Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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If the Air Force Has Such a Good Argument for Divesting the A-10, Why is No One Buying It?

by Janine Davidson
May 20, 2014

a10 divestment U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft are serviced on the flight line at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina in this handout photograph taken on December 2, 2005. A U.S. Congressional panel has rejected the military's proposal to retire the entire fleet of A-10 close-air support planes, as the annual defense policy bill continues to make its way through the House of Representatives. The White House said retiring the planes would save $4.2 billion through 2019. (Tech. Sgt. James Arrowood/Courtesy Reuters)

One of the most controversial proposals by the Air Force this year is its plan to divest the A-10 jet aircraft.  The “warthog,” as it is known, is a slow moving, low-flying, ear-piercingly loud jet airplane built around a giant “Avenger” Gatling gun, which has provided intimidating fire power for troops in contact on the ground for nearly 40 years.  By divesting an entire fleet, instead of just a few airplanes, the Air Force saves “billions, not millions” across the board in production and maintenance.

That $3.5 billion can then be invested in “multi-mission” aircraft, like the F-35, which, like the F-16, F-15, B1, and other platforms can conduct close air support (CAS), in addition to their other missions.  From an enterprise management perspective, they argue, it is just inefficient to maintain a “niche” airplane like the A-10, when so many other more survivable platforms can also do CAS, in addition to interdiction, air-to-air, and penetrating strike.

As a taxpayer, I get the Air Force’s budget argument; but as the wife of a former infantry officer who claims the A-10 has saved real lives in combat, my belief that the A-10 can probably be retired is not really about the money. It’s about my assessment that the Air Force can adequately perform the CAS mission without the A10. The lingering question is, will they?

Soldiers in combat on the ground could not care less about the Air Force’s “enterprise-wide” analysis and the “efficiencies” gained by utilizing operationally oriented “multi-mission platforms.”  Blah. Blah. Blah.  What soldiers (and parents, spouses, and senators) want to know is that the firepower will be there when needed.   Period.  And here, the Air Force is just not getting that message across.

Truth is, the debate is not really about the A10it is about the Air Force’s reputation and its perceived lack of dedication to the CAS mission.  Divesting the one plane most visible to ground troops and perceived as the most optimized for CAS simply fuels the suspicion that the Air Force’s last priority is supporting the troops on the ground.

The Air Force’s own rhetoric about the need to “take risk” across the inventory and the value of “multi-mission” aircraft, focuses on business, not war, and drowns out the solid facts about how CAS has been and will be conducted in the future.  And it only adds fuel to the fire when Chief of Staff, General Welsh says that various multi-mission platforms can do the mission “…maybe not as well, but reasonably well.”  What, exactly, is “reasonably well?”

b1 to replace a10

A pair of B-1B Lancer bombers soar over Wyoming in an undated file photo. The B1 is among the airframes proposed to take over the A-10′s close air support mission set. (USAF-Handout/Courtesy Reuters).

Consider a recent heated exchange between Senator John McCain during testimony by the Secretary and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.  The Senator was incredulous when told by Secretary Deborah James and General Mark Welsh that a variety of aircraft, including the high-altitude B-1 bomber, would be able to fill the gap in the CAS mission:

“That’s a remarkable statement. That doesn’t comport with any experience I’ve ever had, nor anyone I know has ever had,” he said. “You’re throwing in the B-1 bomber as a close air support weapon to replace the A-10. This is the reason why there is … such incredible skepticism here in the Congress.”  When General Welsh broke in to provide some data, Senator McCain cut him off saying,  “General, please don’t insult my intelligence.”

Had the Chief been allowed to elaborate, he might have focused, not on the business case, but on the following facts:

CAS Is a Mission, Not An Airplane

CAS really is a mission, not a particular airplane.  It is not being replaced by the F-35 alone, its holistic mission is being carried out by all sorts of other planes, manned and unmanned.  Changes in tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) along with technological advances have enabled an array of other platforms to conduct the vast majority of CAS over the last decade, and to do so with precision not available when the A-10 was designed in the early 1970’s.

