The A-10: America's Latest "Must Save" Aircraft We Simply Can't Afford
With a Republican Congress set to begin in January, the prospects for increased defense spending are certainly improved, but what remains uncertain is the future of the A-10 Warthog. When Congress rebuffed Air Force efforts to retire the A-10 in its 2014 budget, F-35 opponents saw an opportunity to attack the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) from a new direction. Thus, F-35 opponents are now some of the staunchest defenders of the A-10 and its continued employment in the combat air force (CAF). It should come as no surprise to Americans watching this drama unfold that JSF opponents would take such a position. Just as opponents of the F-14, F-15, and F-16 made similar arguments at varying times during the development of these aircraft, we should expect no different from opponents of the Joint Strike Fighter.
Nothing New Under the Sun
Opposing the retirement of a beloved aircraft is not new, but dates to the early years of American airpower. On March 15, 1916 a force led by John “Black Jack” Pershing went south of the border to capture or kill the outlaw Pancho Villa. The expedition employed the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” for aerial reconnaissance. While Pershing was ultimately unsuccessful in his effort, early aviators loved the Jenny as a flying machine. The Jenny would go on to serve as the first Air Mail delivery aircraft and the first airplane to conduct a dive bombing mission.
When the Jenny was retired from military service in the years following World War I, the aircraft was so popular that thousands found their way into private hands, with some continuing to fly to the present day. Despite its popularity, early Airmen understood that innovation was central to the success of American airpower and, with some exceptions, supported replacement of the Jenny by a much more capable aircraft.
Likewise, Capt Edward “Eddie” Vernon Rickenbacker rode his famed SPAD XIII to 26 aerial victories. While Rickenbacker previously enjoyed success as a race car driver, and would go on to be an equally successful executive, he would always think fondly of the SPAD. Unfortunately for the SPAD, its lack of reliability led to its replacement in 1918 and 1919. Again, a beloved aircraft was retired by a more capable aircraft.
The P-51 Mustang is another case in point. Winning fame during World War II as a capable fighter and the Army Air Force’s best bomber escort, the P-51 was a beloved aircraft that some pilots were reluctant to trade-in for the new F-86 Sabre—making their disagreement known. Given the P-51s current role as a staple at airshows, it’s no wonder American retain their nostalgia for the Mustang.
The B-52, arguably the greatest bomber the United States has ever produced, is one that American pilots have come to esteem greatly. Given its versatility over its six decades of service, it’s hard to argue the United States should ever retire the BUFF. A staple of the Cold War, the B-52 remains central to both conventional and nuclear deterrence and will certainly have its proponents when it is finally retired.
The reality is a simple one – pilots have long developed a lasting relationship with the aircraft they fly. It should come as no surprise A-10 pilots are reluctant to see their venerable aircraft sent to the boneyard.
The A-10 Debate
Soldiers and marines on the ground also have a special affinity for airplanes that support their mission. Flying low and slow, the A-10 has long been the most visible close air support aircraft in the combat air force, which explains much of its appeal to guys on the ground. But the reality of modern combat is such that we no longer need a visible display of airpower. American ground troops need nothing more than an Air Force Joint Tactical Air Controller who can transmit a set of coordinates to any of a number of aircraft that can provide precision targeting from altitude.
Unfortunately, many of the arguments being made on behalf of the A-10 are inaccurate and, worse, irrelevant, particularly as we debate the military force of the future. The A-10 is not just competing with the F-35. It is competing with every other airframe and defense program that contributes to the future force.
The A-10 is no doubt a capable close air support aircraft, but its weakness is that it is limited to serving in a close air support (CAS) role and only when it Warthogs are overhead. Because they do fly low and slow, they only flew about 20% of CAS missions in Afghanistan, leaving 80% of close air support to other aircraft like the F-15 Strike Eagle, F-16 Falcon, B-1B Lancer and, in the future, the F-35, which can all rapidly reach troops in contact to perform CAS-as well as air to air and deep strike missions. Setting aside the dislike of many for the F-35, if history offers us any lesson, it is that American airpower dominates the skies because of the USAF's culture of continuous innovation and modernization.
Warthogs have been portrayed in a far rosier way than they perhaps deserve. The Russian made SU-25 is an aircraft similar to the A-10 in many ways, with similar capabilities and limitations. In the ongoing civil war in the Ukraine, the government of Ukraine is flying SU-25s against rebel forces and watching them get shot down by surface to air missiles. The A-10 would suffer a similar fate in almost any conflict where an adversary had a basic anti-air capability.
In fiscally constrained times, which are here to stay, we simply cannot afford single mission airframes like the A-10. In order to stay ahead of the enemy, the Air Force needs to fund a continuous modernization program that replaces its oldest and least capable aircraft with newer, albeit costly, aircraft. When we stop modernizing, American’s die because we fail to deliver the air superiority the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps have come to expect.
So the next time some veteran from the air or ground complains about the Air Force retiring the planes that “saved their ass,” remind them that it will be their children or grandchildren that may pay the cost in the future for the U.S. Air Force failing to modernize today.