What is all this hoopla about the A-10 Warthog anyway?
Recent political conversation regarding the continued funding for the Department of Defense has resulted in a loss of common sense and a path toward the mistakes of forgetting history. Budget cuts from the Obama Administration have forced US Air Force Generals to start cutting. Being the fighter jocks they are, they have started cutting anything that doesn’t have a pointy nose, as most generals in the Air Force got there flying F-15 or F-16 fighter aircraft most of their careers. Almost all of them see the Air Force as the premier air superiority force in the world, and in that regard history has yet to prove otherwise.
Air Superiority being pretty much gained in every conflict up to this point, as we have yet to fight a real air force since the Second World War such as one the Soviets amassed during the Cold War, the Air Force has done very little dogfighting. In fact, most of the Air Force mission has been in the supporting roles of air transport and delivering munitions on the ground kinetically.
There are two servicing desired mean points of impact (DMPI), or as more bluntly dropping bombs and strafing targets. Air Interdiction (AI) and Close Air Support (CAS). I will extrapolate on these terms in simple English. AI involves going deep behind enemy lines and destroying combat power and infrastructure, weakening the enemy before they can bring forces to bear on our troops. Examples of AI include the bombing of German industrial facilities during the Second World War and the bombing of Iraq during the Gulf War. CAS is the use of munitions in close proximity to friendly forces, often times at their request and in coordination with them, increasing their firepower at a critical point. Fine examples of this would be an A-10 strafing Iraqi tanks within a few kilometers of our tanks advancing at them from the other direction, or if you see old war movies and fighters are strafing enemy infantry close by to their own forces.
When someone thinks critically, and clearly, about the current conflicts we are engaged in across the globe, and in particular Iraq and Afghanistan, it is painfully obvious to see which one of these missions is being carried out more often for more a sustained time frame. CAS. Plain and simple, US and Allied aircraft are not engaged in destroying an enemy’s infrastructure. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and any other terrorist organization we are engaged with currently have little such infrastructure that AI would target. However, they do engage with US and Allied forces in battles that CAS can and does occur. That is not to say AI does not have a place right now, as ISIS holds enough real estate in Syria and Iraq to now start having such infrastructure developing.
Reports have already come out showing that the A-10C Warthog has already flown about ten percent of the US sorties supporting Iraqi and Kurdish forces against ISIS. Ten percent is an enormous number of total sorties to fill, especially when the airframe was just very recently brought back into the region for its intended role months after the campaign started.
Despite the astounding service record of this aircraft, only really rivaled by the older B-52 bomber, the Air Force senior staff are pressing forward with retirement plans for the A-10C. All over funding, funding they feel is better put into a weapon system that many respected analysts are highly critical of, F-35 Lightening II. Why are these analysts scratching their heads?
While the F-35 is an impressive aircraft, it has its limitations. Stealth aircraft are not tactical aircraft capable of operating from austere airstrips close to front lines where they can provide CAS on short notice with the extended loiter times such a close proximity to the fighting permits. Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) was never intended to replace the A-10C, it was geared to replacing the equally older F-X series of fighters, the F-16 Falcon (USAF) and F-18 Hornet (USN/USMC) and AV-8 Harrier (USMC). Looking at the specifications of the F-35, it does indeed meet these requirements well, especially for dealing with the AI missions the F-16 and F-18 have carried out since the 1980’s.
Checking specifications, we find that the F-35 and the A-10C can both carry about 18,000 lbs of weapons including a bewildering array of smart bombs, missiles, and other such ordnance. Similarities end with weight however, as the F-35 is armed with the GAU-22 25mm cannon, and only carries 180 rounds. Sure, there is an external pod option to carry another 220 rounds, but really the gun is not considered a viable weapon system on this aircraft. Much like the aircraft it is meant to replace (except for the AV-8, which was built as a tactical aircraft). A-10’s are armed, and indeed the A-X program which spawned it required, built around the GAU-8 30mm cannon. Not only is the cannon big and bad enough to eat tanks, the A-10 carries 1,174 rounds to feast upon armor with.
