Questionable Logic: Unacknowledged Risks Riddle Air Force Push to Retire A-10

Gas and go

The A-10 spends its time willingly seeking out and placing itself into the middle of the fiercest gun battles on the planet.  It is therefore only fitting that the Air Force’s decision to retire its only dedicated attack aircraft has erupted into a political, rhetorical, and budgetary firefight.  On one side of this clash is a formation of Warthog champions arguing with a tenacity faithful to the combat traditions of the world’s most dominant close air support (CAS) weapon.  On the other side is arrayed a phalanx of spreadsheet-wielding budgeteers, led from the front by General Mark Welsh, a former A-10 pilot himself now acting in the role of reluctant executioner.  Like most national defense disputes arising from budgetary imperatives rather than strategic ones, this one makes continually less sense the longer it continues.

Welsh’s most recent public discussion of the subject may have been designed to allay concerns and lay the dispute to rest, but the effect has been just the reverse.  His words have raised new concerns about the process used by the Air Force to arrive at the decision, and seem to gesture toward a deliberative method too constrained to produce quality outcomes for national defense.

The process Welsh describes is one of systematically sweeping entire mission areas off the table in the budget process, leaving the A-10 as the only “logical” target for needed savings.  Reconnaissance can’t be cut because combatant commanders already demand more of it than the service can supply. The bomber and air superiority fleets must be preserved as hedges against large-scale conflict in the short term.  These are 30,000-foot arguments, but they make basic strategic sense.  Some of Welsh’s other claims don’t seem quite so intuitive or persuasive.

CAOCFor example, Welsh says the Air Force can’t cut theater command-and-control (C2) because it is a special capability and unique to the Air Force.  Whether or not that notion is correct (and I can think of a few soldiers and sailors who might argue otherwise), it doesn’t answer the question of quantity.  In supporting nine combatant commands, the Air Force runs a dozen Air Operations Centers (AOCs), each designed to place theater-wide command of all air and space forces at the fingertips of a single commander, who exercises authority through a sizable staff equipped with cutting-edge computer, data, and communications technologies.  This prospect is expensive, and it hauls in-trail a raft of subsidiary constituencies within the service and the defense industry, adding considerably to its total price tag.  While the claim that the Air Force needs to support every combatant commander with theater C2 support seems to rest on firm ground, providing that kind of support would still mean the Air Force has three excess AOCs.  While the savings likely to result from standing down a quarter of AOCs is not clear (roughly $60M over 5 years), the insistence on retaining them deserves more than a hand-wave.

C5M Tank LoadingAnd then there’s the question of air mobility.  Just a few years ago, the service was being forced by Congress to buy more C-17s than it requested and to maintain and modernize a C-5 fleet many thought should be downsized or mothballed.  Yet now, as the long season of persistent conflict spools down and lift requirements recede, the service insists it can’t make do with less lift capacity.  The reason given by Welsh — refusal by the Army Chief of Staff to consent to a reduction in the size of the airlift fleet — is either distressing or laughable, depending on whether it truly explains the decision.  Would the Army consult the Air Force on a similar question?  If it did, would it honor the Air Force’s recommendation without further debate?  This feels like another hand-wave.  The notion of cutting airlift — even and perhaps especially Air Mobility Command’s bloated executive transport service — is rife with political thorns, making it comparatively less feasible on Capitol Hill than pushing the A-10 into the boneyard.  If the decision is more about political constraints than deliberate choices, this is a truth that deserves to be told, so voters can judge for themselves whether Congress is properly exercising its oversight and budget authority or simply using the military services as a pork-fueled ballot machine.

A-10 #2The common rejoinder from Welsh’s staff when challenged on the A-10 is a numbers-driven one.  They insist that the only way to cope with the current budget pressure is to make one large cut of an entire fleet rather than finding a way to aggregate cuts across the force.  This, they say, is the only way to achieve the numbers required to meet spending constraints.  Welsh essentially corroborates this when he says “[y]ou just don’t make big savings unless you cut fleets.”  Taking a step back, what this seems to indicate is actually quite alarming.  Taken at its word, the Air Force seems to be acting purely out of necessity rather than strategic deliberation, or at least believes this is the case.  Laying the A-10 to rest is not a result of envisioning future threats, determining the best capabilities to meet those threats, and making a conscious decision to shape the service portfolio accordingly.  It’s an expedient measure that feels, in the moment, like the most neatly-drawn answer to the call of necessity.  We might worry that national defense decisions made on a strict evaluation of short-term economic necessity may or may not create the kind of long-term security margin Americans believe they’re entitled to expect.  Falling short of those expectations would be especially perverse given a staggering national defense price tag of $550B annually.

