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.

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

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, sco
ffed 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.

The Army’s Quest for its Own CAS – Part 4

At the end of the last post on Army close air support (CAS) developments from the early 1960s, I mentioned one last attempt by the Army to secure an organic fixed-winged CAS capability.  This effort occurred concurrently with the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) tests, but had strong political backing.

To some degree, the Army’s tests with fast forward air control (FAC), attack jets, and VTOL from 1960 onward were spurred by interest from President John F. Kennedy to improve the arm’s capability in mid- and low-intensity conflicts.  Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara became a strong proponent for army aviation, as he factored ways to increase mobility and potency of the conventional forces.  McNamara merged two schools of thought with regard to Army aviation – those calling for more helicopters and those who wanted improved fixed-wing assets.  The former, involving the genesis of the airmobile concept, deserves full treatment in another post.  Regarding the later, I’ve given a cursory overview of the Army’s experiments with armed fixed-wing aircraft, but keep in mind also the procurement of some very capable theater transports in the time period.

In 1962, McNamara created a “Tactical Mobility Requirements Board” under Lieutenant General Hamilton Howze.  Commonly referred to as the “Howze Board,” the board’s main focus soon became air mobility.  As part of the airmobile concept, the Howze Board explored ways to use both rotary- and fixed-wing platforms to provide direct support.    Keep in mind that man of the jet-turbine powered helicopters (such as the UH-1,  just entering service in the early 1960s, so board members viewed that platform with potential, but had to consider the limitations of the airframes on hand.  But in 1962, the Army did have quantities of a short take-off and landing (STOL) observation plane with a weapons capability.

The Grumman OV-1 Mohawk came from a joint service project.  At the time the Army needed a replacement for the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog observation aircraft, and added the need for sophisticated sensor payloads (infa-red and radar in particular).  The Navy and Marines also wanted an observation plane, but required an armament payload.  After several years of design work, the Marines dropped from the project with concerns for the elaborate electronics packages associated with the sensors.  Air Force pressure made the Army drop any armament requirements.  So when the type first entered production in October 1959, the OV-1 was an unarmed observation plane… that happened to retain all the necessary “plumbing” to be armed.

OV-1A Mohawk

For those not familiar with the Mohawk, the aircraft possessed incredible rough field operating abilities.  Early Mohawks nearly reached 300 mph, but its empty weight of 11,000 pounds required a waiver to pass the Pace-Finletter memo restrictions.  And of course with that waiver, the Air Force insisted the OV-1 should not carry weapons – despite operating over the combat zone and possessing the ability to carry 3,200 pounds of external stores!

When Howze Board issued its recommendations (some sources say fall 1962), it projected a requirement for 24 fixed-wing attack aircraft in the airmobile divisions, 8 in each conventional division, and additional numbers in “separate aviation brigades.”  Of the aircraft available for this role, the board eyed the OV-1’s neglected weapons capability.  As the board’s findings circulated among decision makers, the Army secured approval for a “concept demonstration” of the enhanced airmobile concept, which would include Mohawks flying CAS.  Working with a team of Navy experts, the Army outfitted OV-1s to drop delayed fuse 1000 pound bombs using the two hard-points on the production aircraft.  Although very successful, the Air Force eyed the development with suspicion.

Encouraged, the Army sent fifty-four OV-1As back to Grumman for installation of six underwing pylons, sights, and other equipment to facilitate the CAS mission.  Re-designated JOV-1A, the armed Mohawks carried .50-caliber machine gun pods, rockets (either 2.75- or 5-inch), 500 pound bombs, and flares.  Just like that, the Army had its fixed-wing CAS.

With the involvement in Vietnam becoming more and more important, the Army sent six JOV-1As with the 23rd Special Warfare Aviation Detachment to Southeast Asia for operational tests.  With supportive and vocal responses from the field, the Army soon dispatched more armed Mohawks to Vietnam.  This move met with support again from McNamara, who felt any aircraft in the combat zone should be armed.  While somewhat fuzzy, the video here captures some of those armed Mohawks in operation.  Check out the crew loading the rockets:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmGEhoHVKHE]

But this proved to be the gilded hour of Army fixed-wing CAS.  By 1965, the Air Force had enough of the tests, demonstrations, and operational deployments of armed Mohawks.  Aside from the Army butting into the airspace with armed planes, the Army was also calling for more pilots to support anticipated expansion of the force.  The two services compromised with the Johnson-McConnell agreement in 1966.  Under those terms, the Army gave up both organic fixed-winged CAS and theater transport.  Not only did the Army give up the armed Mohawks, options on the “in the works” AV-8 Harrier, but also the most capable Caribou (CV-2 or C-7) and Buffalo (V-7 or C-8) transports.  While the Air Force gained ascendency over the fixed-winged CAS role, the Army retained all options for rotary-winged attack, assault, and heavy transport.

Under these arrangements, the Army retained the armed UH-1 gunships then employed in Vietnam.  The Army also proceeded with the Advanced Aerial Fire Support System (AAFSS), with the leading candidate being the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne.  Calls from field commanders prompted the Army to procure an interim AAFSS, which came to be the Bell AH-1 Cobra.  I’ve not seen such in writing, but the official designation of that helicopter, retaining the “1” of the Huey line, seemed a paper hedge against Air Force interference.  In the end, the AH-56 proved too much, too fast, and the Cobras became the Army’s attack helicopter until replaced by the AH-64 Apache.

AH-56 - Biggest Cost Overrun Until the Sgt. York!

The Air Force, now “stuck” with the CAS role in a war that required “down and dirty” CAS, found its supersonic fighters insufficient for the job.  Several interim types entered service to include the A-37 attack jet and the F-5A fighter, both tested by the Army in the search for CAS (other aircraft used included A/B-26 Invaders from World War II and A-1 Skyraiders from the Navy).  The Air Force’s CAS role breathed life into the Light Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft (LARA) which eventually produced the Rockwell OV-10 Bronco.  It also birthed the A-X requirement, issued in 1966, for a purpose built CAS aircraft to be flown by the Air Force in support of the Army.  After a fly-off competition in 1972, the Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt entered production.

A-10 all Dressed Up

And that brings us right up to the current state – the Army with an excellent rotary-winged attack helicopter, but dependent upon the Air Force for fixed-wing CAS.  Only now the airframes have much more flight hours than anticipated and there is no replacement in sight.