Contemplating Life After the Warthog

By Stew Magnuson

Photo: Defense Dept.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh shortly before his retirement laid out his vision for an aircraft that could replace the A-10 Thunderbolt II, better known as the Warthog.

He likened it to a “flying Coke machine.” But instead of dispensing sodas based on the purchaser’s taste, the pilot would call forth different weapons depending on what the situation called for: perhaps its famous 30mm GAU-8 Gatling gun for a strafing run, or a Hellfire missile to take out a high value target.

The National Defense Magazine story with Welsh’s thoughts, to the surprise of no one on the staff, shot up to the most read story online and garnered a slew of comments. Writing about the A-10 is guaranteed to get tons of page views and to be circulated widely on social media. The aircraft has passionate and knowledgeable followers and they leave detailed and — in most cases — insightful comments. And they’re not big fans of Air Force leadership, to put it mildly.

“Welsh seems to be giving the future CAS concept lip service so that he can kill the A-10 by saying a replacement is in the pipeline — a replacement with no program and no funding,” Aaron, a reader said in reaction to the “flying Coke machine” story.

The second part of that comment is verifiable. There is no program or funding for an A-10 replacement, and with a long list of much needed modernization programs such as the T-X jet trainer, the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) and the wildly expensive proposition of building up the F-35 fleet, it’s unlikely to make it on an acquisition priorities list any time soon. But contemplating next-generation weapon systems is something all the services do even if Congress isn’t forthcoming with the funding. They have personnel who are paid to think about what comes next, and the reports they generate can drive early research and development.

And there will come a day when the A-10 will retire. When that day arrives, is anyone’s guess. The Air Force says the current reprieve is only until 2021. But that certainly could change. Once T-X and JSTARS development are off the Air Force’s plate, an A-10 replacement is a candidate to take a spot on the acquisitions priority list.

The cynicism displayed by Warthog fans is understandable considering the mixed messages that have come from Air Force leadership since the idea to retire the aircraft was first proposed during the 2013 budget crunch.

The first message was that the Air Force’s F-35A would simply take over the close-air support missions that the A-10 previously performed. The Warthog would soon be a white elephant, they argued.That elicited scorn from both the A-10 fans and F-35 critics. When exactly was the F-35 going to be fully fielded and able to replace the Warthogs?

And they intended to fly a $110 million high-tech jet fighter low and slow enough to be exposed to hostile fire?

This idea of the A-10 being outdated for modern combat was reiterated by then-Air Combat Command commander Gen. Michael Hostage, who said: “I can’t send an A-10 to Syria. It would never come back.” The Air Force needs to make room for aircraft that are newer, more capable and survivable, he added.

Within four months of this statement, A-10s were stationed in Turkey and regularly flying missions into Syria. A video posted on YouTube seen by nearly a half million viewers showed footage of the aircraft obliterating Islamic State fuel trucks.

The A-10s certainly have a lot of life left in them and modernization and sustainment programs could keep them flying for years to come. But there could be something better.

“We don’t think this would take that long to do and we don’t think it’s that complicated of a design problem,” Welsh said. “The technology is available to us. We can develop it.”

Hope, of course, springs eternal when it comes to new-start acquisition programs. But there are two competing trends in the Defense Department now. One is the cautious approach that calls for only mature and trusted technologies to be integrated onto platforms. Keep requirements stable, even if the world changes during the course of the program development. No risky “unobtainium” should be included in the platform.  

The other is the “third offset” touted by senior Defense Department leadership. This calls for leap-ahead next generation weapon systems that are going to be miles better than anything potential foes may have and that can operate in anti-access/area denial scenarios.
Welsh indicated the new CAS aircraft would be the former.

To control requirements and keep costs down, the aircraft would need to be designed to operate in a low- to medium-threat environment similar to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

Currently, the A-10 is somewhat one-dimensional and is routinely described as a “flying cannon.” It has a secondary role in combat search and rescue. Its pilots can coordinate the recovery of those caught behind enemy lines and escort helicopters out of danger zones.

Integrating several different weapon systems and their targeting pods onto one platform would probably be more challenging than Welsh believes. To wit, the F-35’s Gatling gun is four years behind schedule. The terms “open architecture” and “plug and play” look good on PowerPoints but in reality, they have their own challenges.

Still, a new close-air support aircraft could serve as a “flying Coke machine” — perhaps a “flying Swiss Army knife” would be a better analogy — that included a Gatling gun, a couple different missiles and a laser that could be attenuated from lethal to nonlethal scenarios. There might be times, for example, when it is advantageous to fry a vehicle’s electronics instead of destroying it so the occupants could be captured alive. Lasers are being tested aboard Predator drones this summer.

This new aircraft might even be something that the loyal A-10 community could eventually embrace.

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, Procurement

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