But even looking at it through the cold lens of the comptroller, does retirement of the A-10 make sense in financial terms?  Welsh points out that it’ll trim $4.2B from the Air Force’s budget over the next five years (a number that has crept upward 20% from initial estimates just a few months ago).  What Welsh doesn’t say is that modestly reducing the Air Force’s planned acquisition of the F-35, which is slated to assume the CAS duties currently handled by the A-10, would address the budgetary shortfall and allow the A-10 to stay in service until the F-35 becomes operationally capable.  This would allow joint force commanders to make certain the F-35 is able to answer the mail before divesting itself of a proven weapon.  In other words, it would mitigate operational risk.

Risk is an important but largely unacknowledged part of this.  When Welsh and his budget staff discuss the gains possible by divesting the A-10 fleet, they’re only talking about the reward side of the scale.  On the other side, the risk incurred by willingly retiring significant warfighting capability is too significant to remain at the margins of the discussion.  The A-10 is a distinctively capable weapon.  The things it does can’t necessarily be done by any other platform, and this could matter in the short term.

While many of the Air Force’s aircraft can fulfill the doctrinal function of providing kinetic air support to ground forces, there’s little argument that only the A-10 is truly capable of putting the “close” in “close air support.”  It can fly low and slow enough to independently find targets, distinguish adversaries from friendlies, and fluidly tailor its support to the ebb and flow of a firefight.  Unlike other platforms, it can do this even when the weather disfavors CAS, and this is significant because enemies will often time attacks to occur during low ceilings on the theory that friendly forces will be starved of air cover.  With a hefty payload and a three-hour fuel tank, the Warthog stands alone in its ability to provide a persistent, lethal aerial presence over a firefight, and being able to operate out of austere runways helps it position closer to the action, extending loiter time even more.

Getting down in the weeds is what this jet was built for, and it is ruggedly survivable.  It is armored.  It is equipped with triple redundant flight controls.  It can absorb enemy ground fire and continue to operate. These aren’t theoretical capabilities — they’ve been demonstrated in combat.  Proponents of retiring the ‘Hawg rest their case heavily on the implication that it can’t play in the world’s most advanced battlespace.  But the A-10 has disproven this argument before, having flown against integrated air defenses in 1991 and 1999 with a better survival rate than aircraft supposedly better equipped to operate in such environments.

A-10 StrafeThe A-10 doesn’t just provide CAS in the form of a few bombs from the heavens.  It’s a firefight game-changer with staying power.  The Air Force might save a few billion dollars by mothballing it, but the real winner might be enemy ground troops, who will be saved a whole lot of suffering.  They know when the A-10 arrives on-scene that they are about to be taken to the woodshed, and they know it’s not going to be over anytime soon.  If they want to prevail, they’ll have to endure a dozen strafing passes, and it won’t matter how close they position themselves to opposing forces.  Even at a distance of a few yards, the A-10 will effectively sort them and bring molten metal to their firing positions.  When the gun is empty, the real fun gets underway with precision munitions.  In other words, the psychological impact of this weapon is a powerful and often decisive quality, something to which ground commanders have attested time and again.

In other words, there are things this jet does that others can’t. Things that the F-35 will never be able to do.  Retiring this capability wholesale means incurring the risk that it will be necessary but unavailable in effectuating the nation’s defense.  That risk should be openly embraced and vetted.  It could be that other risks seem more palatable in the light of transparent comparison, such as the risk of a smaller F-35 acquisition or the risk of reduced strategic airlift capacity.  While the nation should trust that the Air Force has appropriately managed risk with the decision to retire the A-10, the Air Force should engender and reinforce that trust by advertising the risk clearly, allowing interested parties to verify the decision by debating it.

What’s been happening so far is a mostly one-way argument (though resistance has been increasing recently, with more politicians beginning to express misgivings).  One-way arguments are fine for moving things along expeditiously, but debates are a better way to distill key truths.  Debates produce vastly superior decisions.  Sometimes, debates unearth key tactical and operational facts that inform and shape strategic choices.

