A Modest Defense of the Air Force Plan to Retire the A-10 Warthog

This is a repost of a bit I wrote last year about the Air Force attempt to retire the A-10.

I’m not saying retiring it is a good idea, merely that the Air Force has legitimate, if unpleasant, reasons for the decision.

National Review has a good piece making the case for keeping the A-10 in service. I do have a few nits to pick with it. First, any article that quotes Pierre Sprey today gets dinged. He’s simply not a serious voice on the topic.

Second, every article automatically reaches for the F-35 argument. Yes, eventually the F-35 will take the place of the A-10 as a CAS provider. And every article mentions the current shortcomings of the F-35. What those articles always fail to mention is that while the F-35 is entering into service, the real interim replacements for the A-10 in the CAS role will be the F-16 and the F-15E, until such time as they are phased out of service.

And finally, there is often something of a cult about the A-10 that argues not that it is the best at CAS, but that it is somehow the ONLY platform that can perform the mission. That would be something of a surprise to the United States Marine Corps. You know, the people that invented CAS? The service that doesn’t have the A-10? The service that currently uses fast jets like the F-18 and AV-8B for CAS, and seems pretty happy and competent at it? You know, the service that has bet the entire future of Marine aviation on the F-35B as the CAS platform of choice for the future? Maybe they know something the A-10 cult doesn’t.

Again, I love the A-10, and would love to see it remain in service. But GEN Welsh’s decision to retire it isn’t a conspiracy to avoid the mission and only buy sexy jets. It’s a tad more nuanced that than.

Original post below.

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The internets have been abuzz about the Air Force Chief of Staff’s decision to retire the A-10 Warthog. Untold numbers of pixels have been spent vilifying the chief, and pointing out what a lousy idea it is.

And it probably is.

But there are three strong arguments supporting his decision.

1. Money

2. The future battlefield

3. Availability of other CAS platforms

For the record, I am and always will be a fan of the A-10, and wish that it were to remain in service indefinitely. But barring Congressional intervention, it looks increasingly as if the demise of the Warthog is nigh. And Congressional intervention is by no means even a good idea.

Let’s take a look at the three arguments supporting GEN Welsh’s decision.

Money

First, money. Yes, the Warthog is relatively cheap to operate. But there are large fixed overhead costs with maintaining a type in service. There’s the training pipeline for pilots and maintainers, there’s the spare parts pipeline, and the technical contracting for the depot level overhaul and upgrades. Simply reducing the size of a particular fleet does relatively little to reduce these costs. Savings are only achieved by actually removing an entire type from the service.

And before you say “well, fine, give ‘em to the Army” or Marines, or what have you, understand, neither service wants the A-10 so badly they they are willing to pick up those associated costs, nor incur the major doctrinal upheaval integration of the A-1o would entail. That doesn’t even get into where the Army or Marines would find the manpower to operate the Warthog. It simply will not happen.

But the era of austere budgets is upon the DoD. Sequestration is upon us, and GEN Welsh has to make cuts, like it or not. And one way or another, the cuts he has to make will impair the Air Force’s ability to accomplish its mission. He has to decide which cuts impose the lowest future risks. And the choice of the A-10 can be seen as the lowest risk from a range of options that go from bad to terrible.

The future battlefield

Let’s actually look at the past a bit first. The A-10 was designed very much with the lessons of the Vietnam War in mind. Fast mover jets such as the F-100 and F-4 struggled to provide the quality of close air support in South Vietnam that the Army wanted.  Designed as high-flying supersonic fighters, they were too fast to visually identify small, fleeting targets on the ground. They were also quite vulnerable to small arms fire and other low-tech air defenses. And their design and thirsty turbojet engines meant they could only spend a short time on station before they needed to head home for fuel.

Simultaneously, the Air Force was having generally good results with former US Navy A-1H and A-1E Skyraider aircraft.  The Skyraider could carry and impressive warload, was capable of operating at low altitudes with a long loiter time, and was rugged enough that most of the time, small arms fire wouldn’t bring it down.  The gasoline engine was a real drawback, however, complicating maintenance, and logistics. The Skyraider was also quite slow, meaning its transit times from base to station were long, and if it was usually rugged, it was also something of an easy target.

