Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

The Warthog is dead

Long live the Warthog!

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.

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11 thoughts on “The Warthog is dead

  1. RE: “John McCain, right about something?”
    I agree, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

    RE: “There’s an argument to be made that if it [Air Force] is institutionally unwilling to take seriously the mission of delivering close air support …”
    Not a fan Bill Bellichick, but I do like his catch phrase: “Do your job.” If the top brass isn’t willing to provide close air support, then we need to cut their budget and give the resources to the Army, we we just “reorganize” the top brass at the Air Force.

  2. Full disclosure: Retired fighter pilot, thousands of hours of fighter time, 26 years in the AF. I understand the sentiment, but this old saw about “the AF doesn’t want to do CAS so give it to the Army” is naive, oversimplified, and misses the mark completely. Lots of my buddies flew the A-10, and to say they were second class AF citizens or their mission a red-headed step child for the AF is a dishonor to them and simply not the truth. I like the A-10 as well, but the decision to (try to) retire it has nothing to do with these urban legends of AF fighter pilot conspiracies.
    Keeping the A-10 flying is kind of like driving a 30-year old car. You can do it, but it takes some money and TLC to do it safely. And in my example, you’re driving your 30-year old car through a slalom at 120mph with people shooting at you.
    I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the F-35… I’m certainly not a fan yet. But with limited resources we can’t afford to keep all the legacy systems operating AND prepare for future conflicts. Moreover, we haven’t even touched on the subject of air defense systems and the A-10s vulnerabilities. Nor have we discussed how taking on the A-10 and its mission would absolutely, positively break the Army. They ALSO do not have the money to keep it flying. Nor do they have the fixed-wing training resources and infrastructure. Nor the experience. Nor a dozen other very compelling reasons that CAS is an AF mission.
    Admittedly, cutting the army of bureaucrats in the Pentagon and the rest of Washington would certainly help pay for some of these other things.

  3. Load of crap there, Scout.
    At the moment, the 35 won’t even have a functional gun for another couple of years, and most of its systems are on average 10 years old. Not to mention that trying to fly it in the below 5K feet of CAS would be a joke without a laugh-line. For anyone who wants to read a serious rant IRT the 35 program and what it is doing to the other services’ budgets, the SNAFU link at www. raconteur report does a job everyday. And I work for the company that builds them.

  4. Well, emdfl, from your response I still can’t guess what the “load of crap” is in my post. What exactly are you refuting? Apparently, you think the solution to our problems is to cancel the 35 and keep the A-10 flying. Did I say I was an F-35 fan? Did I say I was an A-10 hater?
    If you work for the company that builds them, then you must also know that almost every aircraft we have ever built had early haters and problems at first that ultimately were worked through, overcome, and they went on to become successful. Unless of course we canceled them. In the old days, we had that luxury because there were several fighter projects going on at once. Now? We can’t even build more F-22s. We can’t even build “new” A-10s. The F-35 is really the only game in town, rightfully or wrongfully. Moreover, we are dealing with the government here, which makes everything take longer and cost more than it should.
    I am not discounting your criticism of the F-35. Mistakes have been made with the program, most assuredly. I personally think the approach was too revolutionary and not enough evolutionary… there were too many subsystems that still needed to be invented to make the F-35 work the way it is supposed to. I’ve got plenty of criticism to level at all sorts of decision makers (and dishonest contractors) involved with the 35. But canceling it? Now? After already investing mega-bazillions? Worse, with nothing else on the drawing board? Where will we be then, one year from now? Or 5 years from now? I’ll tell you: We will be sitting here with fleets of broken old airplanes that are costing a fortune to keep in one piece, and investing another mega-bazillion in some other bright shiny new thing that won’t be in service for another 20 years and will undoubtedly cost twice as much as the F-35. Great.
    Clearly, you’ve already made up your mind about the F-35. I haven’t. I think the jury is still out, and I think we need to give it a chance. Not because I want to give it a chance, mind you, but because other options are even worse. And one of those even worse options is to keep old equipment soldiering on past the point when it should have been honorably retired.

  5. I don’t think the Air Force should give the A-10 to the Army. I think they should box up all the spare parts and all the flyable air frames and ship them to the Kurds.

  6. Nope, don’t hate it, just saying that it’s being touted as suitable for a job that it is not capable of doing. I don’t pretend to know what the solution is. I do know there are other aircraft more suitable for CAS, but of course the old NIH is in full play.
    My biggest concern over the 35 program is that it destroying the budgets of all three services that will be using it. The result is going to be an aircraft fleet that doesn’t have the numbers to go against either of our most probable enemies – stealth is nice but its advantages are already being overcome. So what happens when your entire air fleet consists of 4-500 aircraft slower, under-armed aircraft and your enemy has 2000+ nearly as capable planes? Not a formula with a happy ending.

