Warplanes: Reality Intervenes To Save The A-10

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February 25, 2015: In early 2015 the U.S. Air Force decided to return its A-10C ground attack aircraft to Europe. In early February twelve A-10s and 300 personnel set up shop in Germany for training and that will lead to the A-10s moving on to East Europe. This is apparently in response to over a year of Russian aggression against Ukraine. This A-10 deployment comes despite renewed U.S. Air Force efforts to retire the much loved (by their pilots and the ground troops who depend on it) A-10C.

As in the past, reality intervened. Thus in late 2014 a dozen A-10Cs from a reserve unit were quietly sent to the Middle East to join in the air operations against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq and Syria. Many older ISIL members (who fought in Iraq before the A-10s were withdrawn) are not happy with this news while the soldiers and militiamen fighting ISIL are much encouraged.

The air force did not publicize these A-10 developments because in early 2014 the U.S. Air Force had insisted it had to retire all of its A-10 ground support aircraft in order to deal with a shrinking budget and this time the A-10 was really going to be gone. The air force had a point because their budget is shrinking and Cold War era aircraft, especially the F-16, need replacing and the replacement is the very expensive F-35. But the agitation that accompanies talk of retiring the A-10 is not about a popular (with their pilots and the ground troops the A-10 supports) aircraft but the fact that the air force never gave much priority to ground support. To compound this the air force refuses to admit it does not care much about ground support. It’s not just the eventual (if only from age) demise of the A-10, but the continued air force reluctance to provide adequate ground support.

This air force attitude towards ground support was already a source of friction between the army and air force even before since the Cold War ended in 1991. There were always a lot of politicians who did do not agree with the air force generals and that halted several early efforts to get rid of the A-10s. There is little doubt that the A-10s will again make themselves useful in the Middle East. That will slow down but not stop air force efforts to eliminate this popular (except among senior air force commanders) warplane.

A-10s were designed during the Cold War for combat against Russian ground forces in Europe. That war never happened and the last American A-10 attack aircraft left Europe in mid-2013. After that some politicians believed the A-10 might be needed back in Europe to help confront an increasingly aggressive Russia. Meanwhile the A-10 proved to be a formidable combat aircraft in post-Cold War conflicts, first in the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and later in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the last decade the most requested ground support aircraft in Afghanistan has been the A-10. There was similar A-10 affection in Iraq. Troops from all nations quickly came to appreciate the unique abilities of this 1970s era aircraft that the U.S. Air Force is constantly trying to get rid of. In 2011 the air force did announce that it was retiring 102 A-10s, leaving 243 in service. At the same time the air force accelerated the upgrading of the remaining A-10s to the A-10C standard.

This C model is also called the PE (for precision engagement) model. These refurbished A-10Cs were supposed to remain in service until 2028, meaning most A-10Cs could serve over 40 years and log as many as 16,000 flight hours each. The upgrade effort has been underway since 2007. The upgrades include new electronics as well as structural and engine refurbishment. The A-10C provides the pilot with the same targeting and fire control gadgets the latest fighters have. The new A-10C cockpit has all the spiffy color displays and easy to use controls. Because it is a single-seat aircraft that flies close to the ground (something that requires a lot more concentration), all the automation in the cockpit allows the pilot to do a lot more, with less stress, exertion, and danger.

The basic A-10 is a 1960s design, so the new additions are quite spectacular in comparison. New commo gear has also been added, allowing A-10 pilots to share pix and vids with troops on the ground. The A-10 pilot also has access to the Blue Force Tracker system, so that the nearest friendly ground forces show up on the HUD (Head Up Display) when coming in low to use the 30mm cannon. The A-10 can now use smart bombs, making it a do-it-all aircraft for ground support.

A-10s are worked hard in Afghanistan. For example, an A-10 squadron has a dozen aircraft and 18 pilots. Pilots often average about a hundred hours a month in the air while in Afghanistan. That's about twenty sorties, as each sortie averages about five hours. The aircraft ranged all over southern Afghanistan, waiting for troops below to call for some air support. The A-10, nicknamed "Warthog" or just "hog", could always fly low and slow and was designed, and armored, to survive a lot of ground fire. The troops trust the A-10 more than the F-16 or any other aircraft used for ground support.

The A-10 is a 23 ton, twin engine, single seat aircraft whose primary weapon is a multi-barrel 30mm cannon originally designed to fire armored piercing shells through the thinner top armor of Russian (or any other) tanks. These days the 1,174 30mm rounds are mostly high explosive. The 30mm cannon fires 363 gram (12.7 ounce) rounds at the rate of about 65 a second. The cannon usually fires in one or two second bursts. In addition, the A-10 can carry seven tons of bombs and missiles. These days the A-10 goes out with smart bombs (GPS and laser guided) and Maverick missiles. It can also carry a targeting pod, enabling the pilot to use high magnification day/night cameras to scour the area for enemy activity. Cruising speed is 560 kilometers an hour and the A-10 can slow down to about 230 kilometers an hour. In Afghanistan two drop tanks are usually carried, to give the aircraft more fuel and maximum time over the battlefield.

If there is another major war in someplace like Korea, Eastern Europe or Iran, the A-10s would once more be one of the most popular warplane with the ground troops. For that reason some in Congress also want the air force to put those A-10s that are retired in storage, in the event of an emergency. That’s called Type 1000 storage and would cost over $50,000 a year per A-10 for the first five years and about $12,000 a year after that. It costs $43,000 to put an aircraft into storage and a thousand dollars a year to maintain it. Every four years the stored aircraft is taken out of storage, checked over to make everything is OK and then put back in storage. This coasts over $40,000 (depending on what might have to be replaced or fixed). It takes one to four months to take an aircraft out of Type 1000 storage and return it to operational status. Once out of storage you also need about two pilots per A-10 to actually use it in combat. The longer the A-10s are in storage the harder it is to find pilots with any A-10 experience. That means it takes longer to put existing combat pilots (assuming there are many to spare) through transition (to flying the A-10) training.

Putting A-10s in Type 1000 storage is a lot cheaper (by over a million dollars a year) than keeping them in service but it is an option that even many air force leaders believe is prudent and affordable. It appears that some A-10s may end up in Type 1000 storage anyway, even with a few of them back in combat.

 


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