes of the MV-22 and F-35, both immensely costly and only marginally good at what they will be asked to do in the future. My uncle, a retired Marine grunt ironically, once commented to me that the aviation side of the Marine Corps was its own worst enemy by deciding to go with such costly programs. The Marines only enjoy a small percentage of the overall defense budget and yet they have gone with 2 of the most expensive aviation programs in history. I know the Marines used to have the OV-10 and it was a great aircraft, but an A-10 would have been such a better choice for CAS than a F-18/AV-8B/F-35 variant. Sorry, didn't mean to get off on a tangent.

Steve Blair

Wed, 11/13/2013 - 5:50pm

This also isn't the first time the AF has tried to get rid of the A-10. There were attempts if I recall correctly prior to Kosovo, and the whole OA-10 thing was another scheme to push the A-10 aside, relegating it to unarmed FAC duties for the F-16.

As to why the A-10 wasn't exported...I suspect that has something to do with the AF's position on the A-10. They might also have learned something (not in a good way) from the export success of the F-16 (which also wasn't a popular aircraft when it first entered service). Limiting access to any platform makes it easier to get rid of it.

Trying to retire the A-10 is just the sort of short-sighted decision motivated by internal politics that we should expect from the AF.

Mr Spinney,

Regarding the A-10 and other USAF missions that support ground forces/ efforts, I'd be interested to hear your views on whether the time has come to re-look the Key West Agreement, give back to the US Army a fixed-wing air combat capability (give the A-10s to the Army!), and possibly reorganize/ restructure the entire USAF in the process (other services may need some reorganizing as well).

I can be reached at

Steve Blair

Wed, 11/13/2013 - 5:52pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

I've actually thought for some time that the A-10 should go to the Marines. They have on the whole better CAS doctrine and support systems, and something like the A-10 would be tailor-made for them.


Wed, 11/13/2013 - 11:40am

I wish you well in your campaign against the A-10 disarmament. Being a UK taxpayer I'd don't have a stake in the argument!

It is yet another example of a tested, reliable weapons system providing valuable service TODAY, which is counter to the wishes of its own institution / provider. That is why as a civilian observer I despair of the military so often. The A-10 works, USAF prefers a plane yet to fly.

Perhaps the USG can package the A-10 as an expeditionary unit, after all it uses a light footprint, is simple and gives the enemy a headache. Hold onto your hats now, gents and ladies (Madhu especially), give the plane and funding to the USMC.

Just the idea will - hopefully - cause the USAF to change course.

R Speir

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 11:56pm

In reply to by Jason.T

Pending Chuck's incisive comment from whatever part of the world he is sailing now, I would suggest that it is the airframe contractors' marketing arms that are in large part responsible for foreign military sales. Of course, the parent military service advocates also play a part. In the A-10's case, it has neither.


Wed, 11/13/2013 - 11:50am

In reply to by Jason.T

I should also add, do you feel questions of export and industry are relevant to the discussion about the discussion of the A-10, preference for the F-35 and potential alternatives?


Wed, 11/13/2013 - 11:36am


There's another element to the story - an element that's relatively underdeveloped from my perspective. The F-16, and to a lesser extent, the F-15, have been export successes. We've sold a lot of these jets. The production of combat aircraft in the U.S. tends to be tied, at least in part, to the export potential. At least some of the support for the F-35 is based in part on the export argument.

Why is it that, despite what would appear to be an obvious consumer base among allies for a platform like the A-10, that the A-10 never became an export queen?