Eighty percent of CAS missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been conducted not by the A-10, but by an array of other aircraft, including AC-130’s, F-15E’s, F-16’s, MQ-1’, B-52’s, and yes, the B-1. As for the B-1, it is not an insult to anyone’s intelligence to point out that 40% of the weapons tonnage dropped in Afghanistan came from the B1, in over 10,000 CAS-oriented sortiesand there is just no way the A-10 could have done this.

CAS Looks Different from the Air

For troops on the ground, the thundering sound of an incoming jet means one of two things, relief or annihilation.  Thanks to the fact that the U.S. Air Force maintains “air superiority” across the entire theater of battle, not just one company’s patch, U.S. and allied infantry welcome that otherwise terrifying noise.  From the air, however, getting that firepower on target, and maintaining control of the skies, requires maintaining a technological edge over an increasingly sophisticated enemy.

The Air Force argues that the best way to protect troops on the ground is to take out the enemy before it even gets in contact with our forces.  This means maintaining theater-wide air dominance with an array of platforms airborne across the battle space, and being able to swing within minutes from point to point. In this environment, the A-10 does not keep up.  As one Air Force strategist explained, relying on the close-in only A-10 instead of these multi-mission platforms, “actually increases risk to our soldiers by reducing the ability to kill the enemy before the Army closes with to destroy the enemy…the less enemy soldiers can actually look our American ground forces in the eye, the better we’ve done our job.”

That said, the A-10 is most valued when then the enemy does get through and airpower is needed in shorter range. But this reliance on the A-10 may be misplaced, as the Air Force claims that the Warthog has increasingly demonstrated limited capabilities compared to other platforms.  Take for instance the case of the 2011 Mackay Trophy winners, Don Cornwell, Dylan Wells, Leigh Larkin, and Nicholas Tsougas, a flight of two F-15Es, call sign “Dude flight,” who responded in conditions unreachable by the A-10:

With weather below rescue force minimums, Dude flight used Terrain Following Radar to execute five ‘Show of Force’ passes in a valley surrounded by high terrain.  When hostilities escalated, Dude Flight expertly employed six Joint Direct Attack Munitions, helping kill over 80 Taliban fighters who occupied reinforced positions within the town. Their efforts helped save the lives of approximately 30 coalition troops.  There were no civilian casualties.

These aircrew represent a generation of pilots of various aircraft, besides the A-10, who have added CAS to their skill sets in the last decade. For the Air Force to convince skeptics that CAS is a priority as the A-10 comes out of the inventory, the mission will need to remain high on the list of required skill sets for which pilots are trained and that they practice regularly.

a10 aghanistan

A U.S.Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter-jet from the 81st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron takes-off for a mission over Kandahar province, Kandahar Air Field, September 2, 2010. (Oleg Popov/Courtesy Reuters)

The A-10 is Old

The A-10 was designed in a very different era, when, as one Air Force pilot explained, “the only way to deliver precise fires and effects was strafing with a gun.”  Indeed, the A-10 is often thought of as a flying Gatling gun. Today’s precision-guided systems allow F-15Es or B-1s to deliver an array of munitions in greater numbers and with accuracy “unimaginable” when the A-10 was designed. Finally, the Air Force argues that future ground fights will see increasingly sophisticated anti-aircraft surface to air threats, making the A-10 increasingly vulnerable.  Relying on this outdated jet in future fights places airmen and soldiers at greater risk.

These facts mean that even without the budget crunch, this old jet would be due for an upgrade. Even the most skeptical group of senators conceded in their recent letter of protest “We do not believe the A-10 can serve in the inventory foreverit will eventually be replaced.”

The Need for a Joint CAS Picture

Curiously, the Army has not formally objected to the Air Force’s divestment plan; nor have they asked Congress for funding to take over the A-10 system.  Might this reflect an acknowledgment that, as the Air Force claims, the fire power has in fact been there when they needed it in Afghanistan and Iraqeither from an A-10 or from something else they perhaps did not even see?