A true debate about the A-10’s future might involve potentially disruptive facts, such as:

  • The A-10 is not a single-role CAS platform as the Air Force has recently suggested.  During the 100-day air war in Desert Storm, A-10s flew more than 8,000 missions, most of which were executed without any friendly ground forces in the fight.  The A-10 fleet destroyed 3,000 tanks, artillery pieces, and combat vehicles, and was routinely tasked through and sometimes against surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft sites.
  • The Air Force’s nascent claim that the A-10 has flown “just” 20% of CAS sorties in Afghanistan is misleading.  Because it delivers more payload on each sortie compared to other CAS platforms, the A-10 has employed more ordnance than other aircraft in spite of a lower sortie count.  In recent years, the A-10 has been responsible for an estimated half of all CAS weapon employment in Afghanistan.
  • High-angle strafe, especially when performed at night, is an extremely difficult tactic.  While other fighters can perform it, they typically don’t and can’t train to it the way the A-10 crew force does.  This specialization is something upon which the outcome of a battle can hinge.  Even when other fighters undertake this mission, the difference between their 20mm cannons (designed for use against other aircraft) and the A-10’s GAU-8 30mm Gatling gun (designed expressly for attack) is dramatic. Lives on the ground can be saved or lost based on this difference.
  • While it thrives in the low altitude environment, the A-10 is capable of altitudes that allow it to avoid the most common anti-aircraft and should-fired missile systems.  The idea that it is more vulnerable to common threats is much more complicated than the public discussion has thus far acknowledged.
  • The A-10 crew force is the most expert body of CAS specialists in the world.  They focus upon and train to the mission constantly, interacting with joint force partners and battlefield airmen to ensure they’re razor-sharp and ready for the next shooting war.  If the plug is pulled on the A-10 years before the F-35 becomes operational, that experience is likely to end up diffused across the Air Force in a way that will prohibit pulling it back together when the replacement platform arrives.  This could be a game-changer.  Whether the Air Force owes its ground force and special operations partners a dedicated CAS crew force is arguable, and it should be argued.

These facts may or may not tilt the scales, but they deserve to be weighed.  When all is said and done, what will matter most is the quality of the decision.  If we know how and why we made it, we’ll be ready to adapt to the shortcomings we know it created.  If we avoid registering those negatives, we’re hiding additional risk behind the veil of necessity.

Avoidance of difficult questions is a typical behavior in US government.  Legislatures avoid tough questions by leaving laws vague, which burdens courts with sorting out legal challenges.  Courts go to great lengths to avoid constitutional issues, choosing instead to interpret laws and rules in ways that defer to executive agencies.  For their part, agencies like to solve their problems with clear rules that make sense at the higher levels of generality but don’t make sense at street level.  Such is the case with the Air Force and the A-10.  At budgetary altitude, the decision makes sense. But down in the weeds of the CAS mission, it seems to fly in the face of what’s best for national defense. 

In the background lurks a longstanding Army-Air Force tension in the area of how best to coordinate and deliver CAS.  The Air Force’s institutional preferences turn on theater flexibility and efficiency, which explains repeated past attempts to push the A-10 out of service.  The Army sees value in tight coordination and surface tethering in this mission area, and has reacted to the Air Force’s approach to CAS by gradually building up its own capacity to execute CAS its own way.  What remains to be seen is whether divestiture of the A-10 will trigger new growth of the Army air mission, and whether such growth will undercut the Air Force’s ongoing fight to vindicate its institutional independence.

General Welsh says the decision to retire the A-10 was not emotional, but the product of logic and analysis.  Opponents of the decision question, not without merit, whether continuing the F-35 program in order to avoid the loss of sunk costs is not itself an emotion-driven decision rather than a rational one.  Perhaps emotion is a red herring, and this is really about the Air Force avoiding a confrontation with Congress over other, more sacred cows.  One thing is for certain: no matter which of these theories best explains the drawdown of the A-10, the decision won’t be a good one unless it is debated vigorously.

Given the combat record of the Warthog, the firefight should continue until a winner is self-evident, and no one should wish for the A-10 community to willingly lay down its passions and unemotionally surrender. Given the lives that have been saved by the weapon and those that hang in the future balance, an uncontested retirement would disservice not only the CAS mission, but any decision of this magnitude.

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  • Michael

    The big question I have with the argument is how you flip the doctrine of ‘close’ to refer to the proximity of the airframe to the target vice the proximity of adversaries to friendlies, which is the traditional ‘close’ in CAS. While I agree that as a stand alone the A-10 provides a level of persistence, firepower, and identification that is hard to top, the main counterargument would be that the platform no longer operates in isolation and will instead be part of a network comprised of ground observers, high-altitude ISR and Comm relay assets, reachback analysis, and improved friendly identification mechanisms (better BFTs, etc.) all of which will combine to replace these value-added characteristics of the A-10 with a networked series of airframes and systems that will largely (but not completely) eliminate the need for the platform. Of the list of pro-A-10 points you raise, this would negate virtually all of them except high-angle strafing, which then becomes the key issue.

