Warplanes: A-10 Dodges Another Bullet

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January 26, 2016: As of early 2016 the U.S. Air Force struggle to retire all its A-10 ground attack aircraft is over. For the moment at least. The air force now says that the war against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and the threat from Russia caused this change of mind. The real reason is that the A-10 has long been the most effective and popular ground attack aircraft (according to army and marine combat troops and commanders) and that Congress agreed with these troops rather than the air force generals. The politicians were also quite angry at a late 2015 air force effort to undermine a law Congress passed forbidding the air force from retiring the A-10. Congress also agreed with army and marine (and some air force officer) charges that the air force leadership was lying when it insisted the A-10 could be replaced by F-16s and the new F-35. The beginning of the end came in early 2015 when the general commanding the ACC (Air Combat Command) was fired (because of Congressional pressure) for giving a speech in which he declared that any air force personnel speaking out publicly in favor of the A-10 were guilty of treason. While ACC is in charge of most combat aircraft (fighters, bombers, recon and ground attack) ACC leadership has long believed that the A-10 has outlived its usefulness and that its ground support job could be done just as well by fighters like the F-16 and F-35. Experience in combat has shown that this is not true, but apparently to senior people in the air force backing the truth, at least when it comes to the A-10, is treasonous.

Tactics like these became untenable when the air force, and everyone else, realized that the A-10 was one of the most effective weapons against ISIL and the Taliban. Moreover the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria has become largely a U.S. Air Force effort. Some 70 percent of the nearly four billion dollars America has spent on fighting ISIL has gone to the air force and the A-10 is the most popular aircraft in that campaign in Syria and Iraq.

The air force has been trying to retire its A-10 aircraft since the 1990s and starting in late 2014 they tried issuing studies and analyses showing that the A-10 was too specialized and too old to justify the cost of keeping it in service. This generated more opposition, and more effective opposition, than the air forces expected. This was helped by the fact that some of the “studies” were more spin than impartial analysis. All this created unwanted publicity about something the air force denies exists but is nevertheless very real; the air force has never really wanted to devote much resources to CAS (Close Air Support) for ground forces. Officially this is not true but in reality it is and the ground forces (army and marines) and historians provided plenty of evidence.

The problem is complicated by the fact that the air force does not want to allow the army to handle CAS, as is the case with some countries and the U.S. Marine Corps (which provides CAS for marines and any ground forces the marines are operating with). Soldiers and marines both insist that marine CAS (provided by Harriers and F-18s flown by marines) is superior. The army and marines also have their own helicopter gunships for support but these lack capabilities only the fixed wing aircraft have. Despite all that the air force wants to eliminate the A-10, which soldiers, marines and many allied troops consider the best CAS aircraft ever, and replace it with less effective (for CAS) fighters adapted for CAS. The ground forces don’t want that mainly because the A-10 pilots specialize in CAS while fighter pilots must spend a lot of time training for air combat and different types of bombing, The A-10 pilots are CAS specialists and it shows by the amount of praise they get from their “customers” (the ground troops). To the dismay of just about everyone the air force dismisses all this as much less important than the fact that the A-10 cannot fight other aircraft. That was how the A-10 was designed, on air force orders, but that is somehow irrelevant now.

The air force also does not like being reminded of similar situations like earlier efforts to eliminate the B-52. This heavy bomber entered service in 1955 and the last one was built in 1962. For decades the air force has sought to replace the B-52 with the newer, better and much more expensive aircraft. The first effort (the B-70) failed in the late 1960s and no production models were built. The second effort was the B-1. It was introduced in 1986 and production ceased in 1988. The B-1 did not replace the B-52 but complemented it as the 104 B-1s built eventually proved to be a faster and more expensive B-52 and not much more. The third attempt was the newer, even more better and much more expensive B-2. This was no B-52 replacement either, although 21 were built. The air force spins all this as irrelevant but most others disagree and many books have been written about the lessons of the B-52 and other long-lasting designs like the Sidewinder air-to-air missile.

Meanwhile, as the air force continues trying to gather support in Congress for eliminating the A-10, A-10s are again in demand in Europe (to confront Russia) and the Middle East (to deal with ISIL). While sending more A-10s to East Europe and the Middle East the air force continues to insist that it must retire all of its A-10s in order to deal with a shrinking budget and this time the A-10 has really got to go. 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. The air force plays down the fact that for CAS missions the fighter jets sometimes used, like the F-16 or even the F-35, are much less effective as well as being more expensive to operate than the A-10. A sortie by an F16 costs 80 percent more than an A-10, F-15E is twice as much, F-22 four times as much and the F-35 is somewhere between the F-15E and F-22.

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 (for good, it was thought) in mid-2013. Now it is back. 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.

The basic A-10 is a 1960s design but in the last decade most still in service have been upgraded to the A-10C. For this new commo gear was 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 were 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 were 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, unless the air force manages to get rid of it.

 


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