As the primary “customer” of this Air Force mission, the Army’s voice is needed in the CAS debate. The Pentagon should conduct a joint Army-Air Force study of CAS, looking forward and back.  They should look at the last ten years and get the facts of how well the air power has been delivered – from the air and the ground perspectives.  They should also examine future CAS-oriented scenarios, from a joint perspective, to determine if losing the A-10 will create any “niche” gaps that cannot be covered by the rest of the inventory with existing or adapted TTPs.  This holistic air-ground perspective will illuminate the nature of the risk, if any, being taken in divesting the A-10. It will also get Congress focused on the mission, not the plane.

Recent calls from Congress to delay A-10 divestment until a “capable replacement reaches full operational capability” miss the point of how this mission and the threat have changed and how technology has adapted.   What Congress should be asking, in order to ease everyone’s minds, is how the Air Force intends to conduct the mission to the satisfaction of the Army with an array of twenty-first century platforms; not how it will replace, on a one-for-one basis, a plane originally intended to repel Soviet tank columns in the early 1970s.

Post a Comment 12 Comments

  • Posted by Jack "Ripper" Forsythe

    Janine
    Very well said! Sadly, AF missions like CAS (or any individual Service mission for that matter), are not bounded by state lines or congressional districts with military bases. If they were, I have no doubt Congress would talk about the military’s ability to execute their missions with genuine concern. But the A-10 issue is about “iron on the ramp” in these districts and states alone. The irony can’t be lost on anyone that this proposed cut (like others across the Services) is ultimately the result of the congressionally mandated Budget Control Act. How Sen McCain, a national security champion, could be surprised the B-1 and other airborne platforms were performing the majority of CAS missions after multiple visits to the AOR is beyond me. Perhaps he didn’t ask the right questions while there. “What weapons systems are saving the lives of Soldiers and Marines?” seems like an appropriate one. The cyncism displayed annually by Congress at Service budget hearings neither enhances their approval ratings nor or our security posture when viewed from beyond our borders. The Air Force’s dedication to advancing all aspects (platforms, weapons, JTACs, command and control, TTPs, etc.) — and superb execution — of the CAS mission over the last two and a half decades should provide a resounding “We’ve got your back!” to our great soldiers, parents, and spouses.

    Thanks for highlighting the real meat of the matter.
    Ripper Forsythe
    Col (ret), USAF

  • Posted by A10ATO

    This issue is not about results and not about CAS. It is about money, jobs, and votes. Facts and statistics can be misleading. the data used to calculate platforms performing CAS is average sortie duration to include travel time into and out of the AOR for B1s. How quickly the quite lone night coverage adds up for them too. Another stat twisted….weapons tonnage….how can anyone compete with a bomber. Why don’t you look at rounds fired and see who the percentages favor. If you really care about “What weapons systems are saving the lives” like I do, you would argue for the A-10. We are doing it daily! The evidence and real measure comes from the guys on the ground, who we debrief with after each flight. A typical topic is how the other aircraft (who don’t call) would or could not get visual on the friendly forces. J9…….the A-10 may be a little older, but recent upgrades make this a more survivable beast and precision platform capable of dropping JDAMs if needed. The A-10 is nothing like it was when it came off the production line. If America still cares about the lives of our troops, we should keep the A-10, and 3.7B seems like a bargain.

  • Posted by Robert Anderson

    I think it is time to revisit the removal of fixed-wing aircraft from the Army Air Corps to the USAF; and bring back a dedicated Army Air Corps, with it taking responsibility for CAS, aircraft such as the C-27 and smaller, and give it an independent ability to resupply and provide “intimate” CAS to small units, similar to the USMC. Then there will be no argument about what is justifiable, affordable, etc.

  • Posted by Chris

    As a friend and relative to Marines and Army soldiers who haved served in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade, I’ve asked the question about the A-10 versus other CAS aircraft. Their answer: give me the A-10 anyday. CAS missions will contine to happen despite the best efforts or our Air Force from stopping enemy troops from attacking ours. These encounters may happen at ranges I could a hit a baseball …or closer. Low and slow is the best way to achieve the accuracy, because despite the cool videos of ‘precision guided munitions,’ they miss and they miss often enough to concern anyone on the ground.

    Asymetric warfare is going to be far more common than in the past. Special Forces troops operating in areas where their firepower and the firepower they can call upon will be much more common than a front where the Air Force has ‘air superiority.’

