10 Good Reasons to Save the A-10

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As the FY15 defense budget is finalized and the fiscal pressure of sequestration endures, there has been informed speculation that the Air Force will seek to retire its A-10 Warthog fleet. Congress has already prevented such a move in the National Defense Authorization Act, but yet the fight continues. Last week, RCD featured a proposal to transfer the A-10 to the Army. This week, J. Furman Daniel, III offers ten good reasons to save the beloved A-10.  

1. It is proven

The A-10 is a tried and true design that has served our nation well.  In an era of increasingly complex, expensive, and troubled weapons procurement, it is essential to have some systems that are solid and reliable. With only modest changes to the original design, the A-10 has been upgraded to meet the challenges of the future and deliver its trademark firepower, durability, survivability, and persistence to battlefield hotspots for decades to come.

2. It is cheap

The A-10 is and will continue to be cheap. While it is ugly, slow, and old fashioned, it remains the most cost effective way of delivering aerial firepower to the battlefield. While it is possible to drop ordinance and provide suppressive fire with other fighter platforms few would consider the F-22, F-35, F-15, or F-16 as ideal ways of performing this essential mission. In fact, the F-22 has been excluded from such missions and is in danger of becoming a “force in being” for “big wars” rather than an asset that can actually be used in the conflicts we are currently fighting. A rational force structure would retain the A-10 as the unglamorous but necessary “low” component of a “high-low mix” and would thus free our more expensive platforms for missions such as air superiority and strategic bombing that demand higher performance.

3. It is survivable

Especially in our wars of choice, the American public is notoriously casualty adverse. We will continue to send our brave men and women into harm’s way for the foreseeable future, so it essential to provide them with the best tools possible to allow them to complete their mission and return safely home. Survivability is the hallmark of the A-10 and many of our pilots owe their lives to its rugged construction. Other low cost options such as the Apache helicopter, Super Tucanos, and the Textron Scorpion do not have the total package of survivability of the A-10.

4. It does things that current aircraft, helicopters, and drones cannot do

The A-10 does a few things better than any other platform in existence.  While ground pounding may not be glamorous, it is a function that will not simply go away. If the Air Force eliminates the A-10, it will replace the core competency with some combination of bad options. First, the military could have other fixed-wing aircraft filling the void, but (as described above) this would likely not be the most cost effective option. Second, we could increase the burden on helicopters to perform this task, but they would likely suffer from their inherent limits of speed, payload, and survivability. Finally, force planners could gamble that some as yet unproven combination of drones or smart artillery could provide this firepower for the battlefields of the future. In each of these scenarios, a significant risk is assumed and it remains unclear that the proposed solution could either accomplish the mission or do so at an acceptable cost in blood or treasure. Given the A-10’s demonstrated speed, maneuverability, ruggedness, redundant systems, and combat record, why take such risks?

5. Redundancy, Redundancy, Redundancy!

Unfortunately, the US military has a poor track record of predicting when, where, and how the next war will occur. Given this uncertainty and the costs of guessing wrong, the redundancy provided by the A-10 seems like a very good safety net provided at a very attractive cost. While all defense budgeting and planning assumes some degree of risk, it seems very premature to assume that this capability is no longer needed.

6. There is no clear replacement in the development pipeline

If the F-35 program has taught us anything it should be that modern weapons systems have long (and often troubled) development cycles. While there have been calls for a replacement for the A-10, there are currently no replacement in sight. Even if one assumes that such a program could be delivered on time and on budget, it would be decades before the aircraft could be prototyped, de-bugged, produced, delivered, and incorporated into the force. Given the lack of a replacement, prudence should demand that we retain this platform until we have a viable alternative ready to deploy.

7. Once lost, it is hard to reconstitute the CAS community

The A-10 is an essential element of a small but proud community of professionals who have dedicated their lives to providing close-air-support (CAS) for our combat troops on the ground. While this mission is neither glamorous nor the road to a fast promotion within the services, it has an impressive esprit de corps, an extraordinary institutional knowledge, and an excellent record of inter-service cooperation. By eliminating the A-10, this community will likely cease to exist and their expertise could be lost forever. If the need for this capability is ever called for again, it would be a dicey proposition to reconstitute it under the strain of combat. The US has already suffered the painful consequences of neglecting its counterinsurgency and counterterrorism communities in the years between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, and it should not repeat this cavalier mistake with the CAS community.

8. Eliminating this capability may embolden our enemies and frighten our allies

A lot of defense is about signaling. The A-10 sends a very powerful message to friends and foes alike−do not mess with us on the ground! Eliminating this capability undercuts our credibility to deter potential adversaries and may also make our allies uneasy. The obvious example for the need to maintain this capability and its associated signal lies on the Korean Peninsula. Here, keeping the A-10 serves a dual purpose. It deters the large conventional forces of the rogue regime in the north, while reassuring our allies in the south that we are committed to the defense of their homeland. While it is certainly premature to claim that removing our A-10 force would result in bedlam for Korea, doing so would incur additional risk for a relatively minimal cost savings. Across the world, the United States has not been seriously threatened by a conventional competitor in part because we have clear dominance in all aspects of combat arms. Allowing this advantage to atrophy may save money in the short term, but could have potentially catastrophic unintended consequences in the medium to long term.

9. You cannot save it by giving it to the Army

One of the proposals to save the A-10 is to simply give it to the Army. While this is attractive, it is also an impractical pipe dream that would incur untold bureaucratic, logistical, and budgetary problems. Doing so would require abandoning the Key West agreement which clearly states that the US Army cannot deploy fixed-wing aircraft. Eliminating this agreement would jeopardize branch identities, threaten Goldwater Nichols and the very concept of jointness, and heighten an already tense budgetary landscape. Although the Army may begrudgingly accept the A-10, it would either be forced to make cuts in other key areas or would use this new bureaucratic constituency to undercut the Air Force’s budget. Whether the A-10 is seen as a budgetary millstone or a winning wedge issue, it is unlikely to produce any real cost savings for the defense budget as a whole and could, instead, heighten rivalries and interservice competitiveness at the very time when the services should be looking to think holistically and act strategically. The fact is the Army should not deploy fixed-wing aircraft, and the Air Force should begrudgingly accept the fact that a small percentage of their efforts should be dedicated to the CAS mission.

10. Killing it would send a horrible message to the grunts

Perhaps the single best reason to save the A-10 is that it will preserve a working relationship between the Air Force and the troops on the ground. Grunts are superstitious, fickle, needy, and ultimately damn fine creatures that need physical, emotional, logistical, and psychological support. Killing the single best weapon for CAS would be the bureaucratic equivalent of the Air Force giving the Army and Marines on the front lines “the finger.” This blow would be even crueler if it was done to achieve only a modest cost savings. To preserve this relationship and to ensure battlefield dominance for decades to come, the Air Force should maintain the ugly, slow, unsexy, and unparalleled killing machine the A-10. 

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