Some will respond with something like “But with all these precision munitions, cannons are obsolete and harm the wrong people.”
Senior Air Force staff in the 1960’s felt about the same way. Back then it was the nature of dogfighting that was changing. No more dogfights, all engagements would be with missiles from now on. No pilot would ever see the enemy that close before radar would spot it and they would engage with a missile. If an enemy plane came too close, they could send a heat seeker up the exhaust of that MiG or Sukhoi Commie bastard. Yup, that was the logic. F-4 Phantom II’s were not built with cannons, and the Air Force and Navy paid in spades against the North Vietnamese MiG-17 and MiG-21 which still had cannons when they ran out of missiles.
“But that is air to air, what does that have to do with bombing ground forces.” You might respond.
Everything really. On Robert’s Ridge during Operation Anaconda, an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter/bomber strafed Taliban positions within less than a kilometer from US Forces. Even the 20mm Vulcan cannon those aircraft carry can prove critical if used correctly by the pilot and in coordination with ground forces (provided by folks like yours truly back when I was active duty as a Tactical Air Control Party member). Thankfully, F-15E’s carry around 510 rounds of ammo and were likely able to come around and do a few more passes if needed. Really, that is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the effectiveness of these Gatling cannons in close proximity to friendly forces for CAS. A-10’s have an unparalleled reputation on account of the Gatling gun they are built around; they are known and greatly feared as a result. When it comes to carrying other guided munitions, with the upgrades they recently went through, they do indeed deliver GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM).
Drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), remotely piloted vehicles (RPV), or whatever the Air Force is calling them this week, have been cited as another replacement for the A-10. Lacking the main gun, it is certainly obvious why they are a poor choice. Even the RQ-9 Reaper, which has been equipped with bombs, lacks the capacity the A-10 can provide. UAVs have great capabilities, and certainly have added a whole new dimension to our ability to strike deep into territory we do not want to risk men on the ground and pilots to hit, but they are NOT a viable REPLACEMENT for A-10s. UAVs instead complement the capabilities of other aircraft much as the older prop driven FAC-A pilots and aircraft did in the Vietnam War.
Army attack aviation is another reason some senior Air Force officers seem to want to bail on the whole CAS mission. Again, history shows that this is a poor decision by shortsighted budget minded paper pushers, not the decision a real warfighter makes. Army and Marine attack helicopters are indeed pure tactical aircraft capable of operating from austere locations with their troops, even better for the Army and Marines, such assets are organic to their forces and at a ground commander’s beck and call. Fixed wing aircraft, like the A-10 and AV-8, cannot replace helicopters any more than helicopters can replace fixed wing aircraft for CAS. Nothing is more deadly than combing fixed wing, rotary, and artillery firepower. Between the three, there is no gap in air and fire coverage. This is still critical even in a COIN environment for being able to provide the most firepower in the shortest amount of time at critical points. I have never met an Army pilot, or Air Force A-10 pilot, that does not realize this point no matter how much they joke about each other.
Currently, JSF and the F-35 have been a drain on military funding for over a decade. JSF can be considered an expensive failure. Budget over run after over run, un-proven and failed technology, and inadequate abilities of the airframe itself have destroyed its credibility as a contemporary weapon system. It is still a viable system in the distant future, as in maybe the next decade, but right now it would be wasteful to pin the hopes of the US Air force upon this system. Frankly, looking at the last fifteen years, it is nothing short of embarrassing.
More embarrassing than the F-35 program right now is the manner in which senior Air Force leadership is acting. John Q. Public (jpublic-blog.com) has been covering the stories of the antics senior generals have been resorting to save the F-35 by destroying the battle hardened A-10 community. I’m not opposed to keeping the F-35 as a viable airframe of the future, but I do believe the F-16 it was intended to replace certainly should go first. After all, the Air Force has been doing more CAS than AI and dogfighting. On the dogfighting topic, buying more F-22’s would be more valuable than continuing to invest in the F-35 in that regard if they are looking at ten years out. Regardless, the antics need to result in some Generals being removed from active duty and sent home to retire. To do otherwise is to court the disaster of ignoring history, again.