The Air Force, as Vietnam drew down, began to look at the most daunting battlefield it faced, a potential war in Western Europe with the Soviet Union and the rest of the Warsaw Pact. Air Force planners knew the Air Force would be called upon to not only make deep attacks against fixed targets such as airfields and bridges, but also the vast swarms of Soviet tanks and other armor. Don’t forget, this was an era when the primary air-to-ground sensor was the unaided human eyeball.

The air defense threat was also evolving. Rather than primarily small arms as faced in South Vietnam, in any potential Soviet invasion, three weapon systems would be the greatest threat. The ZSU-23-4 radar controlled 23mm gun, the SA-7 MANPADS heat-seeking shoulder launched missile, and its big brother, the vehicle mounted SA-9 heat-seeking missile.

When the A-10 was designed and built, it was done with both the mission of killing tanks in the relatively close confines of Western Europe, and with countering those three specific threats very much in mind. The A-10 was of course built around the (eyeball aimed) 30mm GAU-8 cannon, and it was always envisioned that its other main armament would be the optically aimed AGM-65 Maverick guided missile. Virtually all the armor and active and passive countermeasures built into the A-10 were geared toward defeating the ZSU/SA-7/SA-9 threat.

Fast forward to 2001 and from there to the present. Aside from the initial assault into Iraq in 2003, American airpower has been working in a permissive, almost benign air defense environment. Only the smallest numbers of modern MANPADS missiles have been used by our enemies. And of course, in that benign environment, the A-10 has done a bang-up job. But with the war in Iraq over (for us, at any rate) and our involvement in Afghanistan winding down, the Air Force is again obliged to look at other possible future battlefields. Critically, they have a duty not only to look to the most likely, but more importantly, to the most challenging. The obvious “worst case” scenario these days is a war with China, which for our purposes, however unlikely, at least provides proxies for the threat weapons many other potential crises may present.

Without getting down in the weeds of improved kinematics and ECCM and such, suffice to say that today’s modern MANPADS are far, far more deadly than the SA-7/SA-9 of yesteryear. And the proliferation of effective, mobile short, medium and long range radar guided Surface-to-Air Missiles in potential conflict regions means the permissive operating environment of today is not likely to carry over to tomorrow. US troops, long accustomed to being able to call upon Close Air Support, with no thought to the risks imposed on the airborne asset, may find themselves in an environment where little or no CAS is to be had, particularly in the early days of a conflict, before an enemy Integrated Air Defense System can be, well, dis-integrated.  The A-10 today finds itself more and more vulnerable to modern air defenses, and for various reasons, can not realistically be expected to reduce those vulnerabilities to any significant degree.

Availability of other CAS platforms

The A-10 may be the airplane that instantly comes to mind when someone mentions Close Air Support, but in fact, it only flies a small fraction of the total CAS missions today. By some estimates, 80% of CAS is flown by other platforms, be they UAVs, F-15E or F-16, Navy and Marine TACAIR or others.

The A-10 was deliberately designed to be low tech. Guns, dumb bombs, unguided rockets were bread and butter. But the advent of first the Laser Guided Bomb, and now the GPS guided JDAM bomb, coupled with virtually every strike fighter having a sophisticated infrared targeting pod means virtually every weapon used in CAS today is a precision guided weapon, and virtually every strike is controlled by a Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground. This revolution has greatly increased the ability of fast mover jets to provide timely, accurate and deadly CAS to troops in contact, and at closer ranges to friendly forces than ever before possible. The Warthog’s famed ability to get in the weeds and go low and slow is no longer so much a strength as a liability. Indeed, only in the last couple of years has the A-10 been upgraded to allow it to use precision guided weapons. Were it not for that upgrade, the A-10 would be almost irrelevant in the modern CAS environment.

Senator McCain, blasting the Air Force decision to retire the A-10, scoffed at the thought of using the B-1B bomber for CAS. In actuality, in the permissive environment in Afghanistan, it has proven to be not just capable, but in many ways, the most desirable CAS platform. It carries the same Sniper targeting pod the A-10 carries (making it every bit as accurate). It also has a stupendous load capability of up to 24 2000lb JDAM bombs. Indeed, a reengineering of the bomb racks is increasing the numbers and types of weapons the B-1B is carrying, almost certainly far and away more than any single engagement might call for. And with its intercontinental range, the B-1B can loiter on station over a fight for as much as four hours, far longer than the routine 1.5 hour station time one might expect from a Warthog.

