The United States Air Forces latest attempt to rid itself of at least some of its A-10 ground attack aircraft has been stymied by Congress. In the Air Force’s 2022 budget request the service requested to be allowed to retire a number of older aircraft so as to free up resources for newer types. Amongst this number were 42 A-10s.
Though Congress approved the deletion of the other types, they flat out refused to allow the removal from service of any of the iconic ground pounders. As there are a total 281 A-10s still flying with the USAF, the number proposed for removal would have represented a substantial proportion of the fleet.
Congress’ decision will be met with delight by those who are fans of the aircraft, who accuse the USAF of trying to kill off the type for decades. Indeed, the continued service of the aircraft, despite this perceived hostility from the Air Force, just goes to show how powerful a lobby the A-10 enjoys in the corridors of power.
But this does raise a question.
Is sentimentality overruling practical operational need and requirement when it comes to the A-10?
The Fairchild-Republic A-10 evolved out a requirement that came up during the Vietnam War for a Close Air Support – or CAS – aircraft. After the Korean War the USAF had concentrated so much on fast moving attack jets, especially for the nuclear strike role, that this role had been allowed to effectively die off.
In Vietnam the USAF had to resort to borrowing old propeller driven A-1 Skyraiders from the Navy to have a type on hand to assist troops on the ground with direct support. This was recognized very much as a stop gap, and the Air Force began the A-X program, looking to find a dedicated Close Air Support aircraft.
Vietnam ended before this actually got into the air, and the post-Vietnam focus was on fighting Soviet armoured forces on the plains of Germany. The A-X subsequently evolved into a heavily armed and armoured ground attacker with the idea that tanks and armoured vehicles would be its primary target.
Two aircraft competed for selection, Northrop’s YA-9 and Fairchild’s YA-10, the latter of which won the competition and was selected in 1973 to become the A-10 Thunderbolt II. This entered service in 1977 and has seen service in practically every war that the United States has been involved in since.
Designed to be incredibly tough, with titanium armour and redundant systems, the aircraft is armed with a plethora of weapon systems. This includes the famous Avenger 30mm rotary cannon around which the aircraft is literally built.
The A-10, affectionately known as the “Warthog” because of its very distinctive look, has proven arguably the best CAS-aircraft in the world up until the current day. Having provided support to US and Allied soldiers for thirty years, from Kuwait to the Balkans, Libya to Afghanistan, the A-10 is a firm favourite with those on the ground it has provided support to.
From a morale point of view, there is little better than having air support literally swooping around overhead, blasting your enemy. And the roar of that huge cannon, well there is nothing like it.
It is, as already said, an icon.
But perhaps we do need to ask some searching questions about whether the A-10 is now the best choice. As said, the aircraft first entered service in 1977. Though designed with the formidable Soviet tactical air defences in mind at the time, no one can deny that technology has moved on massively since then. In fact, critics point out that though the A-10 has a formidable combat record, that is largely due to careful selection of when the aircraft has been deployed.
Operation “Desert Storm” of 1991, when the forces of Saddam Hussein were smashed and driven from their illegal occupation of Kuwait, is often seen as the prime time of the A-10. Engaged against Soviet designed tanks and AFVs in a conventional war, the A-10s were used en masse to help rout the Iraqis.
But even this campaign hides some telling lessons.
A-10s, operating low and slow as intended with their CAS tactics, suffered losses in the face of the Iraqi air defences that had been all but destroyed by the concerted air campaign that proceeded the start of ground operations.
This led to the aircraft being restricted in its usage and more ground support missions being undertaken by aircraft like the F-111 and the F-15E – who did so at high altitude and out of the danger zone presented by short-range air defence systems.
To be fair, the A-10 was designed and built with these sorts of conditions in mind, and a number got back to their bases after suffering extensive damage. But it does raise the issue of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
After all, an A-10 that has staggered back to base with heavy damage is at best out of the fight for a considerable period, possibly in fact a write off. But a fast mover, as demonstrated in 1991, is probably simply going to refuel, rearm and then be back on operations.
And with the increasing capability of modern air defences, which are far more lethal today even in less technically advanced militaries such as Iran or North Korea, is it conceivable that the A-10 wouldn’t be able to operate in support of ground troops as intended in a serious conflict?
If we are honest, probably.
So, the A-10 is an aircraft that is great in a very select role and tactical situation, and in fact that role and situation has been one that US forces have largely been involved in since the end of the Cold War. That probably explains the success and affection for the A-10 – it was often the right aircraft for the right conflicts.
But is it still the best option?
Yes, US ground forces are going to need CAS for the foreseeable future, it’s a huge force multiplier. But considering the limited operational scope that the A-10 can operate in – one with air superiority and limited air defence threat – are there better options?
The AC-130 can also operate in a similar tactical situation but has the advantage of being able to stay longer on station as well as having a range of weapon options that it can bring to bear. The US Marine Corps is going one better and fitting out their KC-130 tanker aircraft with the Harvest HAWK system. This will allow them to convert the tankers at short notice to use precision weapons like Hellfire and Griffin missiles in direct support of ground troops.
Sure, the KC-130 isn’t going to be doing this in any sort of major threat area. But neither, to be honest, can the A-10. Yes, it is more survivable, but it is far from invulnerable.
And that of course brings up another option – unmanned aerial vehicles.
The current Predator and Reaper drones in service can loiter for longer periods than the A-10, providing advanced spotting and mapping service for ground forces, plus carry precision weapons. And when we say “precision”, remember the latest R9X Hellfire can take out the people in an individual car without an explosive warhead.
So, perhaps it is time to look seriously at whether the A-10 is the best option. After all, history has plenty of examples of when weapons were kept in service for too long purely on grounds that were, with hindsight, nostalgic.
Of course, for the A-10 to finally bow out, there does need to be a replacement. The USAF has been trying to justify the replacement of the A-10 with existing aircraft and systems on the grounds they can do the job.
The problem is that was exactly what they said in the 1950s. There is a perception that once again, when they are able to rid themselves of the dedicated CAS platforms, they will lose interest in maintaining training and skill sets.
So perhaps if the USAF do finally want to get rid of the A-10, they should first spell out what exactly is going to replace them in the CAS role and just what the new doctrine is going to be regarding any new system and its integration with ground forces.
If they really want to prove that they are serious about keeping CAS as a priority role – which after all has been the USAF’s primary fighting function in the post-Cold War world – they should initiate an A-X 2.0 program.
A proper appraisal of the technology, threats and requirement is, quite frankly long overdue. After all, the last time it was done was the mid-1960s.