The New York Times has a short but informative piece on ISIS gaining and using Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) in Syria. The MANPADS has been around since the 1960s, with the first generation US Redeye and Soviet SA-7 Grail setting the basic template for those that follow. For the most part, non-state actors have often had access to the SA-7 and similar missiles. But with the exception of the US supplying the far more capable FIM-92 Stinger to the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, few such non-state groups have had access to modern, more capable missiles. For a time, the Stinger was head and shoulders above any other MANPAD system in capability. Judicious use of tactics, and profligate use of countermeasures such as flares minimized the risks MANPADS posed to modern combat aircraft and helicopters. But the times, they are a-changin’. Several late model Russian and Chinese MANPAD systems are quite capable and increasingly in the hands of groups such as ISIS and the Free Syrian Army. With US airstrikes taking place in both Iraq and Syria against ISIS positions, the chances of our airmen facing these advanced MANPADS cannot be dismissed.
Many have expressed outrage at the Air Force saying that budget constraints are forcing it to put the A-10 Warthog on the retirement chopping block. Advocates insist it is the best possible platform for close air support of ground troops in contact. It’s capability to operate at low altitude and low speed give it a better ability to spot targets and precisely engage with its awesome 30mm GAU-8 gun, supporters argue. The armor and survivability features incorporated in its design favor it over other platforms such as the F-16, they content.
But that overlooks shifts in technology, doctrine, and threats since the A-10 was first fielded in the 1970s. Back then, effectively, the only precision sensor for all strike platforms was the Mk 1 Mod 0 eyeball. Radar could help an F-111 find a bridge, but spotting tanks and artillery pieces still came down to a visual search. But those days have been gone for over 2o years. Virtually every warplane today features some form of electro-optical sensor for spotting and precisely locating discrete targets. When the A-10 was fielded, only a handful of guided weapons were in regular use. Contra the thought that the GAU-8 was the main weapon of the A-10, the real main battery was the AGM-65 Maverick guided missile. It’s standoff range made it safer for the A-10 to attack Soviet formations guarded by radar guided 23mm ZSU-23-4 guns and SA-7 missiles. Only after Soviet air defenses were suppressed would Warthogs mop up with the gun. The rest of the weapons inventory mostly consisted of unguided dumb bombs and cluster bombs. Low and slow made for a more accurate delivery via the A-10 than from fast mover jets.
But today, virtually every weapon dropped in combat today is a precision guided weapon. Indeed, rules of engagement make it almost unheard of to use a dumb bomb. You’d be hard pressed to simply find a picture of an unguided bomb hanging from a deployed attack aircraft. Given the precision nature of the weapons, there is no accuracy benefit to a low and slow delivery platform.
The A-10’s ability to better acquire ground targets visually is more than offset by the better sensors of other strike platforms. Add that current US doctrine stresses target acquisition by offboard sensors, primarily UAVs and ground troops, the ability to visually search the battlefield is of significantly lesser importance.
And so we come to the last point- vulnerability. There’s an old fighter pilot saying that “speed is life.”
When it comes to missile combat, that’s literally, mathematically true. MANPAD systems have improved both in the quality of their guidance systems and in their propulsion. The improvements in rocket performance in just the last 30 years is surprising. And so the engagement envelope of a given MANPAD against a given benchmark target has improved. The slower the target, the better chance a missile has of generating an intercept. The faster the target, the poorer the prospects of an intercept. Similarly, altitude has the same effect. Combining higher speed with higher altitude greatly shrinks the bubble of airspace that a given missile can even theoretically generate an intercept in.
Being low and slow, the A-10’s window of vulnerability is greater than most strike aircraft. And for all its vaunted toughness, it is hardly invulnerable. During Desert Storm, four A-10s were downed by relatively crude air defenses, with a further two written off after crash landings. Current and near future threats might not be as dense, but they will likely be more sophisticated.
It’s not that the Air Force really wants to retire the A-10. It’s that it is being forced by sequestration to make hard choices on where it spends the money it does have. And they’ve come to the regrettable, but defensible conclusion that they can provide adequate close air support of ground troops with other platforms, and reap the savings of retiring not just the A-10 airframe, but also the institutional infrastructure needed to support an operational type. I may not like it, but I understand it.