Friday, December 13, 2013
Farewell to the Warthog (Sort of)
The A-10 Thunderbolt II, arguably the greatest close air support aircraft in history. But the Air Force's A-10 fleet may be facing retirement, due to defense budget cuts (USAF photo via Aviation Week)
If you're a friendly ground-pounder, it's one of your best friends; if you're an enemy foot soldier or tank crew member, it's your worst nightmare. "It" is the Air Force A-10, which has dominated the close air support (CAS) battle for more than 30 years, eviscerating thousands of bad guys--and hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and fortified fighting positions--from Iraq to Afghanistan, and saving the lives of thousands of American and allied troops in the process.
But sadly, the A-10 may not survive the next round of budget battles in Washington. Even with the recently-negotiated "budget deal" (which may lessen the impact of sequestration on the Pentagon), the armed forces are still facing draconian cuts. The Air Force, for example, is looking at retiring its KC-10 tanker fleet, along with its operational B-1 bomber squadrons. Defense analysts says the reductions are necessary to fund current procurement programs and future weapons systems, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the USAF's "next generation" bomber.
Getting rid of the KC-10 (the military's version of the DC-10) is a tough call; until the KC-46 arrives in a couple of years, the "Extender" is the only tanker that can refuel aircraft by boom and by probe-and-drogue on the same mission. It's a valuable capability, particularly if you're support supporting Air Force and Navy aircraft simultaneously. The KC-10 can also carry more fuel, making it a useful adjunct to our larger fleet of KC-135 model tankers, which will soldier on until the KC-46 becomes operational.
Similarly, the B-1, or "Bone" as its known in the Air Force, has overcome early operational issues to become a valuable element of our manned bomber force. But in this budgetary environment, the Air Force can't afford a mixed force of B-1s, B-2s and B-52s. So, the small wing of stealth bombers will remain, along with about 70 B-52s at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana and Minot AFB, North Dakota. Retirement of the B-1 will mean even more rotations for the bombers that remain, translating into higher operations and maintenance costs for those aircraft.
Still, the projected retirements of the KC-10 and B-1 will be far less controversial than plans to radically downsize the A-10 fleet. The Air Force still operates more than 200 of the ground support aircraft, built around the GAU-8 30 mm cannon which is designed to make mincemeat of enemy armor. The "Warthog" has been a stalwart of almost every U.S. military campaign over the past 30 years; with its incredible mix of firepower, survivability and loiter time, the A-10 is the grunt's best friend, able to linger over the battle area for hours at a time, while delivering the support that sometimes means the different between victory and defeat.
The A-10 was originally designed to engage Soviet tank formations pouring through the Fulda Gap, but it transitioned seamlessly to mix of medium and low-intensity conflicts that have been America's wars since the early 1980s. From the "highway of death" in Kuwait to countless firefights with terrorists in Afghanistan, the "Hawg" has reaffirmed its status as a premier CAS platform.
So why retire such a valuable aircraft? The answer is rooted in the world of shrinking budgets and service rivalries that often characterize battles over military roles and missions. After World War II, the Army made occasionally forays to take complete control of the CAS mission, arguing that their platforms should provide most of the support for friendly troops on the ground. According to the Army, it should be their pilots flying support missions for ground units in contact, and not the Air Force.
In response, the USAF noted that its creation of the Tactical Air Control System (TACS) brought order out of the chaos that governed early attempts at CAS during the Second World War. The service also fielded a series of manned aircraft assigned to the CAS effort, culminating with the A-10. Air Force was keenly aware that the Army was still interested in appropriating the mission, as evidenced by the various attack helicopters and artillery systems that entered the service's inventory over the years. At one point, there was supposedly a "grand bargain" on the table; the Air Force would transfer its A-10s to the Army, in exchange for the medium and long-range air defense missions. But the Army blinked, preferring to keep its Patriot batterys instead of acquiring the A-10.
