Set Emotion Aside in the A-10 Debate
The response to our article calling for the retirement of the A-10 Warthog clearly illustrates the passionate support the airframe has behind it. Unfortunately, at a time when Air Force budgets are declining and 25-30 percent is “pass through,” passion does not help the Air Force maximize its ability to defend Americans and win the nation’s wars.
Undoubtedly, the A-10 is good at close air support (CAS). No airman – and certainly not Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh with over 1,000 hours in the attack jet – has said otherwise. The decision to retire the A-10 does not mean it has not proven to be a valuable component of the Air Force portfolio. Rather, this decision is about the future of the Air Force bounded by fiscal and strategic constraints.
In making this decision, it is important to focus on the Air Force's primary air mission – providing air superiority. CAS is only possible if air superiority exists. The Air Force has looked at the mix of forces and decided that in order to guarantee air superiority in the future, the budget must be devoted to modernizing the fighter force.
The Zhuhai Airshow made this point loud and clear with China's introduction of the J-31. In short, our competitors are raising the bar and we must ensure the United States builds a combat air force ready for future challenges.
Without disputing the value of the A-10 to the CAS mission, I doubt any A-10 pilot would want their son or daughter to face a J-31 in the future while piloting the venerable and vulnerable Warthog. That job should be reserved for the F-35 or F-22, aircraft that time will most likely show to be more than a match for the J-31.
Secretary Hagel made it very clear in his address on innovation at the Reagan Forum last Saturday that we are facing serious challenges to our military superiority, which require a broad response across the Department of Defense in the form of a “game-changing offset strategy.” It is clear that the United States faces a future where we may no longer have a clearly dominant military force.
While Hagel’s review may look beyond the F-35, it seems doubtful that the A-10 will be part of the solution. Rather, long range strike aircraft, submarines, ubiquitous cyber, robotics, 3D printing, and a return to nuclear deterrence all look to be more important in meeting and exceeding developing threats.
One thing is certain – war, like all human endeavors, evolves. The Air Force must evolve with it. To be sure, the Air Force has its share of challenges – aircraft that do not communicate with one another, too few long range strike aircraft, technological Achilles heels like GPS, and bloated staffs and infrastructure are just a few examples.
Meanwhile the future portends a contested Asia-Pacific (with its extreme distances), a contested Eastern Europe, a turbulent Middle East, and an Africa still struggling to develop. Most of the challenges do not present existential threats to the United States. Thus we can choose how and where to be a part of the solution. For those situations that present an existential threat, as Secretary Hagel stated, we do not want a fair fight.
Therefore, it is important we buy the tools that can enable America to meet future challenges, which could overwhelm our current force structure. In order to do so, some existing tools will have to go. It is important that we take a thoughtful approach, and acquire those tools that preserve the technological overmatch, on which the U.S. military has come to rely.