And let us not forget the improvements on the Army side that will reduce demand for CAS. The introduction of Excalibur guided 155mm artillery, and the GMLRS guided rocket (with a range of about 70km) give ground commanders an ability to call upon timely precision fires, fires that as little as five years ago could only be answered by CAS with precision weapons. That trend to increasing accuracy (and range) of fires will only continue.

Closing

The withdrawal of the A-10 may not be a good idea. But nor is it evidence of a conspiracy of fast jet generals determined to kill a long-hated platform (GEN Welsh was himself an A-10 driver, and proud of it). The Air Force is not trying to get out of the CAS business. Indeed, the vast majority of tactical aviators with any combat experience today, only have experience with CAS. It’s what they know, it’s what they do.

What is happening is the Air Force has to save money somewhere, and from where the Chief of Staff sits, retiring a plane whose mission can be fulfilled by other platforms is the lowest risk approach.

28 thoughts on “A Modest Defense of the Air Force Plan to Retire the A-10 Warthog”

  1. Awesome post. Bonus points for putting Sprey out of bounds. That geezer has chaffed my @$$ for years. I, too, love the A-10, but like it or not, and by hook or crook, it won’t be around much longer. It is absolute dead meat in all but the most permissive environments, and with DoD being the only discretionary spending left where cuts will be made, tough choices are going to be forced on all the services.

    One more point on the Bone – not only can it carry a huge load and loiter for a very long time, it also can transit to a sudden demand for support in a far away location faster than any other type in use in Afghanistan. Most people fail to understand what hanging ordinance does to a fast jet’s performance. An F-16 that can go Mach 2 clean can’t go past .9 Mach in anything but full ‘burner with even a relatively light ordinance load, and can’t go supersonic with bombs on board no matter what. But a Bone with all weapons internal, 240,000 lb of gas, and the ability to go supersonic, can often transition to a new area 30% faster than almost any other fighter-type aircraft. That’s no small thing, reducing what might be a half hour transit to just over 20 minutes.

    Glad to see you’ve maintained your tribute to Lex. Sure miss ’em.

    God bless,

  2. All fascinating, but the bottom line is that nothing can do the A-10’s job now.

    Wanna save money USAF?? Hows about insta-retire about 50% of your generals, which are the very definition of “stuff you dont need”

    1. Did you just ignore the middle third where it was pointed out that damn near anything with wings and more than a few things without (155mm artillery and MLRS) can do the A-10’s job?

  3. IS there a program to convert the F-15 or F-16 to a close air support role? Replacing the 20 mm Gatling with a 30 mm (and increase the number of rounds) to match the current A-10 capabilities?

    Same question for increasing the amount of rocket armament? IIRC the A-10 has 1.5 the carrying capacity that either the F-15 or F-16 has.

    As far as survivability — what are the combat loss rates on the A-10 vs. the others?

    Since one of the stated objections to the A-10 is it age … how does using the Eagle (which has been in service 1 year longer) make sense? The Falcon has only been is use one year less.

    The two “real” arguments seem to come down to:
    a) Assembly line doesn’t exist for A-10 parts. (This can be corrected, only takes money)

    b) USAF doesn’t want to support the Army. (Solution — transfer Tac-Air and its support squadrons & elements back to the USA, let USAF retain the strategic assets (long range bombers, missiles & transports).

    1. I’ve spent enough time watching weapon system video to know that 20mm kills bad guys just as dead as 30mm. Brother, 15s and 16s do CAS every day. They don’t need conversion. Read that again. They don’t need conversion.

      The rockets on a CAS platform are much more likely to be used for target marking. Not anti-personnel fire. If a two-ship of anything has run out of rockets over a TIC, expect the rest of the damn squadron overhead presently.

      The combat losses are nil on all our fixed wing jets.

      And of course we could keep the A-10 pipeline open with some money. This whole discussion is about money and how we don’t have enough of it.

