Why USAF hates A-10 and why it can’t be replaced

A-10 was, along with F-16, one of two tactical aircraft created by Fighter Mafia for USAF. Notably, while USAF managed to screw up F-16 by adding bombing and BVR capabilities, A-10 is still relatively unchanged, with exception of new electronics. It is safe, efficient, durable, reliable and cheap, managing to operate in wider range of meteorological conditions than any other aircraft. Its design allows it to evade most of ground fire, and to soak up the rest and still bring the pilot home safely. It can fly at speeds comparable to WW2 turboprops, allowing it to carry out Close Air Support. While it has performed admirably, USAF wants do retire it, with explanation that it is old, vulnerable, and that precision weapons render its capabilities – including its massive 30 mm Gattling gun – unnecessary.

But the real reason for that move is because the A-10 goes against everything USAF believes in. A-10 is the ultimate proof that highly capable and effective weapons do not need to be complex or costly, and that going up close and personal with target is oftentimes the only way to get things done. In fact, USAF only rushed it in production so that the Army does not take over entire CAS mission.

Cost itself is probably the most damning aspect of A-10 in USAF generals’ eyes. Aside for the sexy appeal of new technologies, especially stealth, Air Force generals who have supported highly complex weapons get to work in firms producing these weapons after retirement, for a very high salary. As a result, generals have sabotaged F-16, loading it up with electronics, pushed for production of stealth aircraft, and always kept looking for ways to remove the A-10 from the Air Force. Despite the A-10 outperforming every other aircraft during Desert Storm (or more likely because of it, USAF has mothballed most of the fleet, while outright lying about F-117s performance during the war. During the war, A-10 took out over half of 1 700 Iraqi tanks that were knocked out by air strikes, and about 300 APCs and artillery emplacements.

In 2002 – 2010 period, 60 A-10s have fired 300 000 of ammunition over Iraq, and recorded an 85% success rate. It is also less expensive and more environment-friendly to operate than fast jets, due to its large wings and slow, but fuel-efficent, turbofan engines. In 2010, US military started operating it on biofuel. At maximum power, A-10s engines are five times or more efficient than F-35s engine.

Due to these concerns, USAF has turned to 200 million USD F-35, promising that it will be able to do by virtue of high technology what 20 million USD A-10 already does by virtue of its excellent design, despite F-35 being more vulnerable than the F-16 (an aircraft that was never designed for CAS in the first place), and being incapable of slowing down enough to find and attack tactical targets. In fact, the F-35 is vulnerable to being taken down by AK-47 fire. But the F-35 allows USAF to justify huge future budgets, and not fall behind in budget battle between departments of US military, which have displayed notorious rivalry in the past (to the point of harming overall US combat ability, such as USAF not allowing US Army to operate fixed-wing CAS aircraft).

However, history of USAF promises about A-10 replacements is not shiny. Out of 24 Apache attack helicopters sento to the Kosovo, 2 have crashed on training mission in the first week and rest were grounded for duration of the war. Seven Apaches sent to attack Taliban in Afghanistan during Operation Anaconda were shot up by the machine gun fire, with five being damaged beyond repair. In Iraq, 33 Apaches attacking Republician Guard positions in Karbala were forced to turn tail and run in face of the heavy machine gun fire and few RPG-s, with one being shot down and 30 sustaining heavy damage.

Fast jets proved even less useful: on July 24 2004, unit led by SSgt Jamie Osmon, and comprising of himself and two other soldiers, was escorting a convoy sent to disarm an Afghan warlord. They themselves crewed a multi-wheeled armored vehicle, with other six vehicles containing 26 additional troops, which were comprised of Afghan National Army and Global Security forces. During the way, convoy entered a 30-50 meter wide canyon, but decided to leave it, turning south towards mouth of the valley. Upon reaching the mouth, however, convoy was ambushed. Lead vehicle, belonging to ANA, was destroyed by an RPG, and Ford Ranger behind it took small-arms fire. Rest of the convoy managed to double-back after extracting passangers from the Ranger. Three kilometers later, they were ambushed again, by an estimated 800 ambushers. Humvee laid down suppressing fire while rest of convoy retreated, and after running out of ammo, Humvee crew went on foot to find the convoy.

