If I’m being completely honest, anytime I see the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II mentioned in the mainstream media, it first makes me cringe, and then it makes me angry. I generally don’t get past the opening paragraph before I’m on to something else. Why, you ask? I’m sick of the whole darn thing. The argument has gotten so emotional–on both sides–that neither is really focused on the right vector: the big picture.
We have gotten to a level of ridiculousness where pilots in the attack and strike fighter communities are starting to berate each other over who has more skin in the game. Even bros who specialize in the air-to-air arena are getting dragged into the muck, even though they have no dog in this particular fight.
More proof that the whole thing is asinine? The Vice Commander of Air Combat Command felt the need to take a particular tone with a bunch of Weapons Officers at Nellis earlier this year; he was recently fired from his position for what he said.
Yes, even Hollywood is weighing in on the whole thing. An American icon of all things awesome and badass, Chuck Norris, has offered up his opinion on the Warthog. No offense, Chuck, but save your impassioned argument for the clueless sheep bleating their way across the sets of Hollyweird, where there’s no real grasp on the intricacies of modern air combat. Your talents are better suited for kicking ass, not opining on matters to be decided by real warfighters. Please take a seat.
Here is a fact, ladies and gentlemen. The A-10 is without match in its given mission sets. There is no other aircraft on the planet as adept at flying close air support (CAS), rescue escort (RESCORT), forward air control-airborne (FAC-A)/strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR), and armed escort missions. Not a single one. It is the PERFECT airplane for those missions, given its combination of slow speed, devastating firepower, low-altitude agility, and relative fuel economy. It is slow, mean, and ugly, packs a devastating array of precision and unguided ordnance, and above all else, it has The Gun.
I absolutely LOVE the A-10. I LOVE my friends who fly the A-10. I hate to see the aircraft go away. But go away it must, and go away it will. Its fate has been decided. Just to be clear, I’m not “pro-F-35” in the way that is “anti-Hawg.” I am pro-America. I am pro-Air Force. I firmly believe that our aerial warfighters need and deserve to have the best tools available to prosecute their mission of raining destruction on any foe who takes up arms against us, our allies, or our way of life. Period.
I have no problem with discussion of pluses and minuses. There is no questioning that, with the retirement of the A-10, the Air Force will be assuming a significant amount of risk. I have, however, very little tolerance when the force tries to publicly undercut its leadership. There are places for pilots and JTACs to voice their concerns to leadership, and Congress is one of them.
Discussion on the way forward is valid; berating and calling the SECAF, CSAF, or other General Officers names is not. That’s how the brotherhood dies. That’s how you kill morale. Everyone throughout the chain thinks they can dumpster dive to get someone relieved because they don’t like a chosen vector.
Even if the Air Force has done an abominable job of selling its argument on retiring the A-10, which it has, there is absolutely no excuse for individuals bringing discredit on themselves and their service by screaming and crying foul to anyone who will listen. All that does is to make them look like petulant toddlers whining because they didn’t get their way. American lives–both in the air and on the ground–are at stake, and you are remiss if you don’t stay focused on that fact.
As it applies to the A-10, let’s look at the dollars and cents argument first, shall we? The Department of Defense has gone all-in on the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II in all of its variants. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps have decided the JSF is the way ahead. That decision has been made, and at this point, it cannot be undone. Even so, a couple questions rose repeatedly:
1) “Why aren’t we buying Block 60s?!”
Valid question–and one I’ve asked myself. If we’re talking dollars, it’s a pretty simple answer. Lockheed-Martin is more than willing to sell the Block 60 Viper to the USAF at its full price-tag of 80 million (ish) dollars apiece. Think about that for a second. A bigger, meaner F-16 with all its bells and whistles at a price that is roughly (ish) the equivalent of what the per-unit cost of the F-35 will be by the time the end of the current Lightning II buy is reached. Yes, that is assuming the current JSF order will go unchanged, but you see my point. Even though it’s the most capable, survivable, lethal variant, it’s still an F-16. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Plenty and I’ll get to that shortly.
