The Air Force is Right: Time to Retire the A-10
Because the DOD is still under the obligation to cut tens of billions of dollars from its budgets every year through FY2022, something has to go. It has to make tough choices – and so does the Congress.
This necessitates that weapon systems that can do only niche jobs, or cannot survive in today’s (let alone tomorrow’s) unforgiving high-tech environments where the US will have to fight hard for control of the air and the sea, must go, as do unneeded bases and costly pay and benefits packages for the troops.
Otherwise, the DOD will have to cut the meat and bone of the military: training, maintenance, and those weapons that the military needs to protect America and win future wars.
Therefore, the Air Force, for its part, has decided to retire its fleet of 230 old, obsolete A-10 Warthog attack jets, designed in the 1960s and fielded in the 1970s to fight Soviet tank armies in Germany.
These aircraft have proven quite good at supporting ground troops in fights against opponents who cannot contest (or have already lost, thanks to other US systems) control of the air. But they cannot do anything else. Supporting ground troops in completely benign environments is the only thing they can do.
If the Air Force cannot retire them, it will have to retire other aircraft – ones that can do a much wider range of missions.
Yet, parochial Congressmen and Senators on the Armed Services Committees have passed bills that would bar the USAF from retiring the obsolete, redundant A-10. And while House Appropriators have voted to retire the A-10, some weak-defense advocates, including professional blowhards Pierre Sprey and Winslow Wheeler, are spreading lies to slander the USAF and to defend the obsolete A-10.
The myths most frequently uttered in the A-10’s defense are that:
1) Only it can do the “close air support for ground troops” mission.
2) It does that mission cheaper than any other aircraft.
3) It had a better survival record in the 1999 war against Yugoslavia than the stealthy F-117.
4) It can do many missions, including air interdiction, combat search and rescue, and suppression of enemy air defenses.
5) The Air Force and the House Appropriations Committee want to retire the A-10 while funnelling money to their special-interest pet projects.
6) The recent friendly fire accident where a B-1 bomber mistakenly dropped a bomb on five US ground troops is a justification for keeping the A-10 in service.
All of these claims are myths, plain and simple. And refuting them is very easy.
Ad. 1: The A-10 is hardly the only aircraft that can do the close air support mission, and not really the one that does it best. There is a reason why, in Afghanistan and Iraq, 80% of close air support missions in defense of troops on the ground have been flown by aircraft other than the A-10. The vast majority of these were flown by the F-16.
Ad. 2: Actually, the cheapest combat aircraft operated by the US military are its combat drones, most notably the Predator and the Reaper, and they do the close air support job for ground troops cheaper than any manned aircraft. Per amount of ordnance expended, the cheapest, most fiscally efficient performant of the close air support mission is the B-1 bomber.
Ad. 3: Only on paper. The only reason why the A-10 SEEMS, on paper, to have a better survival record is because it has never been allowed to operate in airspace that the enemy could contest with anything – for it is utterly unsurvivable in such airspace, being completely unmaneuverable, easy to see and shoot down, and vulnerable to anything bigger than small arms fire, even to anti-aircraft artillery. It can easily be shot down by even the most obsolete enemy air defense systems.
By contrast, the F-117, the world’s pioneer stealth aircraft, always flew the most dangerous missions – into airspace heavily defended by enemy air defense systems. Airspace into which no other aircraft (other than the B-2 and the F-22, which joined the fleet later) could venture. Airspace such as that over Baghdad, which, under Saddam, was heavily defended. It flew such dangerous missions in Panama, the First and Second Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia.
During that latter war, one F-117 was shot down by the Serbs, during a 79-campaign, after having flown a myriad of missions over Yugoslavia over the same route again and again, in a very repetitive pattern. That means A SINGLE F-117 being shot down throughout the aircraft’s over two decades of service flying into the world’s most dangerous, most heavily defended airspace.
That is a FAR better record than the A-10’s, which has flown only in perfectly safe airspace, sanitized by other aircraft. Such airspace will be increasingly scarce, if nonexistent – unless the only opponents the US will fight in the future will be insurgents or primitive nation states unable to contest control of the air.