      Fantastic post. Man, we all love the Hawg, but I love the B-58 Hustler too. You can’t keep a plane in service just because it’s cool.

    2. Oooh, B-58 for CAS. Bring back the Atomic Army. When Davey Crockett isn’t quite enough, call in the Big Iron!

  4. There may also be a legacy issue from Viet Nam that hangs over the air. I was a weekend warrior in the ’80s and ’90s, two branches of service ( Navy and Army) and in aviation both times. My mentors were all Viet Nam vets. Rightly or wrongly there was a strongly held belief that the blue suiters would not get down into the mud. Having been out for two decades I sure as hell have no idea how effective the fast movers in the AF have been during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. none. I have also heard no complaints so I assume they are doing great. Here’s the drill; If I were foolish enough to mention the AF types doing a decent job while shooting the stuff in the ready room the groundpounders from the Marines and Army would rip me a new one. Snakes? Great. Marine Air? Wash the mud off the bottom of the fuselage. Ditto begrudgingly NavAir. AGAIN rightly or wrongly, AF? Look for them to stay at altitude. I would offer that legacy mindset on the part of older types( and I hate to include myself in that pool.) heightens the perceived need for the A-10 over any realities.

  5. I’m not one who thinks the A-10 is the only platform that can do CAS. It is, at this point, the best over all. Yes, you can load a Lancer with a bunch of stuff and it will work as long as the targeting fits their capabilities. Some, if not a lot, will not, however. There is nothing else, however, in the USAF inventory that will do the job in environment that the Hog was designed for. There is nothing else, for example, that will carry the big GAU-8. The ship had to be designed around it. The engines are placed as they are so that weapon gases will cause a flameout.

    While it is true it may not survive in anything other than a permissive environment, I think we will have that problem no matter what you put up for CAS. While MANPADS are effective to a max altitude of about 13,000 feet above ground, the opposition is fielding AD missile systems that may well make any transit of the battle area prohibitively expensive, if not impossible without some sort of outside support. What will kill the Hog, will make anything else problematic as well. The airspeed of the AC will probably not buy much either.

    Given what I know, if I were the USAF CS, I’d probably make the same decision. I doubt it causes him any heart burn however, but would me. CAS is a mission the USAF does not want and the aircraft that have been dedicated to it in the past, the A-37 in Vietnam, and A-10 recently, have generally been career dead ends for the pilots.

    TacAir needs to go back to the Army and leave USAF the “strategic” stuff they always wanted to do. Then they are welcome to go play Mighty Eighth Air Force into the future.

  6. Your mention of the Marines and CAS reminds me of an incident at a local Air Show where the Air Force A-10 Demonstration unit and Marine Harriers both were flying. We were there for Fire and Rescue, and the Military wanted us to do walk-arounds of their aircraft. The Harriers were first, and the two Marine demonstration pilots wanted to tag along for the A-10s. The two Marines could just shake their heads at the lug-wrench simplicity of the Warthog. They were impressed when the Air Force Crew Chief told us firefighters that if the A-10 crashes upside down, we would have to jack the aircraft out of the dirt to get the pilot out. “Because you’ll never cut through the bottom of the cockpit.”
    Both aircraft were tasked to the same mission. There is more than one way to skin a cat.

  7. TL:DR – Multirole platforms have their place, its supplementing single role aircraft, not replacing them. We stopped doing that and have less effective air forces across the board because of it.

    Underlying the A-10 question is a much deeper issue in US air power. We’ve bought too deep into “Multirole” platforms and basically since the 90s we’ve crunched down our air forces into a very few types of aircraft doing as many missions as possible.

    Consider that in the early 90s that the multirole platforms worked in complement with dedicated role aircraft. The F/A-18s were coupled with F-14s in the air superiority role and A-6s in the attack role. F-16s were coupled with F-15s for air superiority, A-10s for CAS, F-111s and F-15Es for attack. The Air Force also had dedicated EW (EF-111) and SEAD (F-4G), and the Navy had the Prowler for EW/SEAD and the KA-6D for tanking. Today, the A-10 and F-15C in the Air Force and the Marine Prowlers and Night Attack (non-radar) Harriers are basically the last two of our single-mission tactical aircraft. The F-16, F-15E, F/A-18s of all makes, F-22, F-35, Harrier II Plus — all of these platforms now have some bit of every mission: air superiority, CAS, air interdiction, SEAD, EW, strike. Some even have nuclear attack. Navy air-to-air refueling is a shadow of its former self.

