Pentagon is going back and forth on its decision whether to retire the A-10 Warthog. This is due to various pressures, both internal and external. Military industry cares only about the money, and retiring the A-10 would bring huge profits to the defense contractors as the aircraft would have to be replaced – likely by several times more expensive F-35. Upper levels of the military itself are connected to the military industry with a system of revolving doors, and retired generals get highly paid jobs inside the military industry. This means that active generals are under extreme pressure to secure profitable contracts to large military corporations.
A-10 is an anthithesis of everything that technophilic industry and generals believe in. It is an embodiement of the World War II military adage, „Keep it simple, stupid“. Aircraft itself is basically a flying gun – literally, as the gun was designed first and then an aircraft was designed to carry it. It is also heavily armoured and highly maneuverable at low speeds and altitudes, and does not rely on either high speed or radar „stealth“ to keep it alive. As a result, it is a major embarassement to both the military industry and the US Air Force, both of which maintain that top-of-the-line technology is absolutely necessary for a useful weapon. It also looks ugly, unlike Mach 2 fast jets that seem perfect for PR photoshoots.
Because of this, USAF generals are very motivated to try and retire the A-10. They use half-truths, lies and promises to warp the public image of the aircraft. USAF states that fast jets such as the F-15, F-16 and F-35 can perform the close air support as well as the A-10, completely ignoring many doctrinal and technical difficulties they face: pilots that train for many missions, not just close air support, and do not understand situation on the ground; limited situational awareness when aircraft are at high altitude due to „soda-straw“ view of the sensors such as radar and FLIR; „smart“ munitions missing due to fins being bent at release, sensors or computers malfunctioning; bad weather forcing the aircraft to come within enemy weapons envelope, which fast jets cannot survive; inability to provide timely close air support due to fast jets being incapable of lotering above the troops or flying from dirt strips near the troops in contact. This betrays complete lack of interest in and understanding of the close air support mission, which is far more complex than merely dialling in the coordinates and requires a community dedicated to nothing but close air support to keep alive. More importantly, presence of a dedicated CAS aircraft forces the USAF leadership to keep the mission alive, instead of airmen who trained only for hitting strategic targets from fast jets being forced to come up with ad hoc solutions on the spot, and making mistakes – oftentimes deadly – in the process. But right now, USAF leadership is cutting maintenance to the A-10, in an attempt to artificially induce mechanical and other failures which would then be used as a „proof“ that the A-10 „has to be retired“ due to „old age“.
Due to the difficulties listed above, CAS aircraft oftentimes have to get down low. This is something that fast jets cannot successfully do except in complete absence of any armed opposition, and even then they are prone to crashing due to too high speeds – unlike the A-10, which can fly as slow as 300 knots (F-16 or F-35 cannot fly slower than 450 knots). This also means that the leadership would not allow thin-skinned jets, all of them far more expensive than the A-10, down into weeds (A-10 costs 20 million USD, while the F-16C costs 70 million USD). Unlike fast jets, which are vulnerable to 20 mm projectiles and even .50 cal machine guns, A-10 can withstand hits from 23 mm AAA, and in some areas it can survive even hits from 57 mm cannons. And unlike F-22, F-15, F-16, and especially B-52, B-1 and B-2, the A-10 continues to justify its existence every single day. The age argument does not make sense either, as the A-10 is nowhere as old as the B-52, which USAF apparently has no intention of retiring.
FAC (JTAC) view of the A-10
A survey of Marine, Army, and Air Force JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) and JFOs (Joint Fires Observers) showed an overwhelming preference for the A-10. The A-10 Warthog was preferred by 48% of the ground controllers. Far fewer – 13% – preferred the next most preferred platform, AC-130. Only 14% JTACs preferred the fast jets (F-15, F-16, F-18) which USAF insists can replace the A-10. Armed helicopters were preferred by 11%, armed UAVs by 9% and AV-8B STOVL aircraft by 4%. This flies straight into face of USAFs statements that other platforms can replace the A-10.