    A few other thoughts:

    The A-10 may have employed more munitions, but what can we say about its overall effectiveness? Volume of ordinance is every bit as misleading a metric as the sortie count. Was the A-10 more effective in the mission than other airframes? IDK, interested in thoughts on the matter.

    Why assume that an increased army role in CAS would undercut the USAF’s independence? What if the opposite were true, and handing over CAS to the Army allowed the AF to return to an air superiority and a strategic airpower vision, both of which have been languishing in the past two decades as too much is just ceded to Pape and Farley without adequate response ( Warden and Deptula merely repeating their thesis is insufficient). I have problems with the Army taking on the CAS role because I think their views on warfare and organization would lead to its inefficient use (as was Spaatz’s critique), but not necessarily because it would undercut the AF’s independence any more than leaving the Navy in charge of naval aviation did or leaving the Marines in charge of CAS for Marines did.

    • Joe

      Micheal: Yes, The A-10 has been more effective, in some cases no other airframe was capable of handling the scenario, including Marine F-18s and Harriers. And as far as the “close” in CAS…there is no other airframe that can effectively engage enemy as “close” as the A-10 GAU-8…Let’s not even start on really tactical scenarios where other planes can’t execute.

      • Anonymous

        The facts are, the Air Force has been trying to get rid of the A-10 from the beginning. They never liked the plane. They considered it to slow and ugly. The Air Force wants fast and sleek jets. I remember when they closed the Hagerstown plant back in the 70’s. They have always hated that plane. The problem is that it was one of the greatest planes ever to have been built. Heres a question for you. When have you ever heard a ground soldier complain about the A-10

    • JoshO

      Its not as much about being close to the enemy as it is being close to the friendlies. No matter how on-target you can drop a smart bomb, you can’t go dropping them right next to friendlies. To get the firepower where its needed, you often need a cannon, and to use the cannon you happen to need to be low and relatively slow and close to the friendlies and enemies, and to do that you need armor. The F-35 can’t do those things. The A-10 can and has.

  • Banksy

    I can think of other programs to scale back

    • Figanootz

      I think missile defense is a technology that is worth developing. I think canceling the YAL-1 Airborne Laser was a huge mistake. If we can destroy/disable an enemies missiles over their territory or prevent death and destruction on our side I say hell yeah!

      • Austin “100 Billion Dollars” Powers

        “The government has spent $98 billion since 2002 to advance its missile defense system, the GAO acknowledged, and an additional $38 billion is expected to be spent on it between now and the end of fiscal year 2018.”

  • Perry Smythe Whitherspoon

    The Air Force is not responsible for taking out tanks and infantry. Assign the A-10s to 3rd Armor at Dix/McGuire and let the Army fly them like they should have done since the 1970s. The Air Force has always pushed the limits of the Key West Agreement, but the A-10 was always a glaring example of the Air Force’s pitiful attempt to justify their existence post cold war.

    We all know the real reason the Air Force has kept the A-10. Air Force Generals like to brag about their 30mm cannon at parties.

  • Figanootz

    Tony, you got off to a rough start with the discussion of AOCs, Mobility and executive service.
    However, when you got down the A-10 you freakin NAILED IT!! Very well research and very well put. I don’t know how you find the time to write.
    I think the idea of purchasing a few less F-35s in order to keep the A-10 flying another 5-10 years is a great idea. I gives time for the F-35 to prove itself, allows us to build its CAS capability and doesn’t leave us less capable to do the CAS, INT, SCAR and CSAR that the multi-role A-10 does.
    Back to the earlier parts of the article.
    I love the idea of getting rid of executive transport services. Why can’t more “executives” fly commercial. Why can’t we do like many corporations and lease executive transport services? Would that be cheaper or become yet another place where we overspend? Just how valuable is a 4 Star’s time. Is it really necessary for him to fly 1 hour to tour a base and give a speech to the troops when he could have driven 4 hours, toured the base, met the troops, spent the night and left the next morning? I’m not a 4 Star, maybe he really needs a private jet.
    AOCs? Well, you have seen my posts on FB. I really can’t see getting rid of any one of them, but there is room for improvement in efficiency and containing their roles in some cases.
    Thanks again for another thought provoking read

  • Homestar

    It’s a decisive platform, to be sure. But I wouldn’t be too quick to discount the potential capability of the unproven F-35 yet. We simply don’t know what it does well yet. Nor do we know where it will fail. In execution American fighter pilots have proven more than capable to max perform. It’s the acquisitions of the machines that is SNAFU.

