Winning: Hog Heaven

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May 24, 2020: The U.S. Air Force has finally decided to keep its popular, at least with pilots and infantry, A-10 attack aircraft. Nicknamed "Warthog" or just "hog", the A-10 never got much respect from air force leaders. The new plan reduces the A-10 force by 44 aircraft, to 237. These will equip seven squadrons. Three are active duty and four operated by part-time National Guard and reserve personnel. The reserve units would be available within 30 days for use in an emergency. The reserve pilots are largely retired fighter pilots and tend to have more experience in the A-10 than the active duty pilots. The reservists fly regularly and their aircraft are kept in shape for regular operations.

Retiring 44 of the older A-10s makes it easier for the air force to afford continuing upgrades for the A-10s so they have the same new tech other warplanes have. This policy has seen the A-10s undergoing regular upgrades over the last two decades. These included new wings, a project that was finally completed in 2019. The air force now plans to keep the A-10s in service until 2040. One catch is that the air force will not allow A-10s to operate in airspace threatened by modern enemy air defense systems. Once these threats have been eliminated the A-10s can enter. Meanwhile the A-10s will get plenty of work dealing with Islamic terrorists and irregulars.

This new agreement comes after six years of uncertainly and enormous pressure from the ground forces and Congress to keep the A-10 around as long as possible. Back in 2014 the air force announced plans to retire all 340 remaining A-10s and 70 F-15Cs. The reasons were budget shortages and the enormous costs of developing and building the new F-35 stealth fighter. The air force planned to retire these 410 combat aircraft and about a hundred support planes by 2020. By 2020 over a hundred new F-35s would enter service leaving the air force with about 300 fewer combat aircraft. Since the United States currently has about 2,700 combat aircraft in the air force and navy that would be a decline of about 11 percent in combat aircraft.

There was not a lot of protest over retiring the elderly F-15Cs and support aircraft. The A-10 was a different matter. In 2016 the air force agreed the A-10 would not be retired and came up with another plan, which was recently announced. The new plans will also retire 29 older air refueling aircraft, 24 older C-130Hs, 24 Global Hawk UAVs and 17 B-1B bombers.

One thing that kept the A-10 in service was that close air support tech had rapidly evolved since the 1990s. Now A-10s use smart bombs or missiles most of the time. The upgrades included targeting pods that enable A-10s to spot targets while at higher (over 3,000 meters) altitudes. That puts them out of range of small arms and many anti-aircraft weapons. Although the A-10 was built for ground support, armed with a 30mm rotary cannon for shooting up Russian tanks during a potential World War 3 in Europe. That war never happened and in 2013 the last A-10 left Europe. But in Iraq and Afghanistan troops appreciated the ability to call in an A-10 for a strafing run. A few hundred 30mm rounds not only did a lot of damage but it also tended to demoralize the enemy and make it easier to capture them alive or drive them away. Smart bombs and missiles tended to leave fewer prisoners and were not as scary as the roar and loud buzz of a low-flying A-10 using its 30mm autocannon.

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. Since 2004 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 has several times tried to eliminate. In 2011 the air force announced that it was retiring 102 A-10s, leaving 243 in service. Opposition from the army and Congress halted that. That was not the first, nor the last retirement effort. Until 2020, the air force kept at it.

At the same time the air force tried to retire A-10s it accelerated the upgrading of the remaining A-10s to the A-10C standard. Also called the PE (for precision engagement) model, the refurbished A-10s were supposed to remain in service until 2028, meaning most A-10Cs would have served over 40 years and as many as 16,000 flight hours. The upgrade effort has been underway soon after A-10s began seeing much heavier use after 2003. The upgrades included new electronics as well as 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 communications gear has also been added, allowing A-10 pilots to share pictures and videos 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.

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. That's about twenty sorties, as each sortie averages about five hours. The aircraft range all over southern Afghanistan, waiting for troops below to call for some air support. The A-10 could always fly low and slow and were 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 at Russian tanks. These days the 1,174 30mm rounds are mostly high explosives. 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 some place like Korea or with Iran, the A-10s would once more be one of the most popular warplane with the ground troops, if they are still around. Otherwise the troops on the ground will have to make do with smart bombs and a growing number of GPS guided mortar shells, artillery shells and rockets.

At one point the air force argued that the F-35 could replace the A-10 as a ground attack aircraft. One of the problems with using F-35s is that these cost $45,000 an hour to operate, more than twice what A-10s need. Moreover, only the A-10 can regularly go low and strafe enemy forces. F-16s and F-35s are too fast and unarmored to get away with that. The A-10 was designed to take a lot of hits and keep flying. A-10s have regularly demonstrated this reliability. Finally the air force admitted it would take fifteen years and a lot of money to develop an A-10 replacement. The current plan is to eventually turn that dangerous duty to a new generation of UAVs. This is something Predator and Reaper UAVs have already been handling, except for the low altitude strafing duty. This is often used to intimidate a stubborn foe and that still works. The A-10 makes a lot of noise when coming in low, with part of the racket coming from its 30mm autocannon. Again, this has been proven time and again. It is not a theoretical capability but very real and still in demand. No aircraft will ever duplicate that. When the A-10 finally retires in 2040 it will have been service 73 years, fifty of them after it was declared obsolete at the end of the Cold War and the threat from huge Russian armored forces.

 


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