Ground soldiers’ view of the A-10
There are many soldiers who owe their lives to the A-10. After a 2003 invasion, 3000 US troops came under fire. Russel Carpenter, then an Air Force chief master sergeant, called for air support from the only fighter jet that could fly low and slow enough to tell friend from foe: the A-10. Later, he commented that „they would have killed hundreds“ of US troops if it weren’t for the A-10s firepower. Many other soldiers have similar experiences, and are fighting to save the A-10 from retirement. A survey of Army, Marine and Air Force JTACs and JFOs (in other words, FACs) showed an overwhelming preference for the A-10. Full 48% of ground controllers preferred the A-10, while 13% preferred the AC-130 gunship. Fast jets (F-15, F-16, F-18) were preferred by 14% ground controllers, armed helicopters by 11% controllers, armed UAVs by 9% and AV-8B jet by 4%. The last aircraft is the closest analogue to the F-35 in the survey, and it achieved 1/12 of support of the A-10. A-10 was the most requested aircraft for close air support in Afghanistan.
A-10 has even stronger effect on the enemy troops. Most recently, the A-10 had sparked panic in the ranks of ISIS like no other aircraft did – a factor often overlooked by out-of-touch generals who care only about technical specifications. Often forgotten fact is that the enemy does not have to be killed to be defeated, and the A-10 has repeatedly demonstrated just that.
Some if not most US Army leaders agree with this view. US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno has told the Congress that the F-16 cannot provide the close air support of the type that the A-10 can because the F-16 is not visible to the troops. As a result, the F-16 does not provide the morale boost that the A-10 does, and a battle can be won or lost purely on morale.
Ground soldiers on the A-10
“The psychological effect it has on the enemy I think is pretty clear, and I also think it has equally positive psychological effect on the friendly forces. You see that aircraft come on station, you know what it’s capable of, you know that the enemy on the other side probably doesn’t want to mess with you while that’s in the air.”
USMC Major Daniel O’Harra
“Fast moving aircraft are not designed to support ground troops. 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.”
Army Sgt. First Class Frank Antenori.
“As a veteran, I have always thought of the A-10 as one of the best and most enduring combat aircraft ever built. No other aircraft has ever been or ever will be built that does the things it does anywhere near as well as it does. Pilots love it and ground forces love it and the enemy fears it and hates it. I have always regarded the A-10 as an aircraft that will be relevant far into the future, not unlike the B-52 and the C-130. I am surprised and disappointed that a veteran like Hagel would even consider retiring the A-10 when there is simply no other aircraft out there that will support and protect our ground forces out in the field and in harms way nearly as well as the A-10 does…”
“I served as an LNO in the 10th Mountain TOC during Anaconda and I can attest to the unusually long delays in getting CAS to hit targets spotted by ground forces. Instead of seconds to a minute or so it was more like 10s of minutes to the better part of an hour. Many targets subsequently disappeared within that time frame. ”
JTAC on the A-10
“The A-10 was designed in a period of time that anticipated robust integrated air defense systems against the Soviet Union. It was developed with the intent to operate in an environment where the enemy contested the airspace. It was designed to operate in support of ground forces and built to take punishment from surface-to-air fires. Bottom line was it was developed during an era that anticipated both Secretary Hagel’s primary limiting factors [such as] air defense and advanced aircraft.”
“I can tell you what the JTACs are telling me, and that is the idea of retiring the A-10 is ‘F—ed up,’. I have had dozens of them tell me … that retiring the A-10 is going to cost lives of our Army brothers and sisters.”
“I generally will not employ the other types of aircraft” – like B-1s, F-15s or F-16s – “danger close, regardless of munitions, if I have other alternatives. What I need is the tank-killing gun that can engage large formations of enemy armor, vehicles or even infantry at close range.”