On the 5th of February 2015, Tom Vanden Brook of USA Today wrote the article A-10 warplane tops list for friendly fire deaths and goes on to report some hair raising statistics. That is, he quotes the antics of senior Air Force staff and public affairs talking points without question. Brook starts off his article stating the A-10 has killed more friendly troops than any other US aircraft since 2001, and without missing a beat or asking a question, states that it has killed more Afghan civilians than any other since 2010. An apple and an orange, if you apply critical thinking; two statistics ten years apart right next to each other. Another comparison seems to be the continued comparison to the B-1 bomber. Without question the B-1 is able to carry more, it is a bomber after all, purpose built to carry bombs and cruise missiles. However, in 2001 when I got my first controls as a young TACP ROMAD, I could not have my control of B-1 dropping bombs at the range count as ‘graded’ as the Pentagon felt the B-1 would NEVER provide CAS. Obviously, I am going to stop while I’m ahead and point you to John Q. Public again. On February 7th he wrote the article Lying to Win: Air Force Misrepresents Combat Records in Campaign to Retire A-10 and rips apart Brook’s article rather nicely, point for point, stat for stat. Mr. Brook should be ashamed of his lack of journalism; a blogger just kicked his butt with better-researched facts and figures. Here is gem that is my personal favorite from JQPublic:
“Here are the total raw numbers of US and coalition dead and wounded via fratricide, by platform, since 2001, including both Iraq and Afghanistan (along with a disclaimer that given the problems already identified with this data, it should not be assumed complete or accurate):
It’s worth taking a moment to register what the inclusion of the F-14, retired since 2006, says about the Air Force’s stretch backward to find enough data to support its objective.”
Pathetic “Big Blue” absolutely against the Core Value of “Integrity First”
Worse yet, a recent article by John Q. Public again calls out the antics of senior Air Force staff, this time with General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle. On the 13th of February JQPublic reported the General’s comments about the critical need for survivable aircraft in the wake of Jordan’s loss of one of its pilots in the campaign against ISIS. Gen. Carlisle seemed to imply that a reason the A-10C is on the chopping block is that because it is not stealthy enough, it is therefore more vulnerable to ground fire that took down an F-16. You know, the aircraft that was purpose built with two hydraulic systems and a manual back-up flight control, titanium armor made to take the 23mm Russian anti-aircraft cannon fire, and two engines configured to produce a lower heat signature, is as vulnerable as a single engine plane with no armor. Apparently, those photos and films we see of A-10s returning home with chunks gone from the wings are figments of our collective imaginations.
Far from those two misrepresentations being the worst of it, God forbid you wear the Air Force uniform and speak to your Congressman about the A-10Cs capabilities! Most especially if you flew it or worked with it on the ground executing CAS. General James Post will fry for treason for such blasphemy against the Air Force. DoD Buzz reported on January 16th 2015 that the General had stated “If anyone accuses me of saying this, I will deny it … anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason.” While they are trying to pass it off as “hyperbole” one cannot ignore the implied threat to any Airman or Officer the General made with “hyperbole”. Someone does need to fry for treason, and that is General James Post for obstructing one of the few rights those who wear the uniform still have while doing so, and that is contacting their Congressman without fear of intimidation from their senior ranking officers and non-commissioned officers for doing so.
In a nutshell, this is what is nagging me about the whole A-10 Warthog retirement. It is ridiculous to me to see a proven war machine put out to pasture in the middle of a war. Nothing about this makes any sense with regard to the good of our nations security, nor that of our allies. We should not repeat history pinning all of our hopes on something that was not even designed for the role we intend to retire a proven system for. Current senior Air Force leadership needs retired before the A-10C Warthog.