On the way there, B-1 bomber attempted to help, but it didn’t have any effect. Once convoy regrouped, Osmon asked for A-10 support, and was said that it is about an hour away. After an hour, A-10s – callsigns Tonto and Lobo – arrived. Pilots managed to determine where friendly troops as well as opponents are without any radio contact. Once the A-10s opened up with Vulcan guns, enemy fire ceased, and ground team finally managed to establish radio contact with the A-10s. Soon after, enemy tried to have US troops call off A-10 support by using captured ANA troops as bargaining chips.

After enemy dispersed, convoy limped home, with the A-10s loitering over the convoy protectively during entire 6-hour trip.

Several lessons can be taken from this encounter:

  • high-altitude “precision” weapons are completely ineffective against dug-in opponent
  • A-10s have huge impact on enemy ground troops, both physical and psychological, which cannot be replicated by high-flying aircraft
  • entire encounter was accoplished by eyeball, with only barest information avaliable to A-10 pilots
  • radio contact was only established after the A-10s have already started attacking enemy positions

US Army Sgt. First Class Frank Antenori has said that ‘As much as the Air Force and Navy would like to think that, fighter aircraft that travel at speeds can’t slow down to identify the targets,’. (“Fast Jets Not Ideal Choice for Close Air Support” by Roxana Tiron, National Defense magazine, April 2004 ).

There are many reasons why fast jets are not effective as close air support aircraft, and why that ineffectiveness increases with speed and altitude. First is that battlefield is a very mobile environment, with many small, fleeting targets. As a result, high-altitude jets are incapable of reacting effectively to the changing environments, first due to the limitations of sensory systems (we have yet to design a sensor more versatile and precise than human eye), and second due to the time it takes weapons to reach target (thus effectively creating a delay between “decide” and “act” parts of the OODA loop). Oftentimes, immediate, pinning / suppressive fire is required, sometimes very close to the ground units – so close that even smallest precision weapons are too high-yield.

In the mountainous terrains, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft have a hard time finding targets, requiring boots on the ground to do it. Even when terrain is not a problem, it takes 18 hours to complete targeting process by using reconnaissance satellites in the low Earth orbit. If assets are moved every 10 – 12 hours, they become essentially untargetable.

In Afghanistan, F-15Es have saved a downed SEAL team – by doing gun strafing runs. When precision weapons are used, their point of impact has to be calculated so as to ensure that bombs do hit their targets – and that takes 26 minutes on average; sometimes, it took up to several hours. Until the arrival of the A-10s in Afghanistan several months after start of operations, USAF CAS was abysimal, as its aircraft were not allowed to fly low enough; thus, Army units relied almost exclusively on USN close air support, as Navy aircraft were allowed to perform low-altitude strafing and bombing runs.

Precision strikes can be effective against fixed targets, but their effectiveness against mobile targets is limited – in which case gun strafing is a far better solution. Precision strikes require ground Forward Air Controller to be attached to the unit that has requested strikes – but there simply are not enough FACs. Even when there is FAC attached to the unit, he may be injured or killed, denying the unit ability to call for high-altitude support. Against fixed targets, precision strikes have regularly proven useless if targets were dug in, such as in the war in Kosovo where 3-rd Serbian Army has marched back to Serbia unscatched by NATO air attacks. Laser guided weapons require someone to keep in line of sight of target until weapon hits, and both laser guided and especially GPS munitions are prone to fratricide.