    As an aside, and I’m sure it’s no consolation, but the entire C-20B (DV G-IIIs) fleet is slated for retirement in the next FY.

  • One Term Wonder

    I can’t add anything about any particular airframe. But I would like to comment on this idea that the Army should take over certain fixed-wing aircraft. My dad was an Army fighter pilot in WWII. He told me why the Air Force was created in 1947, and I can see that the same reason is valid today. The Army does not allow its enlisted force to support fixed-wing airfield operations. The flight schedules are always subordinate to the PT schedules, the uniform inspection schedules, the KP schedules, the lawn mowing schedules and all the other BS that comprise a junior soldier’s day. During the war in Europe, we saw how the Brits had a separate service dedicated first and foremost to flight operations, and how much better that worked. So we copied them and created the Air Force. The Air Force has a lot of outrageous practices, but leaving aircraft circling over the runway while the control tower personnel and airfield ground support runs off to to the firing range or to do PT is not one of them. I think we should bear this in mind before making reckless calls to give aviation back to the Army.

  • JLJ

    Publish the analysis.

  • D

    Due to the fiscally constrained environment, it is time the Air Force reevaluates its need for the current number of F-35A aircraft. Why did the Air Force skip a half generation of capable fighter aircraft, because a GO said we will never procure another fourth-generation fighter … yes! With the understanding that the goals of fifth-generation fighter technology is to: 1) Achieve air superiority/supremacy, 2) Deter and if necessary defeat, 3) Fist sight first kill, 4) Infiltrate an A2/AD environment, and 5) Advance technology…can a more advanced block version of the F-16 help augment these fifth-generation goals?
    I’m sure models/simulations have stated the need for the current number of fifth-generation fighters required for a Pacific AOR conflict, but did these simulations incorporate cost factors and utilization of 4.5th-generation aircraft to get the job done? If not, national and international politics aside, it would be wise for the Air Force to reassess the F-35A acquisition in its entirety. The F-16 Block-60 fighter may just be what the Air Force needs to “stop-gap” the fifth-generation’s slow procurement and rising costs. Ultimately, the F-16 is a proven airframe with trained Total Force pilots, maintainers, and infrastructure to fulfill today’s requirements at a fraction of the cost. The wars of today are best fought (speaking of fighters only) with our proven F-16, F-15E, and A-10 CAS fighters … when will we really see a fifth-generation fighter in battle? My guess is fifth-gen will lie in wait until a top tier country is confronted!


    Another reason why the Air Force needs to be placed back in the Department of the Army.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps the argument has as much to do with 11F manning as it does with airframe sustainment costs. Eliminating an entire fleet of aircraft frees up a lot of experienced fighter pilots who can be cross trained into other jets.

  • SMSgt Mac

    To say there is a lot of unsupported and flat untrue (either by distortion or counterfactual)assertions that are in this post would be an understatement.
    Example: “During the 100-day air war in Desert Storm, A-10s flew more than 8,000 missions, most of which were executed without any friendly ground forces in the fight. The A-10 fleet destroyed 3,000 tanks, artillery pieces, and combat vehicles, and was routinely tasked through and sometimes against surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft sites.”

    First, the Air War was 44 days including the last four days (~100 hours official) of ground combat. Second, whatever the A-10 ‘did’ isn’t at issue. What is at issue is at what PRICE in blood and treasure was/is it able to do the things it did/does? For that we can go to the Air Boss of Desert Storm:

    (Horner)…The other problem is that the A-10 is vulnerable to hits because its speed is limited. It’s a function of thrust, it’s not a function of anything else. We had a lot of A-10s take a lot of ground fire hits. Quite frankly, we pulled the A-10s back from going up around the Republican Guard and kept them on Iraq’s [less formidable] front-line units. That’s line [sic] if you have a force that allows you to do that. In this case, we had F-16s to go after the Republican Guard.

    Q: At what point did you do that?

    (Horner): I think I had fourteen airplanes sitting on the ramp having battle damage repaired, and I lost two A-10s in one day [February 15], and I said, “I’ve had enough of this.” ….

    Search up “Debunking The Close Air Support Myths” in quotes. The series is up to 8 parts, but I’m considering a part 9 to document how to date, the A-10 fanbois have denigrated good faith efforts on the part of the AF to field a survivable CAS aircraft for the modern battlefield. The A-10 is done. Stick a fork in it.