    The Air Force has never liked the A-10, or its mission for that matter. They like the cool looking aircraft that go fast. I can’t blame them, but this isn’t about looking cool. As you point out, it is about the mission …and the combat veterans I’ve talked to would prefer the A-10 and their highly skilled pilots.

  • Posted by Brettany Renée Blatchley

    Thank you Janine!

    This was a very eye-opening article, looking at the A-10 controversy in a way that had not occurred to me…

    …Really it is the the difference between strategy and tactics, and in this context, CAS is to strategy as A-10 is to tactics. But in a wider sense, CAS is contingency in cases where the AF strategy of total “battlefield denial” is unsuccessful.

    I was not seeing the wider picture, and now I understand better what is at stake. AND it is a courageous article written by someone who has had a great personal stake in the proceedings.

  • Posted by Dean Hewitt

    First, the AF is not going to be flying $165 million planes at tree top level to help the Army. The A-10 can and has. I remember the Army not wanting to fly their new expensive choppers in Bosnia. The AF wants to eliminate every other plane, so they can have only the F-35, a new bomber, new tankers, and new surveillance plane along with the Global Hawk. They are not concerned about budget. Expect them to be before Congress, hat in hand, saying they no longer can do the mission without new planes to fill in the gaps, gaps they created.

  • Posted by Marcus A

    The whole idea behind the JSF contract has been shown to be a bad one. What does that have to do with CAS? Trying to get a CAS airframe out of a contract designed to produce multi-role fighters has simply meant that the fighter designs are compromised and the STOVL aircraft which is supposed to do CAS as a primary mission is a nightmare that won’t quit. The best solution would be to let the fighters be fighters and design a STOVL machine that would specialize in executing CAS from rough airfields near the lines of battle. And update a small number of A-10′s until its replacement shows up.

  • Posted by Ben

    My first thought when reading this is that Congress rarely actually knows what it is doing, so our service chiefs and secretaries are constantly trying to conduct post-graduate level briefings to what is akin to a kindergarten class.

    Secondly, not all CAS is the same. One must ask exactly what types of conflicts we will be in and what we’ll need in the inventory to counter those threats. A niche airplane, while very capable of handling a multitude of CAS scenarios, simply doesn’t make sense from a budgetary perspective. If Congress wants the Air Force, and every other service for that matter, to be able to purchase and maintain niche weapons systems, they probably should do something about the national debt and entitlement programs first. You can’t have everything, so tough decisions have to be made.

    There are a ton of platforms providing CAS support to troops in Afghanistan and they are doing a heck of a job in doing so. You can complain about comparing a B-1 to an A-10 all day and say it’s not fair to do so, but at the end of the day, there is a lot of tonnage coming off that B-1 that would require 4 or more A-10s to carry. We’ve got RPAs all over the place providing CAS, F-16s, F-15Es, etc. The Army has rotary-wing assets providing CAS. The Air Force has spend the last DECADE dedicating itself to the CAS mission in terms of weapons upgrades, acquisitions, training, etc. To claim that divesting from the A-10 is akin to abandoning our brothers embroiled in ground combat operations is asinine.

    Ultimately, the Air Force is trying to repolish its reputation and nearly every decision is being overscrutinized and is seen as parochial because of missteps previous CSAFs have made.

    Getting rid of the A-10 is smart budgetary sense.

  • Posted by Jon

    First…the AF is deliberating blurring the lines between “close air support” and “air support”. These are NOT the same thing at all. Compare apples to apples…not apples to oranges to lemons.

    Second…if the AF wants to talk numbers and dollars, I’ve yet to see an actual cost analysis, based on reality. How many actual CAS sorties has the A-10 flown, how much does each sortie cost compared to the other airframes? How much has it cost to repair combat damage to A-10s as opposed to equivalent damage on other airframes? How much would replacement airframes cost in those instances where A-10s have suffered serious damage that would have destroyed other airframes? Aircrew costs?

    Third…munitions costs. Again, the AF has all the figures available to them. How does the munitions costs of the A-10 equate to other airframes that are almost invariably using expensive guided munitions in the CAS role?