Further, units are only equipped with the limited number of radios to communicate among themselves and with aircraft. Smoke and white phosphorus markers require slow aircraft to be fully effective. Marker baloons, though not used by the US military, are another option for situations where markers cannot be effective (such as in forests) but they also require aircraft slow enough to see them, and the radio contact between aircraft and ground troops.

Precision munitions themselves are also far from precise. JDAMs are not terminally guided and often go astray. Further, bombs bump into each other and often into the aircraft on release, making fins bend; a problem that only gets worse as speed increases. Even when that does not happen, trying to simply steer a “smart” weapon is another problem which also gets worse with increasing speed. In both cases, once that happens margin of error worsens with altitude. Guidance systems often fail, due to damage during transport or installation, or other reasons, and precision munitions go astray: something that performance testers completely ignore while calculating CEP, counting only weapons that have performed “as expected”.

To render any kind of tactical bombing, CAS or otherwise, aircraft have to be well below cloud level. F-35 carrying two bombs will thus be vulnerable to smaller weapons, and will not fly air support (close or otherwise) on bad weather. On good weather, it will be quasi-loitering at 4 500 meters, blowing up decoys, civillians, rocks and wrecks of vehicles from previous war.

While there were several friendly-fire incidents involving the A-10, these have always been result of human error on part of overencumbered pilot; thus A-10 should be equipped with back seat for observer who will operate optical identification devices so as to provide visual target identification superior to current “use the binoculars” avaliable to the pilot. But while these incidents are shot up to the sky to be as visible as nuclear detonation, far more numerous failures of high altitude aircraft are buried. In fact, even current attack helicopters (which fly at half A-10s speed) have two crewman, pilot and WSO; task of latter is purely to operate weapons, which includes identifying targets before attacking.

Per-sortie (in)effectiveness is not the only concern. F-35 simply cannot generate enough sorties per day to replace A-10. It also requires large, vulnerable air bases with concrete strips, while A-10 can fly from any surface flat enough that can carry its weight, which not only makes it less vulnerable but allows it to follow the front and stay near supported troops, much like German Stukas did in World War II. F-35 also does not even begin to approach A-10s loiter capability, meaning that it cannot escort ground troops out of dangerous situations, nor can it loiter near the front, waiting to be called upon.

For the end note, A-10s not only should not be retired, they (and tactical aircraft in general) should be employed in the same way Wehrmacht employed Stukas and single-engine fighters in World War II: keeping them under nominal command of Air Force, but assigning them to larger ground units, to be under operational command of that unit’s command staff, with CAS aircraft being permanently assigned to units, and air superiority aircraft assigned and reassigned as situation required.

Further reading

Flying blind

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57 thoughts on “Why USAF hates A-10 and why it can’t be replaced

  1. The USAF does not hate CAS…lol…the problem is that they love money and cheap aircraft like the A-10 dont allow for big budgets like the bombers and fighters.
    You also claim that PGMs dont work for CAS and guns are better…and then you have some points(in previous posts and this one)that are not very correct.Before i take on your claims let me just say that i love the A-10 and ,for me,its a shame that the Russians are upgrading and building new SU-25s and the USAF does not do anything to buy new build A-10s…
    Point one-The USAF is betting the farm on a single aircraft because there is not enought money to buy single mission aircraft not because they hate CAS.(who are «they« that you talk about?)
    Point 2-You never talk about the fact that the F-111 destroyed more armour in Gulf war 1 than the A-10…
    Point 3-The A-10 is a CAS aircraft and should not be compared with fast aircraft.Not all A/G missions are the same:you have CAS that is done close to the FLOT(A-10,SU-25),you have interdiction behind the FLOT cutting supplies and logistics(F-16,Jaguar,MIG-27) and you have deep interdiction ,destroying airfields,rail roads,C3 assets,ports,etc(F-111,SU-24,F-15E,SU-34).The further the A-10 flyes away from the FLOT the more vulnerable it gets.The book An illustrated guide to modern attack aircraft by Mike Spick states that if an A-10 goes beyond 3kms from the FLOT it as gone to far enought.And what to say of the A-10 when you need 911 CAS…then a fast moving F-X sounds real appealling.

