Murphy's Law: Too Useful To Lose


November 6, 2016: Once more the U.S. Air Force had to reverse its plans to get rid of its most popular combat aircraft; the A-10. In September the air force, faced with the reality that the A-10 was its most effective warplane in the current war against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria and Iraq, announced it was restoring maintenance funds for the A-10 and indefinitely delaying plans to start retiring all A-10s in 2018. Now the money is allocated to keep the 283 A-10s flying into the late 2020s. Restored maintenance funds will increase availability rates back to 70 percent of more. In 2015 A-10s flew over 87,000 hours and they could have flown more (as ground troops demanded) if maintenance funds had been available.

The A-10 is a special Cold War era design that was optimized for operating close to troops on the ground. A-10s were designed for use 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. By 2015 it was 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. This was long overdue because the original A-10 was a 1960s design. Most have now been upgraded. An A-10C has 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-10C can use smart bombs, making it a do-it-all aircraft 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. 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.

Despite the success and popularity (especially with ground troops) of the A-10 the air force leadership had cut money already allocated to keep existing A-10s flying and abandoned plans to develop an acceptable (to the troops on the ground) replacement. The reasons for the change of mind were familiar to those who remembered similar situations dating back to the early 1990s. This time it was a recent survey of Marine, Army, and Air Force JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers and JFOs (Joint Fires Observers) which showed an overwhelming preference for the A-10. JTAC and JFO teams are trained to call in air strikes and most of these teams contain a combat pilot. At the same time these teams work directly with ground forces and are well aware of what kind of air support the ground troops find most useful. Ground controllers mostly (48 percent) preferred the A-10. The next most popular aircraft (which 13 percent preferred) was the AC-130 gunships. While the AC-130 is in no danger of elimination (it is an armed C-130 transport) the A-10 is. Yet the air force leaders insist jet fighters (like the F-16, F-15 and F-18) can replace the A-10 but these three fighters are preferred by 14 percent. The AV-8B vertical takeoff jet is preferred by only four percent. Armed helicopters are preferred by 11 percent and armed UAVs by nine percent. Air force leaders insist jet fighters can adequately replace the A-10 but ground troops and fighter pilots serving as JTACs say otherwise. As useful as armed helicopters and UAVs are the overwhelming preference is for the A-10, an aircraft explicitly designed to provide the best ground support. The air force refuses even ret and design a 21st century A-10 and there are no other aircraft in service that even come close.

This hostile attitude by air force leadership is to the A-10 is nothing new. It got so bad in 2015 that 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.

While the air force leadership officially denounced the “supporting the A-10 is treason” remarks it was eventually revealed that while those apologies were being made those same air force generals were trying to sabotage the A-10 by quietly cutting major maintenance programs 40 percent. This meant that a growing number of A-10s would not be available for service because of “maintenance issues.” It is believed that such excuses would not include the fact that the maintenance problems were self-inflicted by the air force leadership and it would instead be implied that the age of the A-10s was a factor.

The air force has been trying to retire its A-10 aircraft since the 1990s and since 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. F-35Bs and F-18s flown by marines) is superior. The army and marines also have their own helicopter gunships for support, but they 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.

Meanwhile 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. But the key advantage is that the troops trust the A-10 more than the F-16 or any other aircraft used for ground support. 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.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close