The A-10’s Swan Song?

Should the USAF replace the long-serving Warthog with the F-35?

By George Jagels

An A-10 Thunderbolt in Afghanistan. Beloved by troops and acknowledged as highly capable, the Warthog might leave the arsenal in the next 15 years. (USAF)

An A-10 Thunderbolt in Afghanistan. Beloved by troops and acknowledged as highly capable, the Warthog might leave the arsenal in the next 15 years. (USAF)

Aerospace is one of the few areas where beauty and utility often coexist, but there are exceptions. The Air Force’s main ground attack aircraft, the A-10 Thunderbolt, serves as one: The aesthetically unpleasing “Warthog” flies low, slow, and does the humble work of close air support and tank killing. I do not mean to imply this work is not heroic, as recent reports[1] highlighted two Warthogs rescuing 60 soldiers in Afghanistan through use of their devastating 30mm cannon and conventional bombs. A-10 pilots are also credited with destroying 4,000 Iraqi vehicles in 1991[2]. To use a DoD watchword, this is a “proven” platform. So why does the Air Force want to retire a third of its Warthog fleet (and eventually all 349) without a similar replacement?

The USAF has actually been trying to do this since the late eighties. A variant of the F-16, called the A-16, was tested to replace the A-10, but Congress squashed the effort in November 1990[3] (right around the time the Thunderbolt scored a major success in the Persian Gulf). Since then, the Warthog has flown thousands of sorties and undergone upgrades to lengthen its life by decades. The plane can loiter for long periods and sustain absurdly extensive damage without crashing[4]. In 2006, a British Army major vented after a botched air support operation by Harriers in Afghanistan, “I would take an A-10 over [a] Eurofighter any day.”[5] At a cost of around $13 million (in 1998 dollars) per plane[6], it seems to be an ideal aircraft in budget-constrained times. Current plans do indeed call for many upgraded A-10s to stay in service until 2028.[7]

In the long run, however, the Air Force would prefer a more diverse, technologically advanced system. Naturally, they suggest the F-35 Lightning II, or Joint Strike Fighter, which runs at about $120 million per copy and whose development problems have been well chronicled. As a fifth-generation “stealthy” fighter plane, the Joint Strike Fighter performs many roles the A-10 cannot (reconnaissance, air-to-air combat). One analyst called the sensor advantage of the F-35 “pretty profound” and noted that this equipment can never be added to the Warthog.[8] However, its relative suitability as a close air support platform—vastly fewer rounds for a smaller cannon, though with a slightly larger overall payload—remains an open question for an expensive plane whose principal mission would require significant risk. “Is the F-35 going to be as good a close-air support platform as an A-10? I don’t think anybody believes that,” Adm. James Winnefeld said in 2012. “But is the A-10 going to be the air-to-air platform that the F-35 is going to be? So again, the Air Force is trying to get as much multi-mission capability into the limited number of platforms it’s going to have.”[9]

Seen here being refueled at night, the A-10 is at risk of being replaced by the F-35 as the military's primary ground support aircraft. (USAF)

Seen here being refueled at night, the A-10 is at risk of being replaced by the F-35 as the military’s primary ground support aircraft. (USAF)

So, single-mission aircraft are out of style, particularly one that focuses solely on ground attack—and this might not surprise. Long have we heard complaints over the Air Force’s technology-obsessed culture[10] that paradoxically prides itself on the manned fighter plane. Close air support enables neither the construction of grand strategic theories nor of radical hi-tech possibilities, and the Air Force brass probably doesn’t imagine its raison d’etre as being embodied in sub-sonic planes built to help the Army. Sequestration cuts represent an opportunity to move on from a venerable, but old and sexless, Cold War platform.

The USAF claims there is a financial angle as well: Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said recently that “You only gain major savings if you cut an entire fleet. You can cut an aircraft from a fleet, but you save a lot more money if you cut all the infrastructure that supports the fleet.”[11] As the F-16 performs significant ground attack roles already, adding the F-35 seems to provide ample coverage in this area, or so the Air Force contends. (Of course, the USAF could just give the A-10s to the Army[12], but even in this post-Key West Agreement fantasy, the Army probably wouldn’t want to deal with a new logistical tail.)

“Unimpressed” might describe the Congressional reaction to General Welsh’s reasoning. The standard parochial response is typified by Rep. Ron Barber, whose district hosts bases for Thunderbolts, and his coalition building to save the platform[13]. More disinterested Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) recently withdrew a hold on the nomination of soon-to-be Air Force Secretary Debbie Lee James until questions on the aircraft’s future were satisfactorily answered. The senator “wants to ensure there isn’t a capability gap that could result in lost American lives.”[14] No word on what Ms. James said to placate Ayotte, though in a possible sign that little will be done, the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force has been created to determine—among other things—the Warthog’s future.[15]

Forgive the dramatic tone, but it seems that the Warthog question goes right to the heart of strategy. As the military decides its force structure over the coming years, the Pentagon must look out at the wars it will likely fight and—not forgetting the lessons of post-Vietnam history—the wars it feels more capable of fighting. One cannot exaggerate the difficulty of this task: Predicting the strategic environment twenty years in advance and budgeting programs accordingly, particularly as the government can barely decide to fund itself for five months, might be the best way to make smart people look foolish.

A close up of the Warthog's 30mm cannon. (USAF)

A close up of the Warthog’s 30mm cannon. (USAF)

The feeling of the moment is that counterinsurgency doctrine piques no one’s interest and that, as former Secretary Gates famously quoted Douglas MacArthur, “Anyone who sends a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined…’” Others disagree, a feeling which may be broadly encompassed by David Petraeus’s recent comment that “contrary to pundit opinion, the counterinsurgency era is not over. That is, quite simply, because the insurgency era is not over.”[16] Now split the difference: Should the U.S. send limited forces abroad to assist an ally’s counterinsurgency, will the F-35 do this better than the A-10? Though the Warthog will be in the arsenal for fifteen more years, slowly divesting from the plane may make the USAF less capable of fighting more plausible wars in favor of some additional F-35s whose diverse combat capabilities will likely go unemployed.

The A-10 debate itself may be totally forgotten in a year, though it represents larger questions—how much war has changed, redundancy in budget-constrained times, and how the Pentagon predicts the future threat environment, among others. “It could be that those who think there’s never going to be an air-to-air engagement ever again in the history of the world could be wrong,” Winnefeld said. “It could be those who believe that the close-air support role of the A-10 is absolutely paramount could be wrong, as well.”[17] As budgets decline and difficult choices are made partly based on inherently disputable predictions of the future, don’t expect the issues behind this debate to go away any time soon.