    • Then why they don’t allow A-10 to be given to the Army? And it isn’t that PGMs don’t work, it’s just that they don’t work as advertised.

      Now to reply to your points:
      1) One F-35A costs 200 million USD flyaway. 1 F-16C plus 1 A-10 plus 1 F-15E cost 203 million USD combined, but each of them allows for several times more sorties than F-35.
      2) F-111 flew 4 000 sorties versus 1 300 for A-10. And I’d really like to know how F-111 took out more Iraqi armor than A-10 despite A-10 alone accounting for over half of Iraqi tanks. This means that between them, they would have destroyed over 100% of Iraqi armor. Or maybe F-111 just destroyed light armor and A-10 concentrated on tanks.
      3) CAS is mission that is done in direct support of ground troops. “Interdiction” you’re talking about is not CAS, it is battlefield interdiction, and nothing else you mentioned is CAS either. A-10 is built specifically for CAS, and I do not see how not being able to do things it was not designed to do is an argument against it. But my point is specifically ability of fast aircraft to do CAS. That ability is rather lacking.
      4) A-10 can be deployed in FOBs, operating from dirt strips, and can loiter above troops for extended periods. Fast jets can’t do either of these things, and as such A-10s will often be avaliable, and arrive, far sooner than faster aircraft.

      • 1-Not true.Its 107 million sans engine.+ or – 140 million with engine…It will drop…mass production and all that…
        2-From wikipedia:«F-111s participated in the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) in 1991. During Desert Storm, F-111Fs completed 3.2 successful strike missions for every unsuccessful one, better than any other U.S. strike aircraft used in the operation.[58] The group of 66 F-111Fs dropped almost 80% of the war’s laser-guided bombs, including the GBU-15 and the penetrating, bunker-buster GBU-28.[59] Eighteen F-111Es were also deployed during the operation.[58][60] The F-111s were credited with destroying more than 1,500 Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles.[60] Their use in the anti-armor role was dubbed “tank-plinking”.[61]»
        Also on tank-plinking:«.General Norman Schwarzkopf was looking for a plan to incapacitate 50% of the Iraqi army before any ground invasion could begin. Planning was performed including high intensity air strikes with General Dynamics F-111, A-6 Intruder, F-15E Strike Eagle, F/A-18 Hornet, AV-8 Harrier, A-10 Thunderbolt II, and F-16 Falcon crews. This culminated in December 1990, with Operation Night Camel in which air crews of the F-111 evaluated the ability of aircraft to use guided munitions with the LANTIRN and Pave Tack target designation systems from medium altitude.

        This is a deviation from standard military air engagement due to the prevalence of the surface-to-air missile; most aviators would prefer to engage a target from either a very high altitude, or a very low altitude, and certainly with low observability aircraft. However, the Iraqi defenses proved to be very inadequate. The winning combination[citation needed] for the eventual campaign was either a pair or quartet of F-111F aircraft loaded with four GBU-12 500-lb, laser-guided bombs. Bombs were designated for both entrenched, hard targets, as well as softer targets (e.g. armoured personnel carriers).»
        3-i know that…thats why i explain it to you…
        4-And thats why i love the damn thing…but 911 CAS isnt constant presence in place…it when you dont have any assets neer by and you need something really fast…

      • 1) It already did drop… from 207 to 197 million USD flyaway for F-35A. BTW, F-22s unit flyaway cost is bit above 250 million USD.
        2) Strike missions =/= CAS. As for numbers, you’ll notice that it counts “1500 tanks and armored vehicles”. Which means tanks, IFVs, APCs, various forms of improvised armor, and so on. It is entirely possible for both our numbers to be correct.
        A-10 was one of most survivable aircraft in the war, considering its mission.
        3) You are explaining me something I already know, and something that is irrelevant as I am talking specifically about ability of other aircraft to replace A-10, and A-10 is made for CAS. So if you know, why are you bringing it up?
        4) So what’s problem with fast jets – assuming they really can arrive faster than A-10, which considering basing, maintenance and pre-flight prep issues is not given – providing their “close” air support until A-10 arrives?

