This December saw the climax of one of the more peculiar conflicts in Washington. It was a battle over an Air Force plane. But it was not one of those standard-issue Washington procurement battles in which congressional bean counters seek to kill off a hugely expensive project that the relevant military branch insists is vital for American security. It was almost the opposite: The politicians were trying to save a weapon system, and the service brass, together with one of America’s aerospace giants, were trying to get rid of it.
The weapon in question is the A-10 ground attack plane, officially the “Thunderbolt II” but widely known as the “Warthog.” It has been around for more than three decades. It’s one of the outstanding successes of modern American military aircraft, and its effectiveness in recent wars has made it beloved by American and allied troops.
The effort of the Air Force to retire prematurely this storied plane has few parallels, not just because it has faced dogged, and ultimately successful, resistance from well-informed members of Congress, but because it has lasted 25 years and has its origin in what looks like a troubling moral and intellectual crisis among Air Force leadership.
“Dogged, and ultimately successful, resistance from well-informed members of Congress”? That alone is staggering.
Even more frustrating for those who wanted to get rid of it, efforts to dismiss the A-10 as merely a “single-mission airframe” have been undermined by its surprising utility for other missions besides tactical ground attack.
In the Balkans it proved to be useful for combat search and rescue. During the first Gulf war, besides shooting up thousands of Iraqi tanks, the A-10 also shot down enemy helicopters, making it a star of what the military calls -“Battlefield Air Interdiction.” In Iraq and Afghanistan the A-10 turned out to be excellent for Forward Air Control (guiding other aircraft and artillery fire) in the tradition of Vietnam-era planes like the Mohawk and Bronco.
Right now in Iraq, A-10s are carrying out not just close air support but also the search and destroy sorties that the Air Force calls strike coordinated armed reconnaissance (SCAR) missions, for which it is ideally suited, unlike fragile, fuel-guzzling F-35s or even F-16s.
In 2013 the Air Force brass thought they could exploit the sequester to finally retire the A-10. Sure there was still fighting in Afghanistan, and mothballing the A-10 would mean using fast jets in its place, with all of the attendant downside, but the political opportunity was too good to miss. Indeed, it looked for a while like the A-10 was doomed. It didn’t help that the plane has no big aerospace lobby behind it, the last A-10 having been built in 1984 by a company that no longer exists. But Senator John McCain, supported by the Army and veterans’ groups, began a congressional insurrection on its behalf.
John McCain, right about something? Okay, talk about staggering; this story is becoming almost Kafkaesque.
The Air Force, like the Navy and Marine Corps, has plenty to be nervous about when it comes to the F-35. It is not only already the most expensive weapons project in history and late by almost a decade, there are many people within the defense establishment and even the Air Force who think it a misconceived and wasteful procurement catastrophe.
Part of the problem is that the F-35 was marketed on “commonality”—one airframe for all three services—but built around the Marine Corps’s demand for a jet that can take off and land vertically like the Harrier jump jet. The resulting design compromises meant what should have been the best fighter in the world is slower than and aerodynamically inferior to the modern Russian and Chinese designs it might come up against. As a 2008 RAND Corporation study put it, the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”
It may sound extraordinary that senior Air Force officers could be almost unconcerned with the safety and success of American ground troops, or that they would make such a fetish of the purchase of expensive, glamorous, high-tech pointy-nosed toys as to undermine the overall military capacity of the United States, but that seems to be the case.
Okay, that’s it. Uncle Peter, my smelling salts!
While the A-10’s supporters have won for now, the underlying problems with the Air Force remain. There’s an argument to be made that if it is institutionally unwilling to take seriously the mission of delivering close air support to American troops, as seems to be the case, then it would make sense to abolish its near-monopoly on fixed-wing aircraft and hand the A-10 over to a resuscitated U.S. Army Air Corps that would be pleased to have it.
And perhaps the USAF should also give up other unglamorous tasks that are about supporting soldiers, sailors, and Marines. It could become a smaller force that operates interceptors, strategic bombers, tankers, and America’s strategic missiles. It’s a solution that could keep the fighter jockeys happy (at least until they are all replaced by unmanned aircraft) without undermining the effectiveness of America’s military as a whole. Of course, it would be far better if the service simply came to its senses and made the national interest, rather than the promotion of the F-35, its first priority.
Now, that’s just crazy talk right there. That little jab about fighter jocks being replaced by unmanned aircraft has gotta sting a bit.