    What happened? To pay the “Peace Dividend” the services, the DOD, and Congress decided that “boutique” single-mission capabilities were expendable. The calculus came down to having a less-capable air force in a number of areas to have a larger general purpose multirole air force.

    The A-10 debate is just the latest battle in this so-far successful campaign against single-role aircraft. The major difference is in the public success of the Hog over the years, the support of the jet by the ground forces, and something of an institutional memory of the effectiveness of dedicated CAS platforms in earlier wars (Stukas, P-47s, A-1s). For previously retired aircraft like the A-6 and KA-6D, F-14, F-4G, EF and F-111, there definitely was opposition to the multirolification of these missions, but it didn’t reach anywhere near the level of outcry that putting the A-10 on the chopping block is. After all, the Army isn’t advocating that SEAD saves soldiers lives, though its necessary to put CAS platforms over the battlefield; and the public at large is not captivated by air-to-air refueling, even if it allows attack aircraft more time on station.

    1. What happened was a paradigm shift. We still have dedicated air superiority aircraft, they’re just called AMRAAM and Sidewinder. The SEA mission is performed by HARM and JSOW, while attack and CAS are done by the various GBU types. What we traditionally think of as aircraft are little more than trucks to get those aircraft to the fight. Nobody cares that we have a limited number of truck types.

    2. institutional memory of the effectiveness of dedicated CAS platforms in earlier wars (Stukas, P-47s, A-1s).

      The P-47 was not a dedicated CAS platform. It was an air superiority fighter (hence the P) that also did CAS.

      The Stuka was driven from the skies because the Germans lacked air superiority. Not a really good argument for a dedicated platform…

      The A-1 was originally designed to do anti-shipping dive/torpedo bombing. But it also did CAS!

  8. The increased capability of drones and the Lightening pods (or their follow-on, been retired for a couple of years and haven’t kept up with the latest and greatest) on everything from the F-16 to the BONE are driving this.

    I was a Hog pilot from 89-91 and I loved the jet, but the mission for which it was built just doesn’t exist (as of now).

    Using the 30mm on soft targets? Tad bit of overkill. As a previous poster mentioned, 20mm works just fine.

    Army will never get fixed wing CAS, but I do see an opportunity for them to move into the armed drone business.

    Apologies for not knowing the current doctrines/thinking, but I kind of flushed most of this stuff immediately after the retirement ceremony.

  9. If you really want a lead sled CAS platform, break out the dies for the old A-1E and do a few updates.

    A dirt cheap jihadi killing machine.

    1. There was an article in Proceedings years ago – back in probably 1998 or 1999 – about resurrecting the F7F as the ultimate carrier-borne CAS aircraft. Author made some good points on the subject.

  10. I have been reading John Schlight’s “Help From Above”, which is a history of CAS from 1945 to 1973. (You can get the pdf of the whole thing at the USAF history website.)

    Fast mover jets such as the F-100 and F-4 struggled to provide the quality of close air support in South Vietnam that the Army wanted. Designed as high-flying supersonic fighters, they were too fast to visually identify small, fleeting targets on the ground.

    A non-argument. These aircraft could, when necessary, reduce their speed to be “slow enough” to identify ground targets. Pilots who had flown both jets and prop planes said they had no problem identifying ground targets at the higher speed (and let’s keep in mind that the “slower” A-1 was still going 190mph). Finally, there were other guys on the ground and the airborne FACs helping the jet jockeys by marking the targets for them.

    Also worth noting: jets dropped bombs more accurately because they suffered less from torque and vibration than prop planes.

    They were also quite vulnerable to small arms fire and other low-tech air defenses.

    Let’s leave aside the issue that you have to have air superiority – which requires owning fast-movers – in order to operate either type of aircraft.

