The US Air Force is correct in trying to kill the A-10 fleet. It is an archaic vestige reflecting a technology, and a style of warfare, that is outdated by a generation.
It fulfilled the purpose for which it was procured: Killing the Army’s AH-56 Cheyenne attack helicopter program. As a secondary purpose, it has served reasonably well as an interdiction, combat-search-and-rescue (CSAR), escort and close-air support (CAS) platform. Befitting its unique role and visage, it is surrounded by rumors and myths. These myths need to be dispelled so the US Air Force can do the right thing for the nation, its taxpayers and the infantryman on the ground.
Myth No 1: The A-10 is the best aircraft at CAS. The A-10 is in fifth place, at best. The king of CAS is the AC-130. The attributes listed as critical to effective CAS platforms are lethality and loiter. The AC-130 has the competition beat by a country mile. The AC-130 has a 105mm cannon, dual 40mm rapid firing cannons and a 25mm machine gun capable of over 2,500 rounds per minute. It can fly for hours, has pinpoint accuracy and is able to self-target. Unlike the A-10, there is no need for airmen on the ground to control it. Any infantryman asked to pick a support aircraft would choose the AC-130. Incredibly, the AC-130 is normally available only to special operations troops for reasons that remain a deadly mystery to conventional forces.
The A-10 is lauded for its firepower. Firepower is only relevant, however, if it is lethal. The mighty 30mm cannon on the A-10 was designed to kill Soviet armor, not men. The 30mm is surprisingly ineffective against dismounted enemies. The 25mm on the AC-130 is more effective against all but the stoutest armor.
The A-10 was also designed to take advantage of the revolutionary AGM-65 Maverick missile. Today, however, this missile is only one of a myriad of precision weapons available on virtually all combat aircraft. As long as the infantryman knows the location of the enemy, a wide array of ground and air weapons can destroy them. The runners up to the AC-130 in the CAS competition, the Kiowa, Apache, and Cobra attack helicopters, all have guided missiles.
Note that this rather controversial position is staked out not by the Air Force, but by a National Guard Infantryman.
I can explain why AC-130s usually support SOF forces. Because they’re incredibly expensive planes, and there just aren’t a lot of them. And SOF forces are incredibly fragile. As badass as they are, they’re still mortal. And when they need firepower, they need a lot, right then. This need for on call dedicated assets means AC-130s can’t really be tasked for general support of other forces. Whether that’s the best way to do business is an open question. But that is the way things are now.
As to LTC Darling’s other points (read the whole thing, it’s quick) it falls in line with our repeated argument that the A-10 in CAS is not so much being replaced by the F-35 as it is by precision guided munitions.
He also has a good point on the antiquated method of terminal control. I’d like to hear from my fire support and maneuver guys what they think about that, and the pros and cons of updating how we do terminal control of CAS.