So, the Warhog remained a part of the USAF inventory, even if the "manly" men (and women) who ran the service were less-than-enamored with the A-10. Still, no one could find anything that could replace the Hawg for the CAS mission, including the notorious "A-16" experiment. That involved hanging a 30mm gun pod on an F-16 and other improvements that were supposed to optimize the Viper for supporting ground troops. That lasted until everyone realized that the A-10 could carry much more ordnance, had better loiter time and was more survivable in a low-to-medium threat environment.
Sure, the A-16 was faster, but it only had nine hardpoints (versus a dozen on the Hawg). Making matters worse, the gun pod had to be mounted on the centerline and exhaust gases from the gun sometimes entered the intake of the F-16, causing its single engine to flame out. Not exactly a "fun" scenario for a pilot at low level, trying to dodge hostile fire and engage the enemy. And if that weren't bad enough, the A-16 had two (wingtip) stations that could only carry air-to-air missiles (useless for the CAS mission) and needed at least one tank of gas to have any endurance. No wonder that A-10 "replacement" was quickly and quietly retired from service.
And of course, the Hawg always had the Army and the Marines in its corner. If you're a grunt in a firefight, you appreciate the value of a heavily armored CAS aircraft that could loiter over the battlefield for extended periods and put a lot of firepower on target. As someone once observed, an infantryman doesn't really care where air support comes from, as long as it's there when he needs it and takes out the bad guys.
But this time around, the Army and Marine aren't raising as much of a fuss about the A-10's possible retirement. That's because they're fighting their own budget battles, and have their own dogs in the CAS hunt. The Army, for example, has invested billions in the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and its latest version, the Apache Longbow. By comparison, the Marines are still making do with aging Cobra attack choppers, but they are one of the key players in the F-35 program. Various buyers are touting CAS as a mission for the F-35, which can handle the assignment in higher-threat scenarios.
There may be some truth in that claim, but here's another inescapable fact: the complete retirement of the A-10 would be a colossal mistake. While there are genuine concerns about facing adversaries with advanced air defense systems in the future, there is also consensus that many future conflicts will look a lot like Afghanistan and Iraq; COIN operations against terrorists and other insurgent groups with little more than aging shoulder-fired SAMs and heavy machine guns. The rugged A-10 is tailor-made for that kind of fight, so there will be at least a "niche" market for the Warthog for decades to come.
Unfortunately, there may not be enough money to keep a limited number of A-10s in service. Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week summed up the dilemma rather nicely in this recent opinion piece:
"...The Air Force is in a fiscal trap that is partly of its own making. Aging combat fleets and an unmanned aerial system (UAS) force that can't survive against any form of air defense are two of its closing walls. The service cannot find the will to escape from its commitment to raise its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter buy rate to 80 per year, but it also sees a stark need for aircraft with longer range.
The way to make big savings, the service argues, is to chop entire fleets, shut down their training and logistics infrastructure, and stop paying modernization bills. The KC-10 and B-1 bomber—alongside the A-10—are in just the first wave, but older F-16s and F-15C/Ds are next.
Unfortunately, the A-10 has been the big, ugly symbol of the CAS debate since its conception in the 1960s. The USAF only built it in the first place, it is argued, to deflect the Army's attempt to take over the mission with the fast and costly AH-56A Cheyenne compound helicopter. Now, say the boot-centric warfare believers, the USAF wants to dump CAS completely.
That argument is off-target. In the last 10 years, the USAF and its allies have provided CAS using fighters, helicopters and gunships....within this family, the A-10 is different but not unique. What it brings to the party is better persistence than a supersonic fighter, lower cost per hour and—its advocates argue that this is crucial—flight characteristics that are better suited to operations beneath an overcast."
True, the A-10 isn't the only arrow in the CAS quiver. But can anyone name a platform--current or planned--that will do the Warthog's job with the same efficiency and effect? Get back to us when you have an answer.