“I have personally sent F-16s back to a CAS [close air support] stack and pulled A-10s out because, during the Battle of the Escarpment in Operation Iraqi Freedom 1, I had no luck with F-16s that could not identify my friendly armored vehicles closing on enemy positions. The resultant delay enabled the enemy to adjust fire on top of our armored column that was breaching the escarpment. The A-10s checked in and, in rapid succession, destroyed three of the four BRDM reconnaissance vehicles that were calling in fires on top of our column. The F-16s simply could not ‘see’ the enemy vehicles.”
retired Chief Master Sergeant Russell Carpenter, a 30-year veteran and specialist in leading JTACs
“The decision to get rid of that asset while we still have folks down range [in combat] is crazy, it’s borderline irresponsible.”
“It just seems to me and everyone in the community that there are other options to get rid of. If you want to cut the budget, look at the B-1.”
Anonymous former JTAC
“Air Force leadership is quick to point out that the A-10 is a ‘one-trick pony’, but then again so is the F-22, B-1, B-52, C-17, [and] ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile]. When was the last time we had an air-to-air engagement that would justify having F-15Cs, F-16s, F-35s, and F-22s? Desert Storm? Kosovo? Early days of OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom]? A-10s justify their existence every day on the battlefield.
Don’t let the Air Force hierarchy state that the A-10 is antiquated, old, and not as capable as other aircraft. [The latest version of the A-10] with its new avionics and targeting suite, is more capable than any F-16 in the current inventory when it comes to CAS [close air support].”
“I love when leadership says the A-10 is out of date, yet we continue to hold on to B-52s, which are as antiquated as rotary-dial phones. If you want to dump an out-of-date and technologically inept aircraft, then look at the B-52.””
“My team has made decisions not to conduct a mission based off of the fact that we could not get A-10s to support us, even when other aircraft were offered up. This was because we knew we would make contact [with the enemy] and we wanted the best aircraft and pilots to support us.
Me and my team would roll out on foot patrols with four U.S. personnel and a few Afghans to conduct raids and identify future targets for action. We went out in [minimal] force and were confident, only because we knew we had A-10 support a radio call away.”
“Ask any soldier, marine, etc., what aircraft they want when things go bad? You may get some AC-130 [ground-attack gunship], but I guarantee the overwhelming response will be the A-10.”
retired Master Sergeant and former JTAC
Army brass on the A-10
“It’s ugly, it’s loud. But when it comes in and you hear that ‘BVRRR,’ it just makes a difference.”
General John Campbell, the Army’s vice chief of staff
“CAS has taken a ‘back seat’ to precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and pre-planned aerial-delivered fires when what we need is a ‘back seat’ in CAS aircraft for an aerial observer to help spot targets. Though precision fires are critical, advantageous improvements, many fleeting targets on the battleground still require immediate, suppressive and pinning fires, at times over large pieces of ground, brought in very close to maneuvering ground units. Cannon and machine gun fire, bombs under 500 lbs., and napalm are still viable supporting munitions to the advancing infantryman.”
Brigadier General David L. Grange U.S. Army (R)
“A ground force commander does not care about the number of sorties being flown or the number and types of bombs being dropped and their tonnage. Those statistics mean nothing to ground forces in combat. All that matters is whether or not the munitions are time-on-target and provide the right effects.”
Maj. Gen. Franklin ‘Buster’ Hagenbeck
“CAS in Afghanistan was abysmal until the arrival of the A-10s, months into the operations. As I listened to the informal tales told by 10th Mountain Division people about the lack of support, my stomach turned. This was not the Air Force that supported us in Vietnam. Air Force shooters would not fly below 10,000 feet in daylight per Air Force dictates, not for political reasons. Hence no strafing runs. No AC-130 support was permitted by the Air Force during daylight hours. For example, when the Rangers were going back into Roberts Ridge to find the SEAL who was killed and support the operators in the area, AC-130 support was withdrawn by the AF Cmd Center in Saudi Arabia five minutes before Chinook touchdown at the LZ because it was daylight. The result as we know contributed to dead and wounded Rangers.
