The A-10 Thunderbolt II — better known as the Warthog — was the darling of the first Gulf War, destroying some 4,000 military vehicles and artillery pieces in that conflict.
Today, it remains one of the most requested aircraft by ground commanders in Afghanistan, according to one Air National Guard representative.
But its day may be coming to an end.
The Air Force attempted to reduce the A-10’s numbers in its 2013 budget request by disbanding five active duty, Guard and reserve units. That would have cut the inventory by 103 aircraft — almost 30 percent — and left the Air Force with 246 Warthogs.
That plan was put on hold after it received some pushback from the states that host some of these wings and their congressional delegations. Congress created a National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, which is currently looking at that proposal and others.
The A-10 “has obviously done a tremendous job in Iraq and Afghanistan and lots of other places, but the Air Force has been looking to retire them for quite some time. Retiring the A-10 is not a new idea,” said Rebecca Grant, director of the Washington Security Forum.
“Fighters today really have to be multi-role and cover a lot more area, and have a wider mission set,” she said.
The A-10 was developed in the 1970s to provide close-air support for ground troops. It was intended to destroy tanks on the plains of Europe if the Cold War ever escalated to a full-blown conflict with the Eastern bloc.
It has been described as a “flying cannon.” Its 30-mm Gatling-style gun can spit out up to 4,100 rounds per minute, or 50 rounds per second.
Its relatively low flying speed allows pilots to see targets better, and its titanium-reinforced cockpit gives them protection from surface-to-air guns.
The Air Force wants to replace both the A-10 and the F-16 with the new F-35. Armed, remotely piloted aircraft such as the Reaper are another option for destroying vehicles on the battlefield and providing close-air support.
“I think we all appreciate the ruggedness of the A-10 and its ability to take ground fire,” said Grant. “It is great at what it was built for — to be an airborne cannon — but the fighters today and going forward need to have that multi-role ability and all the modern sensors that really can’t be retrofitted onto the A-10,” she said.
The A-10 community has been vocal in defending the aircraft, though.
“The A-10 is the premier close-air support aircraft that all the ground commanders and combatant commanders want and ask for by name,” said Brian Davis, who has flown A-10s in Afghanistan and now volunteers as president of the National Guard Association of Michigan.
Statistics provided by Air Combat Command said A-10s have provided 32 percent of combat sorties in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The sorties ranged from 27,800 to 34,500 annually between 2009 and 2012. In 2013, they have reached 11,189 as of June 30.
One lesser-known mission the A-10 and its pilots perform is combat search and rescue, Davis pointed out.
When soldiers or airmen find themselves behind enemy lines or in high-risk areas, A-10 pilots coordinate the rescue and escort helicopters in and out of the danger zones.
Air Combat Command officials, responding to a series of email questions in a statement, said the pilots have to respond to these situations at a moment’s notice.
“The aircraft, and equally as important, the pilots continue to rise to the challenge despite funding challenges for rescue training opportunities at home station,” the statement said.
Davis said: “We get on the radio and talk the survivor through how to get picked up, while getting shot at, in bad weather in bad guy land.”
He doesn’t think the F-35 — currently priced at up to $169 million per copy — can duplicate this low-altitude, long-loiter time task without the risk of being shot down. “I would rather have an armored aircraft that can take a few shots as opposed to … one of our fifth-generation jets that we can’t afford to replace getting shot down,” he said.
Further, the 30 mm cannon is immune to electronic warfare. Future adversaries are going to try to jam communications and try to prevent fighters from deploying their bombs. The U.S. military does not have superiority in space and cyberspace, which leaves communication links vulnerable on battlefields, Davis said.
“You can’t electronically jam a gun,” he said.
An A-10 can take out about 14 vehicles and other targets per mission. It only takes one of the 30 mm rounds, which are about the size of a Coke bottle, to destroy a vehicle.
As for the F-35, he wasn’t at liberty to say, but it isn’t 14, he said.
Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan was at risk of losing its Warthogs in the 2013 budget proposal, but was spared when Congress decided to set up the commission. Other Guard units have already lost their A-10s. At some Guard bases, Warthog pilots are being given the choice of becoming Reaper pilots if they want to continue to serve.
Davis said the squadron’s loss would have cost Michigan 400 to 500 workers, and that’s in a state that already ranks 48th for federally funded jobs.
“If there are budget cuts coming, you don’t necessarily have to cut capability as your answer if you move missions and aircraft into the Guard,” Davis said. The Air Force can keep capabilities such as the A-10 and not pay the same overhead as the active forces.
“Guard maintainers are the best on the planet because they don’t switch jobs every three years like the active component,” he said.
His last deployment had active duty, Guard and reserves all in the same squadron, and “it worked great,” he added.
“We are beyond that issue of not being able to mix and mingle in the same aircraft in combat. It works,” he said.
If sequestration continues, he expects the Michigan Air Guard’s A-10s to be at risk of being terminated again.
“What we need to do is make sure that this discussion happens in the light and that all the facts are on the table so we can see clearly from all perspectives,” he said.
The Air Combat Command statement said, “In the past, the Air Force has made proposals to reduce force structure to a point that will allow us to sustain a smaller but still highly capable combat-ready force while modernizing the fleet to meet future challenges. We continue to work within the Department of Defense and with Congress to determine the right number and types of aircraft required to meet current and future defense needs.”
Air Force officials have stated publicly that the F-35 isn’t going to be able to precisely duplicate the A-10’s missions. But they have reiterated that they need multi-role aircraft.
Grant said if the F-35 is called to do combat search and rescue, it will do so. And it will have updated sensors such as the 360 degree distributed aperture infrared system to carry out the mission. Most of these new sensors can’t be fitted onto A-10s.
“The sensor and survivability advantages of the F-35 are pretty profound,” she said.
The A-10 will also not have the range of an F-35. The Warthog was designed for short-range missions, she pointed out.
Air Combat Command said, “The question is less about the extent to which newer weapon systems must replicate the exact capabilities of older weapon systems than it is about how many of these systems and what type will address the capabilities of tomorrow’s fight.”
Grant said the National Guard understandably wants to preserve its flying missions. Much of that will depend on the outcome of the commission and the realities of a post-sequester budget, she added.
“I think the Air National Guard should and will keep a robust flying mission, but that may not mean keeping every aircraft. The last thing you want to see is the Guard trying to preserve a very few airframes that are not operated by the active [forces] anymore,” she said.
It would lose its ability to mix and match with the active duty wings, she explained.
“If you stick the Guard with a bunch of aged, expensive, out-of-date A-10s you are doing it no favors,” she added.
Meanwhile, plans call for the Air Force to keep the A-10 C-model in its inventory until 2028, and some upgrades continue.
Pilots began receiving a helmet-mounted integrated targeting system last year. It allows them to look directly at a target day or night, view targeting pod information, and obtain coordinates while maintaining situational awareness of flight parameters and battle-space participants in color, according to Air Combat Command.
“This is a game-changing capability to the A-10C’s ability to provide close-air support to ground forces,” the ACC statement said.
Davis hopes that the Air Force considers replacing the Warthog with something similar, or perhaps with a light attack aircraft.
“I would suggest replacing it with another armored aircraft with a large gun, or at minimum, replace it with a light attack aircraft so we don’t lose the sheer numbers and mass firepower,” he said.
Grant said a handful of A-10s may survive the budget battles and still be flying in 2028.
Meanwhile, depending on how future budgets and doctrine shape up, she wouldn’t be surprised if a light attack aircraft was developed at some point.
It would have the advantage of being able to integrate the next-generation sensors that the A-10 can’t take on, she said.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” she added.
Photo Credit: Air Force