    My own napkin math…the A-10 has saved the AF more than they’re going to save by removing it. Difference being…the money they plan on “saving” is coming from different fenced money pots than operational wartime costs. All they’re doing is playing “hide the salami”.

  • Posted by Russ Carpenter

    I would caution anyone who is listening to and simply restating the AF talking points. Over the last eight or nine years the “flavor” of Close Air Support in both OIF & OEF has been focused on the counterinsurgency fight. While this fight is demanding at a small unit level this is only a small slice of what Close Air Support is required to do. At distant targets I can lob JDAMs all day long from almost any platform. When I have to engage one or two non-maneuvering targets a couple of precision bombs can do the job “generally”. However as a twenty three year Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC–air strike controller) and a thirty year Tactical Air Control Party member (responsible for air to ground integration) I can tell you many are missing the argument.

    One true tenant in close air support has remained and remains to this day. The word “close” demands that an aircraft in the confusing swirl of battle must be a part of that air ground team. They must see, understand, and often act as an extension of the JTAC as we seek to make sense of the battle that is before us. As a JTAC in a confusing close combat fight, I often don’t know where the target is exactly and I have to have an aircraft that can observe this fight below them and in front of us and understand it. I am not talking a sensor or a weapon. I am talking a pilot and a platform. I have conducted thousands of CAS controls served in the Cold War at the Meinegan Gap (near Fulda), Desert Storm and OIF I & VII. I have watched as weaponry has evolved, tactics changed, and new concepts in war fighting have taken hold.

    Two fundamental truths have held sway this entire time. You cannot take the “Close” out of Close Air Support” despite all those advances and secondly the A-10 serves as a JTAC’s weapon of choice in the vast majority of Close Air Support engagements. There are literally thousands of reasons why this is so. Poor intelligence, bad planning, bad weather, a maneuver fight, rapidly changing conditions, poor execution, limited artillery, high threat environment, a ton of targets just name a very few factors. The JTAC and the A-10 figure it out because that is our primary purpose and we train to that, have equipment tailored to that purpose, and we have immeasurable experience in executing this extremely difficult task called Close Air Support.

  • Posted by CharleyA

    Here’s another angle to the story: The USAF is allowed to retire all A-10s. That more or less instantly reduces the USAF tacair inventory by 300 aircraft. Does anyone doubt that the USAF (and members of Congress whose districts benefit from F-35 production) will plead in their next budget cycle that they are now facing a tactical fighter gap? What a perfect scenario to increase sales of the F-35…

  • Posted by Blacktail

    There’s a lot of statements made in this blog thread that are not entirely correct.

    You stated that “These facts mean that even without the budget crunch, this old jet would be due for an upgrade”. The A-10 *was* upgraded, from the A-10A to the A-10C, in 2007. In 2010 the entire fleet was re-winged by Boeing, which reduced the entire fleet’s service life to zero hours.

    You stated that “Eighty percent of CAS missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been conducted not by the A-10, but by an array of other aircraft, including AC-130’s, F-15E’s, F-16’s, MQ-1’, B-52’s, and yes, the B-1″. This belies the fact that the USAF’s figures in that regard are only since 2006 — the entire first half of the air war was omitted. And in the second half of the air war? The A-10′s own pilots have stated that the USAF has DELIBERATELY held-down their activity, to create the impression of incapability as a context for retiring them. This is *fraud*, pure and simple. Part of that fraud was that the USAF suddenly and unilaterally changed the regulations a few years ago, by forbidding FAC officers from calling for the A-10 by-name — they were ordered to call-in the “effects” they wanted, and that referring to the A-10 by-name over the radio would carry stiff penalties. And what of the air war *before* 2006, you’re wondering? That was the year when the US military finally started to lengthen, strengthen, and improve Afghanistan’s Soviet-era runways, which had slowly disintegrated over 20 years of neglect. Until then, the A-10 was the ONLY fixed-wing combat aircraft that the USAF was able to base in Afghanistan. There was even more data manipulation that the USAF used to lie about the A-10, MUCH more;
    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/critics-accuse-air-force-manipulating-data-support-10-retirement/