    • Anonymous

      Tell that to the guys on the ground here:

      • Jeremy Renken

        That clip is pretty much amazing.

    • Anonymous

      Or here:

    • Tony Carr

      You’re a few tweaks away from a solid critique here. You’re complaining about unsupported material but you’re offering your own unsupported claims to make the argument. Chuck Horner flew the F-16. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that his biases would somehow warp him into believing the Viper is more survivable. But the historical record of what the A-10 did in Desert Storm is not refuted by Horner or anyone else. Most of the data used to write this piece came from Air Force histories. You might also recall that Horner didn’t even want to execute the air attack plan for Desert Storm, and kicked its architect off his staff. He wasn’t exactly known for being imaginative. A-10s didn’t take ground fire hits because they were too slow. They took ground fire hits because they were performing traditional CAS from an effective altitude that involved the risk of ground fire . . . unlike other “CAS” platforms.

  • SMSgt Mac

    RE: You’re complaining about unsupported material but you’re offering your own unsupported claims to make the argument.
    Well I pointed to my ‘support’, since it’s hard to be ‘comprehensive in a blog thread and I didn’t know how embedded links would be treated, and I hate having to repeat myself. Start at Part 1 for the whole post WW2 CAS story:
    But the A-X/A-10 part of the history starts rolling at Part 4.

  • Anonymous

    The A-10 community thanks you for bringing this debate out into the open. They have been forced to sit by silently or to parrot “facts” that are misleading when asked about their plane, so most have kept silent rather than dishonor their mission and those they help protect with half-truths. If Congress and the American people decide this mission is not something they want to fund anymore, that is out of our hands, but we at least owe it to everyone the A-10 was built to serve to have a fair and honest debate.

  • some stats

    The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” is the only aircraft in United States Air Force (USAF) history designed specifically for the close air support mission.

    It was designed to be able to survive in an intense anti-aircraft environment including anti-aircraft guns, radar-guided and infrared missiles and be able to absorb battle damage and keep flying. In fact, the A-10 is probably the most difficult plane to shoot down ever built due to its extreme maneuverability, electronic countermeasures, self-sealing fuel tanks, widely separated jet engines, twin tails, manual backup flight control system and redundant wing spars.

    A total of 165 of these most recognizable and feared aircraft from 5 different units participated in Operation Desert Storm. All units were formalized under the 354th Provisional Wing 144 aircraft at a time. The remaining aircraft were replacements standing by at an off-site location to replace aircraft damaged beyond continued combat status or aircraft destroyed.

    Together, these A-10 and OA-10 aircraft conducted 8,624 sorties maintaining a 95.7% mission capable rate, 5% above A-10 peace-time rates, had the highest sortie rate of any USAF aircraft. They achieved:

    967 tanks destroyed

    1026 pieces of artillery destroyed

    1306 trucks destroyed

    281 military structures destroyed

    53 Scud missiles destroyed

    10 aircraft on the ground destroyed

    2 air-to-air aircraft (helicopter) kills with the GAU-8A 30mm Avenger cannon: 6 February 1991 by Capt. Bob Swain in 77-0205 of the 706th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 926th Tactical Fighter Group “Cajuns” out of New Orleans Louisiana and the second by Capt Todd “Shanghai” Sheehy in 81-0964 flying with the 511th TFS “Vultures” out of RAF Alcombury United Kingdom.

    Pilots often flew up to three missions per day with A-10’s accounted for destroying 1/4 of Iraq’s entire arsenal. [Read more on statistics….] Often exposed to withering anti-aircraft fire and surface-to-air missile threats the slow, highly maneuverable A-10’s incurred extensivecombat battle damage during Desert Storm. Five A-10s were lost in action, another destroyed attempting to land at KKMC Forward Operating Location #1 after being badly battle damaged, nearly twenty more sustained significant battle damage and many others incurred minor damage.

    Roughly half the total A-10 force, about 70, supporting Desert Storm suffered some type of damage.

  • nick987654

    What has to be taken into account also in the debate is the fact that a war with China or Russia is very unlikely, as it would end nuclear,

    The debate should include more likely scenarios like wars with Iran or NK. These opponents would have their air forces destroyed quickly and their radars can be taken out by various means.

    Moreover, the A-10s are old and can be considered almost expendable at this point. And the fact that they are very armored gives a high probability of survival to the pilot. So even if most of them end up being damaged or destroyed it’s not that bad if they can help save thousands of lives on the ground.

