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.

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  1. Steve, ZM’s extensive background & education in Defense Technology, statistics and equipment make him a highly creditable & qualified source in these matters. His website provides some very interesting and informative discussions. So look it up if you have a minute.

  2. Ask a special operator what he would rather have loitering over head in combat. Systems analysts and Congress should not make this call. If the Air Force does not want them, give them to the Army.

    1. “A special operator.” LOL.

      BTW, Jan, thanks for the praise and for stating my credentials here.

      The real “bullshit” here is the blogpost Steve has linked to – not the AF’s rationale for retiring the A-10. The blogpost Steve has linked to does little more than restate the same old myths that I have already refuted here, and which, indeed, have been refuted over and over again.

      1) If COST is the concern, NO aircraft is even CLOSE to being as cheap and cost-efficient to operate as drones – at least in COIN environments. So if close air support for GIs on the ground is to be done cheaply and efficiently, drones are by far the best aircraft to do that.

      Even more so since they, not being manned, can loiter over the battlefield for up to 26 hours nonstop before returning to base, while ALL manned aircraft, including the A-10, are limited by the physiological needs of their human pilots for food, drink, rest, sleep, etc.

      2) The A-10 does not stand a ghost’s chance of surviving even the most primitive enemy air defense systems, as it is vulnerable to any kind of fire bigger than small arms fire, has a HUGE radar signature (even at low altitudes), and is so slow and unmaneuverable that it cannot even try to duck enemy SAMs or AAA fire.

      And these days, even flying at very low altitudes won’t help you, because modern (and old but upgraded) Russian and Chinese air defense systems (esp. the S-300, S-400, S-500, HQ-9, Tor-M1, and Pantsir-S1) can detect and shoot you down from a long range (except the Tor and the Pantsir) EVEN if you fly at very low altitudes – that’s how sensitive their radars are.

      Hiding behind geographical obstacles like mountains won’t save you. They’re not everywhere, and they’re not present at sea. Over the sea, there’s nothing to hide behind. Which brings me to my next point.

      3) These days, all but the smallest surface combatants of the Russian and Chinese navy have very capable onboard air defense systems, so the A-10 would be shot down long before it could make an approach to try shooting at these warships. Which brings me to my next point.

      4) The A-10 is simply useless, irrelevant, and redundant. There is NOTHING it can do which cannot be done just as well – but cheaper and more cost-effectively – by drones and attack helicopters in COIN environments, and it is completely useless in any theater where the opponent is a nation state wielding a potent air defense system and thus able to contest control of the air (e.g. Russia, China, Iran, Syria, North Korea). One evidence of this is that it has ONLY operated in airspace previously sanitized by other, more survivable, aircraft.

      5) The author desperately points to the Russian tanks that have recently rolled into Ukraine. But Russian armies do not, and no sane enemy will ever, deploy their armored units without decent air cover provided by field point-area air defense systems (e.g. the SA-6, SA-11/17, or new ADS like the Tor-M1 and Pantsir-S1). The First Gulf War, in which Saddam’s massed tank army unprotected from the air (the Coalition ruled the skies) was clobbered by the Coalition showed the world that tank armies without potent air defense systems are doomed.

      No sane nation will ever again deploy its tank army without air defense systems. Massed Iraqi-style armored divisions lacking air cover have disappeared, and they will never return.

      And as I said, the A-10 is useless against any air defense system.

      5) Retiring the A-10 would save the USAF at least $3.7 bn, money which will have to come out of higher-priority programs and fleets if this utterly obsolete and useless aircraft is not retired.

      6) Fortunately, House Appropriators have decided to allow the USAF to retire this aircraft. While thier Senate counterparts are unlikely to agree this year, they may in the next. And, as much as the authorizes dislike and deny that, they don’t set defense budgets – the appropriators do. Thus, the HAC’s green light to retire the A-10 is the beginning of the end for the Warthog. Deal with it, folks.

      1. Sir, it is obvious that you have no “boots on the ground experience”, you would need to have hundreds of drones to equal the firepower of one A-10 and thousands of drones to equal the firepower of one AC-130, How are you going to manage that airspace ? Every aircraft is vulnerable to modern air defense systems. I make the point again, leave these decisions to the guys that have been there and done that.

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