    You stated that “As for the B-1, it is not an insult to anyone’s intelligence to point out that 40% of the weapons tonnage dropped in Afghanistan came from the B1, in over 10,000 CAS-oriented sorties—and there is just no way the A-10 could have done this”. The B-1 splattered those bombs all over the landscape — an ALL of their missions, including CAS — and they flew out of the airbase at Diego Garcia that was several-thousand miles away. Successful CAS requires the timely arrival of fresh pilots and aircraft, which in turn entails that they have to be based within a few-hundred miles of the combat area. How fatigued do you suppose A-10 pilots are by the time they reach the combat area, compared to B-1 pilots flying-in from halfway around the world?

    Moreover, the example you provided of “Dude Flight” is false and misleading — and this is why. None of the sensors that those F-15Es carried could help them discern any objects on the ground from another from any altitude; this has never worked. You can only discern one object from another by eye, flying close to it, and flying slowly. No other combat aircraft in the US inventory does this anywhere near as well as the A-10.

    Also, consider the much faster turn and tighter turning radius (compared to the huge F-15E) of the F-16C, which is one of the USAF’s favorite proposals for an A-10 replacement. The F-16C requires 29 seconds and a radius of 9500ft to complete a half-turn on military thrust — with it’s afterburner lit (bad idea; MANPADS magnet!) it takes 17 seconds and 5390ft to complete a half turn. The A-10A requires only 16 seconds and 2700ft to complete a half-turn. Why is any of that relevant, you ask? Because in CAS and most other ground attack tasks, the only asset you have for evading enemy attacks and launching your own attacks is maneuverability — not speed or altitude, for reasons that are now clear (an F-16 carrying ordnance is no faster than an A-10, either).

    The above data (along with the fact that the A-10′s lower speed kept it from flying head-long into terrain as quickly and easily as with a faster aircraft) is why NATO decided it was the only fixed-wing combat aircraft that should ever be allowed to fly below 5000ft on cloudy and/or overcast days — which, in Europe, is most of the year (BTW: Sensors can’t penetrate clouds, smoke, or haze, no matter whether it’s IR, radar, or lasers). With stall speeds too high, and turns that are too wide and slow, fast-movers are too dangerous to fly in these conditions. And lo and behold, what was the only aircraft that flew combat missions at all hours and in all weather conditions during NATO’s various skirmishes in the Balkans during the 1990s, while everything else was sitting on the tarmac waiting for the weather to clear? The A-10

    Do you suppose the turn rate and radius of the B-1B Lancer are anywhere near that of an A-10, or that the USAF would allow them to fly below 5000ft in adverse weather? Fat chance.

    Consider this scenario, which actually *happened*;
    At one point during the two hour fire fight, enemy forces were close enough to engage the soldiers with grenades and helicopters could not be called in to evacuate the injured. When the A-10 arrived on the scene, it flew 75 feet above the enemy position, conducted 15 gun passes within 50 meters of friendly ground forces, and used its famous 30 millimeter nose cannon to fire 2,300 rounds. The performance of the A-10 that day saved the lives of 60 Americans.

    http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2014/04/09/the_air_forces_early_retirement_plan_for_the_a-10_puts_troops_lives_at_risk_107180.html

    That was what it took to save those troops, and it can’t be done by a fast-moving aircraft. They aren’t designed for quick and tight turns at low speeds, nor very slow stall speeds. They also can’t survive direct hits from ground fire, which inevitably occurs while flying that close to the enemy. Troops call-in CAS when the enemy is dangerously strong and close, and the supporting aircraft — as we’ve just seen — need to get just as close to tell one thing apart from another on the ground.

    For all intents and purposes, CAS actually is — in fact — a platform, and not a mission. That platform is designated “A-10 Thunderbolt II”. Unless you replace it with an equal or better aircraft at doing all of the things that need to be done, as noted above, you can’t effectively provide CAS.

    And what happens in a large-scale ground war where the troops can’t receive constant and effective CAS?

    You can shoot down every MiG the Soviets employ, but if you return to base and the lead Soviet tank commander is eating breakfast in your snack bar, Jack, you’ve lost the war
    — Anonymous A-10 Pilot, USAF

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