CAS as we knew it was only provided by Navy and marine aircraft when they were in the AO. Only they would come in low for strafing and bombing runs. Unless a unit had an ETAC or FAC they weren’t permitted to call in AF close air support. Small units lacked this support. Precision munitions often weren’t and could require hours to get on target. At one point it took five hours to bring in close air support for 10th Mountain troops that were in a tough fight. After the Rangers were evacuated from Roberts Ridge, the Air Force pounded the hell out of it for hours with precision munitions prior to a reinsertion by the 1-87 Inf. When the 1-87 hit the LZ the same Al Queda who fought the Rangers were still on the ground. None had been killed. It took troops on the ground to kill the 12 Al Queda that continued to fight from their fortified positions.
One of the reasons for poor CAS was that the Air Tasking Order was laid out 72 hours in advance, and the Air Force staffers were so bureaucratic that they wouldn’t adjust weapons loads or missions. By the time the 10th left, they were able to reduce this to 18 hours. This approach to air support means that hitting fleeting or moving targets is very unlikely. ”
A-10 pilots on the A-10
“Technology is good, but the problem with using that technology, especially the optical stuff, is that it’s like looking through a soda straw. So imagine you hold the straw to your eye, and that’s how you have to view the whole battlefield. With looking with your eyeballs, I can turn my head around and I can see much more of the battlefield than I can with slewing that pod around. And I can see the bigger picture. I’m able to maybe catch some movement out of corner of my eye and look down and go ‘Oh, you know, there’s a little bit of dust over there.'”
retired Lt.Col. Bill Smith
“When you’re talking to a 19-year-old man with a rifle, who’s scared on the other end of a radio, you know he doesn’t care about fiscal constraints, ‘big picture’ Air Force policy, the next fancy weapons system coming down the pipeline. He cares about being saved right then and there.”
Anonymous US pilot
“You really think they’re going to allow a $200 million airplane to get down in the weeds, where it’s extremely vulnerable?”
retired Lieutenant Colonel William Smith, an airline pilot who flew the A-10 in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re up high to hide, but at some point, I have to put my visor up, roll up my sleeves, and get down with the guys on the ground,”
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Gringers
“Countless friendly lives were saved by a laminated Russian 1:50 map, a five-cent grease pencil and a dedicated and professional … pilot with the experience and training to sift through the fog of both air and ground war,”
A-10 pilot’s comment when his flight lead stopped the B-1 bombing run after the JTAC has passed his own coordinates. Had the A-10s not been present, B-1 would have wiped out friendlies.
“As I passed abeam one Apache, I glanced high left to see a man, leaning over the stubby helicopter wing, unloading his rifle on the enemy. We matched with 30-millimeter and rockets. The B-1 held high as he was useless during this close attack phase. The Apaches, usually the escort birds, now found themselves requiring escort to make it in and out alive. Only an A-10 could have done that.”
“Ever since this mission I have fully embraced the unique and highly specialized skill of battlefield tracking. It is a skill unique to the A-10 community, as we realize that [close air support] is more than simply dialing up a bomb for the ground commander.”
Anonymous A-10 pilot
“Even with all our (top-of-the-line) tools today, we still rely on visual references. Once we received general location of the enemy’s position, I rolled in as lead aircraft and fired two rockets to mark the area with smoke. Then my wingman rolled in to shoot the enemy with his 30 millimeter rounds.”
Anonymous A-10 pilot
“We train for this, but shooting danger-close is uncomfortable, because now the friendlies are at risk. We came in for a low-angle strafe, 75 feet above the enemy’s position and used the 30-mm gun — 50 meters parallel to ground forces — ensuring our fire was accurate so we didn’t hurt the friendlies.”
Anonymous A-10 pilot, wingman of the above
USAF officers on the A-10
“Armed with laser- and GPS-guided weapons designated by ground personnel operating in direct liaison with and support of maneuver units and commanders, the A-10’s pilots will no longer need to dive down to treetop level braving SAMs and AAA to strafe with the 30mm cannon. Instead, they will drop ordnance as directed onto laser-designated targets, or release weapons programmed to hit a GPS-derived 1-5m2 target. While A-10Cs will still perform close air support as well as air interdiction sorties, the closeness is a matter of digital integration between air and ground, not how low and close to the ground troops the pilot can fly without hitting the ground or being hit by lethal ground fire.