Ad. 4. Sprey’s and Wheeler’s claim that the A-10 can perform air interdiction, combat search and rescue, and suppression of enemy air defenses, is downright laughable.
The A-10 is NOT a combat search and rescue platform at all. CSAR platforms are aircraft which can go to heavily defended airspace and, most importantly, take off and land vertically and take troops on board. The A-10 has NONE of those capabilities. Helicopters and the V-22 Osprey do.
Air interdiction requires an aircraft which can detect and engage the enemy from a long range – preferrably the F-15 or the F-22. Again, the A-10 has NONE of the capabilities required – it has no long-range radar or weapons. Its pilots need to see the enemy VISUALLY in order to detect and engage them.
As for suppression of enemy air defenses, don’t make me laugh. The A-10 is so slow, sluggish, unmaneuverable, easy-to-detect, and vulnerable (to anything greater than small arms fire) that it is the easiest fixed-wing aircraft in the world to shoot down. Which is precisely the reason why the military has always kept it out of any airspace where the enemy could put up a fight for its control. The A-10 is vulnerable to everything, even the most outmoded enemy air defense systems, including AAA. It can fight enemy ground troops only in completely sanitized, perfectly safe airspace.
The problem is that – as the DOD and many think-tanks have recognized – the USAF is unlikely to ever again fight in such airspace. Modern Russian and Chinese fighters and air defense systems are available cheaply to anyone with the money to pay for them. But you don’t need them to shoot down the A-10 (or other nonstealthy aircraft): legacy Soviet air defense systems will do just as well. The only thing you have to remember is to move them around frequently, and not use them in a static manner.
Ad. 6: In a perfect world, there would be no friendly fire accidents and no one but the enemy would suffer casualties. But we don’t live, and will never live, in that kind of world. The A-10 itself has been involved in a number of friendly fire incidents resulting in the deaths of several US troops and even one British soldier, Matty Hull (see here, here, and here).
This COMPLETELY BELIES Sprey’s and Wheeler’s blatant lie that the recent friendly fire incident in Afghanistan, in which 5 US troops were killed, would’ve been prevented if the A-10 was used instead of the B-1.
Which brings me to my final point:
Ad. 5: The reason why the Air Force wants to retire its A-10 fleet is because doing so would save $4.2 bn per year over the next five years, i.e. $700 mn, as one of the many, many savings measures the military is undertaking to cope with Congressionally-mandated budget cuts.
As demonstrated above, the USAF has solid reasons for retiring the A-10. It is hopelessly obsolete, was designed for a totally different era and threat environment, can do only ONE niche mission, and do it only in completely sanitized airspace – when the US military is unlikely to ever again have the luxury of operating in such benign airspace.
The A-10 is completely and utterly redundant. There is nothing it can do that cannot be done better and cheaper by other aircraft. It cannot even do the original job it was designed to do – smashing Russian tank armies – well enough because of its huge vulnerability to air defense systems.
When the A-10 was originally designed and fielded, it was assumed the Russians would not deploy mobile, short-range field air defense systems to protect their ground armies on the move. This was dead wrong, as the Russians did deploy such systems in the 1970s – and even better ones in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s (the Tunguska, Tor-M1, and Pantsir-S1).
So even against threats like Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolling into Ukraine and possibly Central Europe, the A-10 would be useless.
The REAL wastrels of defense and supporters of defense pork are Winslow T. Wheeler, Pierre Sprey, and other defenders of the A-10, including the House and Senate Armed Services Committee members who voted to keep the A-10 in service.
The most vocal defenders of the A-10 have been Arizona Congressman Ron Barber and Arizona Senator John McCain. Their states host A-10 squadron, and should the aircraft be retired, would lose these squadrons, a large military base, and in consequence, several thousand jobs.
Like many other members of Congress, Barber and McCain are nothing but parochial porkers who don’t care about anything other than getting reelected and funneling pork money to their home states. If it hadn’t been for wastrels like them, the A-10 would’ve already been retired.
Shame on them for wasting taxpayers money and promoting an utterly obsolete aircraft.