    The F-16s and other planes could help certainly, but they are probably not as good, and they can’t be everywhere at the same time. They would probably be better used to strike more in depth.

    At least the A-10Cs could be kept IF ( and it is an open question ) they could still be usefull in these scenarios. When the F-35s come online in significant numbers with sufficient stockpiles of weapons, the A-10Cs can be finally retired.

  • Anonymous

    The one asset absent form this conversation is the gunship fleet. They’re the a-10’s tag team partner when it comes to CAS so not all is lost, we’re set to buy a 30+ new J models over the coming years.

  • Pilot & Former JTAC

    First off, pilot and JTAC here, now staff geek. Hopefully that gives me a little street cred.

    Close Air Support requires detailed integration between the pilot and ground forces, because it is in “close proximity” to the ground forces. That’s CAS, per joint doctrine. While there is no specific rule as to how far “close proximity” is, the ground forces’ organic artillery/fire power is often used as a starting point. Beyond the Army’s ability to shoot its own artillery, the Air Force does Interdiction. CAS and Interdiction make up Counterland. Very simply put, more interdiction generally means less CAS is required. That’s a 1-minute education for people not in the know. Many, many details are being left out. Read Joint Doctrine if you want more.

    A-10s are THE platform of choice for performing CAS. Ask any JTAC, and he will tell you the A-10 is #1. I’ve yet to meet a JTAC that disagrees with that assessment. After the A-10, there is plenty of room for debate, from AC-130s to Apaches. Most would consider fighters (F-16s, F-35s) far distant from the A-10 in CAS capability. There are many reasons why the A-10 is head and shoulders above the rest, from the A-10 being uniquely qualified to deliver the situational awareness and firepower to ground commanders, to A-10 pilots having a determined focus on the CAS skillset. Just know that the A-10 is THE platform of choice.

    I’m speculating, but perhaps the Air Force is considering other factors here. Perhaps the Air Force believes that while cutting the A-10 fleet reduces the Air Force’s Close Air Support (thereby increasing risk) to the Army, they feel that they can make up for it by having more capable and a higher number of interdiction aircraft. If the Air Force can “soften” the battlefield greatly, before the Army shows up, then the Army can roll through unopposed and without needing much if any CAS.

    Anything short of my speculation means the Air Force is putting Army lives at risk with the decision to cut the A-10.

    The ONLY acceptable reasons for cutting the A-10 are:
    1. An equal or better-performing USAF CAS platform is available as a replacement.
    2. The USAF has changed, and the Army has cosigned, its warfighting doctrine to become more interdiction heavy at the expense of CAS. This requires that the USAF has new capability to deliver enough more interdiction to mitigate the lessened Close Air Support.

    Ask Gen Welsh and the A-Staff weenies if either of these conditions is met. If not, someone should be found guilty of gross negligence and manslaughter of Army personnel. But hey, at least they can claim they saved the USAF a few $$, and get an OPR bullet out of it!

    • SMSgt Mac

      Your anecdotal assertions, without further caveat, would (mostly) hold true if CAS assets were to be operated only in nice little LICs: where survivability is high due to an absence of threats that would otherwise exploit the asset’s susceptibilities. The LIC is the A-10’s milieu today. In any higher-threat environment, the ‘success’ of a CAS asset becomes more dependent upon the ability to survive more than one mission than the particular cumulative ‘Customer Satisfaction’ rating given for servicing CAS calls. I admit, y assertion presumes JTACs would prefer NOT to run out of CAS assets before the need for them abates.
      As to better Interdiction lessening the need for CAS, I agree whole-heartedly. But it has been my experience that Interdiction can render the vast majority of the enemy’s ground forces ineffective, but the Army will still b**** about the AF not getting it ALL. I also observe that the most promising way forward in the Great CAS Controversy would be to give the Army platoon-level forces better tools to get them out of messes they or (usually) their higher-ups managed to create.
      The last great heroic job in the military that will be ‘automated’ will be the grunt’s. Let’s give them better tools they need to extricate themselves: better networks, robotics to take the load off their backs, precision organic fires, etc.
      The Army never b****es about their own organic failures, so if the AF just gave the Army CAS (doctrine, forces, operation) control, it wouldn’t get any get ‘better’ for the door-kickers, but there would be an illusion of making things better because they’ll quit blaming the AF for not getting them out of the messes they manage to get into in the first place.
      To the Army as an organization, the A-10 is, more than anything, a lien placed on the Air Force to service the Army’s own institutional insecurities/fears and absolute thirst for control over any asset that might affect the ground commander’s operations. Once you recognize the Army’s motivations, the CAS Controversy makes perfect sense.