    As I said I don’t know the solution, but keep in mind the last time this scenario was done – McNamera and the F-111 anyone? The corporate lobbiests appear to have won this again fight again.

  7. I know the A-10 is getting old and we have to do something. It was designed to be a tank killer and close air support king. It has done its job well. It was king in the 90’s but Scout is right we have to do something as the airframes are kitting the outer edge of what is safe.

    I am NOT a fan of the F35. I know the pilots and crews will make it work, but I sincerely think Lockheed (who I don’t work for 😉 ) is tying one hand behind the pilot’s back with their goal.

    The A10, F117, F15, F18 and Harrier are all completely different airframes and have completely different jobs for a reason. They are built to their strengths. Trying to build an airplane to do everything well for each service is an exercise in failure. Add to that things like the cannon not being ready to fire until 2018 or so because the “Software” isn’t ready yet. No big deal as they only have about 3 seconds or so of ammo anyway.

    I sincerely fear for our pilot’s lives in combat with these machines. I pray, sincerely I pray, that I am wrong and the F35 is supertitsawesome.

  8. . “That little jab about fighter jocks being replaced by unmanned aircraft has gotta sting a bit.” Well I hear McDonalds is replacing counter personnel with robots, what’s the difference?

  9. It is ludicrous to think that the USMC requirement, which will amount to a few hundred airframes at most, has done so much to cripple the F/A capabilities for the remainder of the fleet which will be in the thousands. It would seem much cheaper to reopen the Harrier and A-10 production lines and produce perfectly good aircraft that have zero need of the first world electronic warfare needs that an air superiority fighter needs.

    In what scenario are AV-8’s going to come up against a modern enemy fighter or AA defense in strength? Or A-10’s? Those planes are there to shoot up ground targets and keep the low altitude skies clear of enemy rotary assets.

    The military brass has become calcified and no longer has a vision for war, only for procurement. I’m sure the F-35 will be a fine aircraft when it is ready, probably a world beater in many ways, but it will be at the cost of many other missions and airframes that had to be dropped to pay for it. It may well be a program success but it will be a strategic debacle.

  10. There is no “reopening” of the A-10 production line. It does not exist. Nor does Fairchild any longer. It’s not like the F-16 where you can just call up Lockheed and say build some more. There is no line, no company, no parts, no nothing. That’s one of the reasons keeping them flying is so expensive. As to the Harrier– it’s even more of a flying coffin.

    While the ‘hog is a great platform for blowing the snot out of ground targets, the airframes are old, the design is old, and for any number of reasons it’s on the verge of becoming a flying death trap for pilots. When the A-10 came out, the only thing it really needed to deal with was fairly crappy SAMs (that were fighter fodder beforehand) and ballistic ground fire, which it can absorb quite a lot of. Today, Durka Durka Jihad can pick up a recent soviet MANPAD and blow one up before the A-10 driver even knows what’s going on. Moreover, the A-10 does not have the space on board for any further modernization in the way of comms and avionics.

    As such the A-10 is an aged one trick pony, and without a bunch of air superiority fighters to go in a blow away anything remotely resembling a threat, it is missile chow.

    Giving the remaining aircraft to the Army or Marines would be an exercise in expensive futility. They do not have the logistics nor personnel in place to run the aircraft, and developing them would be massively expensive and largely pointless. If you really, really, really wanted to spend many billions of dollars, you could develop a new fixed wing CAS platform for the Army, for example. However– why does the Air Force exist in the first place? Oh yeah, the Army sucks at managing air resources. Specialization is a good thing. Do you want a random mechanic running your nuclear power plant, or a Navy Nuke?

    With regard to CAS– a big gun is becoming less and less a requirement for effective support, as in most cases you can happily orbit a B-1 or AC-130 around until the cows comes home and rain screaming metallic death on the bad guys, and very few things can punch through the ECM of either bird and come knocking. The A-10 doesn’t really offer any situational awareness advantages in the age of modern optics and sensors, and a low and slow attack aircraft has many, many drawbacks on the modern battlefield. It has limited ammo, limited loiter time, you can see it coming on anyone’s radar from hundred miles away, and it’s hard to talk to and manage from a communications standpoint.

    Finally, on the suggestion that AF pilots don’t like CAS– go tell that to any A-10 pilot, or an F-16 pilot, or hell– ANY pilot. If you’re lucky, all you’ll get is a knuckle sandwich.

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