    In point of fact the prop planes in Korea and Vietnam were more vulnerable than the jets. The prop planes were, of course, slower and noisier, so they were less able to sneak up on the enemy and the enemy had more time and ability to track them and shoot at them. Moreover, the props and cooling systems of propeller aircraft rendered them more vulnerable to ground fire than jets.

    And their design and thirsty turbojet engines meant they could only spend a short time on station before they needed to head home for fuel.

    Happily, in Vietnam no point on the ground was more than 15 minutes from an airbase, and there were usually plenty of aircraft in the air that could be diverted in the event of an emergency, so this really wasn’t an issue.

    1. The P-51 had been repurposed to the CAS mission in Korea. The USAF wanted to use P-47s, but there weren’t enough of them left, and parts supply was nonexistent. The overwhelming majority of P-51s killed in Korea died because of their cooling system. USAF didn’t want the CAS role, but at least they understood that the P-51 was more vulnerable than the Jug.

      Even though you could throttle back, the F-100 was still marginal in the CAS role. Same with the F-4. This is not a non-argument. Even USAF admits it. There will always be a small number of people that can do things outside the envelope of the average person, but those people don’t come along all that often. The mission USAF wanted was well filled by the F-100 and F-4, but that wasn’t what the Army needed.

      When the Dragonfly reached Vietnam the Army fell in love with it as did FACs. It could be slowed enough for good loiter time and target ID, but its slower speed also made it more suitable for the CAS role and ordnance was dropped more accurately. The A-37 led directly to the Hog, with the addition of the GAU-8 as a tank killer. The A-10 had all of the advantages of the A-37, but with an increased ordnance load and the big gun. Career wise, it has all the disadvantages of the A-37. The fingerprints of the Bomber Generals are still all over USAF even among the fighter mafia.

    2. “Pilots who had flown both jets and prop planes said they had no problem identifying ground targets at the higher speed”

      Were that true there would have been no need for FACs to mark targets.

  11. My Dad flew F-100’s out of Tuy Hoa during the Vietnam war.

    Most of his missions were air to mud, don’t remember any stories about doing CAS. Maybe different wings had different missions?

    1. In the end, every USAF mission by bomb humpers ends in the “mud.” F-100s were used as CAS aircraft, but they weren’t very good at it. I’m sure the pilots did the best they could, but the equipment was limiting.

  12. The US has spent billions of dollars in the last ten years on new wings, new wiring for “smart weapons”, and new avionics, to create the A-10C.
    It is still, without a doubt, the best CAS platform for a “Permissive” battlefield that has ever existed.
    A “Permissive” battlefield is what exists in the ME.
    I know, lets send them to the Boneyard!
    Your Tax Dollars at work.
    So it goes…

  13. The increased capability of drones and the Lightening pods (or their follow-on, been retired for a couple of years and haven’t kept up with the latest and greatest) on everything from the F-16 to the BONE are driving this.

    This is the key point. The latest pods can identify paint a target from 40,000 ft. There just isn’t any reason to go “low and slow” any more. And while the GAU-8 is pretty scary, it doesn’t even come close to matching the SDB II when it comes to bang per ordinance pound. A 250 lb bomb will kill a tank or gaggle of jihadis just as dead as a the GAU-8, and it can be dropped from an altitude far above the engagement envelop of all but the most sophisticated and expensive AA systems.

    1. I’d be interested in seeing the cost comparison between 10 rounds of 30mm depleted uranium and a 250lb PGM. As Horner put the USAF “plinked tanks” in Desert Storm. How much help they had is something I have no idea of.

  14. Actually, higher speed does not necessarily mean less exposure to enemy weapons. Higher speed means a longer, straighter, higher approach in order to release your weapon at the right point. Even for PGMs. This approach is flown parallel to the front line, if I remember correctly.
    Even at high speed the aircraft will not have the luxury of making repeated passes to identify the target and the friendlies, so someone on the ground will have to do that. That will require a clear line of sight and/or some expensive electronic equipment operated by trained personnel. Terrain, smoke, casualties, type of weapon, etc., all make this process a bit complicated, and we all know how well complicated things work in that kind of environment. Speed adds complexity.

    Simpler is better. Cheaper is better. The A-10 is simpler and cheaper than the given alternatives.

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