      • Dont forget that some fast jets can use improvised airfields.Remenber the A-4? The Harrier,the Super Hornet ,the Gripen and a few others can do it to…

      • You are right ,about those jets to…if i remember well the MiG-29 has a device in its engine that prevents FOD…
        And whats up with RATO(or JATO)?…back in Vietnam they used that technique a lot.Why not in A-stan ? Because of the altitudes of some airfields it would make sense…

  2. The A-10 is one amazing aircraft, and squadron of them can wipe out thousands of enemy tracked and wheeled weapons in a few days time, But is has one glaring weakness. Just one SU-27 can destroy ten A-10s on one pass with its A10 air to air missiles.

    • Your example is dumb. A Lamborghini can beat my Ford 150 4×4 to 150 mph, but I can cross a 2 foot deep stream a half mile wide, no problems… Let the F15’s worry about the SU-27… err rather the SU 27 needs to worry about the F15’s

  3. There’s another reason why the USAF hates the A-10 — a secret reason. You need to know your history to understand it.

    Back in the early 1970s, the US Army attempted to develop a high-speed Attack Helicopter to provide their troops with a greater CAS capability than the AH-1 Cobra; this new helicopter was the YAH-56 Cheyanne.

    However, the Cheyenne was a much more expensive flying machine than the Cobra, so the Army would need an increased budget to build it. Since the US defense budget is a fixed number of dollars for each year, that entailed that the money going into the Army had to come out of the Navy, Marines, or Air Force, and obviously the latter would be the one who would pay-up. In addition to a loss of financial power, the USAF also faced a loss of prestige, face, and monopoly on offensive airpower if the Army acquired a CAS helicopter, so they pulled every stop to kill the Cheyenne.

    What ultimately did that was an argument that because the Cheyenne has lifting wings and weighed over 10000lbs at empty weight, it was a violation of the 1948 Key West Agreement, in which the Army agreed not to field any armed aircraft with these attributes. Congress fell for it, and killed the Cheyenne.

    The Army then replaced the Cheyenne Program with the AHX Program, and nixed the wings this time. The USAF knew there was no way to undermine this program to it’s destruction, so they went into damage control mode.

    This is when TacAir Shop — a group of officers and intellectuals today called the “Lightweight Fighter Mafia” (as they got the ball rolling toward what became the F-16) — saw an opportunity to promote an extremely rugged, powerful, and simple Attacker. A sort of a modern-day “Stuka” (though what they proposed was more conceptually similar to the Il-2 Sturmovik), if you will. They proposed it as a fixed-wing alternative to the AHX for the USAF.

    The USAF jumped on it, and the proposal became the A-X Program, whose final result was the A-10 Thunderbolt II. Predictably, the A-10 was half as expensive as AHX’s ultimate result, the AH-64 Apache, but it was expensive enough that the Army only got half as many Apaches as they originally planned for; the A-10 bit-off a big chunk of the Apache’s budget for good, before the Army could do anything about it.

    By 1980, the A-10 had served it’s purpose as far as the USAF was concerned, and production was terminated after only some 400 were built. Also by then, they banished half to the Air National Guard, and half to the Davis-Monthan AFB Boneyards, and they did everything in their power to try to *completely* kill the A-10 ever since.

    I had a post on the MurdocOnline blog that delved further into the A-10 Witch Hunt from there, but the entire thread seems to be gone.

