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.