      • Anonymous

        “Pilot and former JTAC” is considering a strategic view while you are considering a tactical view. While I don’t think the A-10 should be cut, it is not due to its effectiveness in a role where it shines; no matter where you fall on this issue you have to have a paradigm that acknowledges 2 conditions:

        1) it takes at least 20 years to field a new MWS of any sort

        2) The current engagement’s conditions and tactics (and the earlier OIF engagement’s tactics) are in no way indicative of future success-think hedge fund manager performance where they tell you past results in no way predict future success-we have to be focusing on 10 to 20 years down the road and acknowledge the fact that we will no longer be the only “big stick” in the fight in terms of economic and military power.

        • SMSgt Mac

          I would characterize the views opposite if I were to use those terms. I would choose to characterize mine as the macro (more encompassing universal, long term) view, and JTAC’s as more of a micro view (how CAS can work well enough under very specific circumstances). But, as they say, opinions DO vary.

          • Anonymous


            Valid, and intelligent debate is more important than opinions so thank you for sharing.

  • Dave


    I genuinely like your blog but you miss the mark in your critique of the Air Force rationale to cut the A-10. I agree the AF could cut 1-2 AOCs, but realize there is a vast difference in manning and capabilities at each AOC. the 609th and 612th don’t compare. Cutting the 612th would save “maybe” $5M– small pennies. I also agree the AF is buying increased risk by not having the F-35 operational prior to A-10 retirement. My disagreement stems from the factual basis of your evidence.
    First, you mention only the A-10 can put “close” in close air support. This is incorrect in both doctrine and practice. Any aircraft is capable of conducting close air support. F-15Es and F-16s conduct close air support well enough in addition to the various other missions on their unit DOC statements. For example, when our F-15E unit recently deployed, we responded to over 900 troops in contact situations with zero friendly casualties while we were overhead. You will see similar statistics from other non-A-10 units. Point is, since about 2006 every bomb-dropping platform has become very good at Close Air Support.

    Second, you discuss aircraft survival rate in 1991 and 1999. I assume you mean Desert Storm and ALLIED FORCE. According to the Gulf War Airpower Survey, four A-10s were lost. Five total F-16s and F-15Es were lost but the Viper and Strike Eagle combined flew twice as many sorties as the Wart Hog. Source is “Gulf War Airpower Survey.” In 1999, three A-10s were damaged over Kosovo while an F-16 and an F-117 were lost. Granted the Viper cost more monetarily, but the point is the A-10s were more vulnerable. Source is “A-10s over Kosovo.”

    Third, you mention the A-10 delivers more payload per mission than other platforms. This is debatable. The F-15E carries more ordnance than an A-10, especially if an A-10 has to carry an ECM pod or additional fuel tanks. I don’t think they carry 2,000 pound bombs either which is sometimes necessary for current contingencies. You mention High angle strafe– this is not an A-10 unique skill– F-15Es and F-16s also do this.

    A better argument for the A-10 is the CSAR mission. That is an important skill set that I have not heard discussed much. Especially with the aging HH-60 fleet, how is CSAR going to be accomplished in 5-10 years?

    Bottomline– thoroughly enjoy your blog because it promotes the type of debate needed to make our military more effective (and accountable). Facts are a little off but that is why we have comments sections!

  • Anonymous

    All valid points but its hard to argue with the 5 hour loiter time (more with AR) and the constant fire capability and precision of a pylon turn. Gunships do a damn good job of filling the CAS gap.

    • Anonymous

      I am confused-are you advocating the gunship and if so how does this at all relate to this post? LISTEN PLEASE-if you are here only to inflate your own ego and your own platform’s value then do it without clogging posts that are trying to make valid points…again please, and thank you

  • Otis R. Needleman

    Keep the A-10. Also keep the U-2. Both are proven, flexible platforms that are still up to today’s tasks. Instead, cut the welfare budget.

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  • Anonymous

    Just give the A-10 to the Army. We will fly it for you. Why not ask the Army which airframe they prefer?

  • Anonymous

    I think the Air Force magazine put it well. If we follow the logic presented by A-10 “defenders” we should still have cavalry regiments in the Army outfitted with horses, battleships in the Navy, and bi-planes in the Air Force. Each provided a capability that cannot be perfectly duplicated by putative replacements.

    • Joe

      Normally we replace old technology with new that can perform better or cheaper….this is NOT the case with any proposed A-10 replacements. We lose capability…period, and we spend more to do less.

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