  4. Also, observe the accuracy of A-10 strafing. The first hail of gunfire all pours into the roof area — the second goes into the building itself;

    A-10 strafing killing enemy personnel;

    An even MORE accurate A-10 strafing run against enemy personnel in the open, this time dropping all the shells within a few feet of them (you can see little bits of them raining down over the surrounding landscape for more than 10 seconds);

    Finally, here’s video footage of A-10s engaging another type of point target with strafing runs — tanks;

  5. Excellent, They should just give it to the army if they don’t want it. I mean the army has more use for it and the airforce doesn’t want it. Moreover the airforce is too busy paying for other stuff instead of the A-10 so just give the entire fleet to the army they will certainly take care of it. After all they are the ones that need fire support.

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    • They seem determined to do everything they can to kill the A-10.

      I don’t think this is about getting these maintenance personnel for the F-35 as much as it is trying to kill the A-10. The effectiveness of the A-10 probably terrified the air force brass, who know that from the Gulf War, the 2003 Iraqi War, and the ongoing Afghanistan conflict that the A-10 is a very cost effective aircraft, even if an ALX-like design would be better.

      • Precisely. A-10 is an antithesis to everything USAF top brass postulates (radar stealth = better survivability, higher cost = more capability, multirole = better) and it reminds them of what their mission should be despite all the attempts to avoid it, so they are trying to remove it ASAP.

      • Basically they are determined to get the A-10 removed at any cost, and they are trying to think of plausible reasons to get the aircraft retired quickly. I cannot imagine that it will save much money, but they are doing it for ideological reasons.

    • Ok, point by point.

      1) “The AF “had to” buy a CAS plane?”

      He is technically correct. USAF was not exactly forced to buy the A-10. USAF decided to buy the A-10 itself. However, entire reason for that was to kill the Army Cheyenne program. Once that program was dead, A-10 has outlived its usefulness and USAF has been trying to kill it ever since.

      He also outright lies that dedicated CAS assets are less survivable. They may seem so because *gasp* they do only CAS, which is *the* most dangerous mission, but if you compare a “multirole” and “CAS” asset strictily within limits of performing CAS, a dedicated CAS asset will be more effective and more survivable.

      2) “and there had been absolutely NO ‘fast-mover’ CAS work in Vietnam to be able to declare a need or make a comparison and judgment either way: ”

      But fast movers have already proven themselves useless for CAS in Korea. Ban on jets clearly indicates that *someone* was aware of limitations of fast jets.

      3) “Later, when there was Congressional pressure to retain the A-7 and not proceed with the A-10, the Air Force could have simply walked away from the A-X/A-10.”

      Except Congress wanted a flyoff first. That flyoff would have shown the A-10s suitability, so this assertion is… questionable.

      4) “From all of the above, we can rightfully declare that the “AF Didn’t Want the A-10” Myth as ‘debunked’”

      That is true. But the *only* reason the USAF wanted the A-10 was to kill the Cheyenne.

      5) “Throughout the entire A-7/A-10 saga, it can be shown that the Air Force was always interested providing a survivable aircraft capable of performing the CAS missions.”

      And in USAF opinion, “survivable” often meant “expensive”. Which is BS.

      6) “Something as slow as the A-4, especially compared to the F-105 would be an anathema those who knew ‘speed is life’. ”

      Speed does not necessarily help survivability – maneuverability is actually far better in many situations.

      7) “I suppose that may explain his fetish for slow prop planes, but quite frankly, Pike’s entire history on this topic makes him look like an Army sockpuppet: trying to ‘poison the well’ concerning fast(er) movers working CAS before the tactics and hardware used even had a chance to prove themselves.”

      Quite funny, considering that even WWII pilots have noted that “speed is poison” when doing CAS. Pike was likely aware of that and so wanted to make sure that CAS could be done properly.

      “Virtually ignoring the Air Force’s argument that multipurpose, supersonic aircraft were both more efficient and more effective in a multiplicity of roles, including close air support,”

      Well, that argument was bullshit and one didn’t need to even look at Vietnam to know it.

      Sorry, I don’t have time ATM for a more detailed look.

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