The F-35 JSF cannot replace the A-10. It lacks the payload capacity/range/loiter capability of the old WartHog, and also lacks the option of reverting to old-style “pilot eyeball on target” strafing CAS with the GAU-8. The A-10C would also retain the ability to escort helicopter assaults or operate as an Airborne Forward Air Controller (FAC-A) if necessary, missions for which the faster, unarmored F-35 would also be ill-suited.”
A retired USAF officer
Other relevant comments
“No gun sight necessary; fly until the target fills the windscreen and then hold down the firing button (oh yes, we also dispensed small bombs with 8-10 sec delay or streams of parafrags which gave us time to move forward beyond the blast. Meanwhile, our rear gunner was leaving a wake of 50cal behind. Re altitude: I never crossed a target much above fifty feet and if it was a ship: mast head height. The operations officer was adamant: ‘DO NOT hit the target with the airplane; if you do, I’ll ground your ass!!’ This tactic was not a contest in ‘bravado’; it evolved as the best way to avoid being hit by flak and small arms (of which there was a lot). It also solved today’s problem of “gross errors” in dispensing ordnance. I have never been great at bombing, especially with fighters (can’t hit my ass with both hands) but I will testify that with ‘minimum altitude attack,’ I have NEVER missed an intended target, even though, at the time I had less than a thousand hours of flying time. Have I ever been hit by enemy fire? Yes!! That used to be accepted as part of the job environment; its just that our airplanes seemed to be able to tolerate a few holes here and there. Also, it was accepted that beating the crap out of the enemy in support of the war was worth the risk of a first lieutenant. By the way, if you are into suicide, try flying over a contested zone/battle field at 300 to 500 feet; I can assure you a short tour (regardless of how fast you fly). Keep this number in mind: 50. Maximum Survivability Altitudes: Below 50′ or above 50,000′. What is my favorite airspeed (considering our purpose is to be effective vice just survival): 250 to 300 kts. in an agile, tough aircraft. Re ALTITUDE: fly in the terrain mask. Ordnance Characteristics: weapons that do not force the pilot to remain above the mask for periods in excess of 10-12 seconds for delivery/application. The only existing weapon that really satisfies this criteria is a gun (unless we revive some of the old stuff that we could stream behind from WWII, Korea and SEA). ”
Chuck Myers on low-altitude flight
“You have nothing to replace it with, general. You have nothing to replace it with. Otherwise you’d be using the F-15s and the F-16s which you have plenty of. But you’re using the A-10 because it’s the most effective weapon system.”
“You know general, I’ve had a little military experience myself including in close-air support, and for you to sit there and tell me that we could be using the F-16 and the F-15 when we’re not, and your plans are to use the F-35 at ten times the cost, eventually it flies in the face of not just my experience but the experienced pilots that I know, the U.S. Air Force pilots that I’m in constant communication with.”
– John McCain, former US Navy pilot
Above probably won’t help the A-10. USAF doesn’t want to keep it, US Army does not want to take it. The reality is simple: the only wars that Pentagon generals – who make decisions on procurement – are interested in fighting and winning are US military’s own interservice budgetary wars. A cheap and insanely effective weapon like the A-10 is useless for these wars. To cite a commenter, “Army doesn’t want the A-10, why settle for old, cheap but very, very effective when one can snivel and whine for new, obscenely overpriced and pretty much useless.”. And that is in the background of all US military procurement decisions as well as statements. So when you see a general whining about not getting enough of “super-modern”, “super-effective” new shiny hardware and having to play with “old and useless” toys, keep the above in mind. For US military leadership, weapons are indeed toys, and nobody wants ugly toys no matter how useful for practical purposes these might be.