Warplanes: May 28, 2003

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Despite its repeated success as a ground attack aircraft, the U.S. Air Force is again planning to get rid of the A-10. The aircraft was built to come in low, take enemy fire, and keep fighting. A-10s have a 30mm cannon that fires armor piercing shells, and also uses Maverick anti-tank missiles and bombs. The A-10 was set for demobilization before the 1991 Gulf War. The Army was asked if it wanted to take the A-10s, but Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the offer was withdrawn. Since the Gulf war, the number of A-10s in service has fallen by half, to about 168. To replace the retired A-10s, the Air Force has trained about a quarter of its F-16 pilots to perform close support missions. But F-16s don't get very close, as the air force won't let them fly below 10,000 feet. The reason is simple; only the A-10 is built to go low, take hits, and keep flying and fighting. A-10 pilots are protected by armor, as are key aircraft components. The air force believes that JDAM and Maverick missiles, used from 10,000 feet, can replace the A-10 and its cannon. But army troops, and A-10 pilots, will tell you that nothing, yet, replaces coming in at under a thousand feet with the cannon firing. You see the battlefield more effectively, and it's great for the morale of the soldiers you are supporting. The army has expressed a willingness to take over the close support mission. This would mean the army would get the A-10s, and build a successor aircraft (which might be a UAV). The army would also take over the AC-130 gunships. The air force has expressed a willingness to do this, as long as it gets to keep the billions of dollars it normally spends on maintaining the A-10s and gunships. It is, after all, about money. Dropping the A-10 makes it easier for the air force to afford the new F-22 (at $260 million each) and the F-35 (at $50 million each.) Another problem would be the culture shock of the air force pilots and ground crews transferring to the army. The air force is really world class when it comes to aircraft maintenance, certainly more so than the army. But that's a minor problem compared to the army trying to pick up the tab for the A-10s, as well as a replacement aircraft. How much is effective close air support worth? Probably too much for either the air force or the army to find room in the budgets for. The air force plans to retire the last of the A-10s by the end of 2004. 

 


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