An A-10 during a recent Air Force exercise in Alaska. Air Force photo
David Axe in War is Boring
H/T: Ace of Spades HQ
The A-10 Is the Air Force’s Most Awesomest Warplane—Of Course the Brass Wants to Get Rid of It
Legendary attack plane is getting better with age, but tell that to the Air Force
Starved of funding and saddled with a bunch of redundant Cold War-era airbases by an incompetent Congress, the U.S. Air Force is fast running out of money and needs to cut back.
But instead of eliminating expensive new technologies that demonstrably don’t work, the flying branch is proposing to permanently ground arguably its most useful warplane—one that’s been heavily upgraded and could fly cheaply for at least another 25 years.
I’m talking about the A-10 Warthog, of course, that iconic 1970s-vintage tank-killer with the Mickey Mouse engine layout and a powerful nose-mounted 30-millimeter cannon the size of a Volkswagen Bug. The low- and slow-flying Warthog, heavily loaded with missiles and bombs, has flown top cover for American ground troops in three wars.
In July, two A-10s zoomed to the rescue of 60 American soldiers pinned down by a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan. Protected by their jets’ titanium armor, the Warthog pilots flew low, spotted Taliban attackers by eye, fired thousand of 30-millimeter rounds and dropped three bombs.
Three U.S. troops were injured; the Taliban left 18 dead on the battlefield. “I think that day the enemy knew they were going to die,” one of the fliers mused.
Despite the A-10's impressive combat record, simplicity and low cost—just $17,000 per flight hour, the lowest of any Air Force jet fighter—the flying branch’s generals want to eliminate all 326 Warthogs by 2015 in order to protect three complex, pricey new planes still in development: the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the secretive Long-Range Strike Bomber and the KC-46 aerial tanker.
The F-35 is slated to replace the A-10. But the new plane is flimsier, has a much smaller gun and flies too fast for spotting small targets on the ground. Owing to its complexity it’s also expensive: $200 million per copy to buy and $32,000 per hour to fly.
The Air Force knows the F-35 cannot match the A-10 in the ground-attack role, but prefers the former anyway because the JSF is new, allegedly able to avoid radar detection and because it can also at least attempt to fight other airplanes—something the single-mission Warthog cannot do at all. With less money to spend, the brass only wants warplanes that can perform more than one task.
“Fighters today really have to be multi-role and cover a lot more area, and have a wider mission set,” Rebecca Grant, director of the Washington Security Forum and a paid Air Force consultant, told National Defense magazine.
But the F-35's mission set is so wide as to render it almost pointless. Forced to do the jobs of nimble dogfighters and vertical-launching attack planes, aerodynamically the JSF is a complicated and badly compromised design. In future battles with other airplanes, the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run,” according to one military-funded analysis.
The Air Force nevertheless wants 1,763 copies of the plane—together costing more than $400 billion to develop and build—to replace almost all existing tactical jets.
It would be cheaper—and militarily more effective—to design simple, single-purpose planes. “What you don’t do is hold up complexity as a desirable attribute,” says Dan Ward, an Air Force officer and weapons-buying expert.
Or better yet, just maintain existing jets that have already been paid for. Pierre Sprey, who helped design the A-10, is advocating for the Air Force to scrap the F-35 and pull some of the 300 already-retired Warthogs—made redundant by 1990s defense cuts—out of storage and revamp them for future use.
In any event, the Warthog has far more useful life left in it than most people realize. It only seems like an old warplane.
Starting in 2006 the Air Force upgraded all the A-10s with new electronics. A year later the flying branch began paying Boeing a billion dollars to replace the A-10s’ wings with brand-new, tougher wings that would make the jets safe to fly through 2040.
Most promising of all, Raytheon and the military’s fringe-science Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have been working on new gear that could allow troops on the ground, via radio, to partially take over control of an A-10 flying overhead, deciding for themselves when and where the Warthog should drop its bombs.
The Precision Close Air Support initiative could make the Warthog even more responsive than it already is. “Every minute on the ground counts for warfighters waiting for close air support,” said Tom Bussing, a Raytheon vice president. “PCAS could reduce the critical minutes it takes to get it to them.”
But the new hardware won’t be ready until 2015, the very year the Air Force wants to place the last A-10 in storage.
Fortunately the Warthog has allies in Congress—although to be fair, it’s Congress’ inability to produce reasonable budgets that has compelled the Air Force to propose cutting airplanes in the first place. In 2012 the flying branch wanted to retire 103 A-10s, but Congress overruled the plan.
A coalition of representatives and senators is forming around the Warthog. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, has held up the nomination of Debbie Lee James for Air Force secretary over the A-10 issue. Rep. Ron Barber, an Arizona Democrat, wrote Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh, reminding him that the A-10 “is unsurpassed in its ability to provide close-air combat support.”
Grassroots movements are also trying to help save the jet. There’s a Facebook page and a White House petition.
In coming months the Air Force will formally propose a budget, and then Congress will decide how much money actually gets spent—and on what. That’s when the real fight over the A-10 will go down.
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