2) “Why don’t we retire the F-15C instead? It will save more money than retiring the A-10 and it’s not like the Eagles are shooting anyone down these days. I mean, it already has its replacement in the F-22, right? What have you done for me lately, Eagle bros?”
Again, a valid question. That answer is also very easy. While it is true that the F-15C does have an active replacement, the fact is there aren’t enough Raptors. As we are all well aware, the current administration decided we didn’t need any more F-22s. I personally believe that was a blunder beyond my ability to describe, but once more, the choice was made, whether we like it or not.
Let’s look at the F-22 buy for a moment. The original projected buy for the Raptor under the “Advanced Tactical Fighter” umbrella was 750 jets. In 1996, that number was reduced to 648, a figure cut down to 399 the following year. In 2003, the number of Raptors to be purchased was further reduced to 277, and the final buy was decided on in 2004, with 187 jets total. Of that total, including five aircraft that either crashed or were permanently grounded, a significant portion are tied up in developmental test, operational test, Primary Flight Training (READ: schoolhouse), and Weapons School. At any one time, the number of Raptors available for combat deployments is not too far over one hundred.
Because of that, Boeing F-15Cs in the “Golden Eagle” configuration remain in service to complement the Raptor in the air-to-air arena. There is not a contingency plan out there that is not dependent upon the presence of Light Grays–predominantly working alongside a smaller number of F-22s–to ensure mission success in the air-to-air arena.
The suggestion of retiring the F-15C is misinformed at best, egocentric at worst. No offense to the Strikers, but their jets weren’t designed specifically to hunt and kill other airplanes, and they all sleep better at night knowing air-to-air platforms are out in front, cleaning up the picture to make the strike mission easier.
Remember that we are talking about legacy aircraft. The backbone of our tactical air capability was all designed in the 1970s. While adding Link-16 and the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod to the Viper, B-1, A-10, and F-15E, as well as Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar to Eagles, Super Hornets, and Growlers is all well and good, they are still legacy aircraft. Every single one of them. You can dress up a pig with the latest and greatest everything and make it larger and more robust (Block 60 Viper and Super Hornet, for example), but it’s still a pig. Underneath the widgets and gadgets, it’s the same airframe. They’re old, they’re tired, and they’re breaking at an alarming rate. More and more of them are being sent to the boneyard each year. The American tactical air component shrinks…and the fighter gap grows.
In this day and age of fiscal constraint, the Department of Defense simply does not have the money to sustain every Mission Design Series (MDS) currently in service. It’s a fact. We spend a TON of money maintaining and upgrading old airframes, putting them through service life extension programs (SLEPs), and all we’re doing is delaying the inevitable. The Air Force especially has reached a point where it absolutely MUST pare down in order to maximize its capability and minimize the cost of doing business. They have been told, basically, to cut off their left hand or their right hand…on their own, or have it done for them.
General Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, has one dollar in his pocket. He has gone to Congress asking for another fifty cents, maybe even another whole dollar, but the reality is that he has one dollar he can spend right now. So does he spend that money on the current fight–that is, on upgrading, repairing, and adding new widgets and gadgets to existing platforms in hopes of eking out a few more years of service? Is that money well-spent? Or does he better fulfill his obligation by making sure the Air Force is prepared to fight a near-peer or peer-level threat down the road?
So there we have the A-10 issue broken down into dollars, when the point really needing to be made deals with an entirely different currency: blood.
Part of the reason the A-10 has enjoyed the amount of success and notoriety it has is because there has been unopposed use of the airspace over Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria. It is not a contested environment. It is not a degraded environment. It’s not an operationally-limited environment–save for bad weather and some really big, nasty mountains in Afghanistan. All of that means our air assets have an ability to fly and operate unmolested in those AORs.
Tomorrow’s fight will NOT be that.
I’m talking about those near-peer and peer-level threats. Integrated Air Defense Systems featuring AESA radars and advanced capability “double-digit” SAMs. Russia, in addition to fielding those systems itself, has been very happily providing them to nations that pose a potential threat to the United States and her interests. I am also talking about advanced Sukhoi and MiG fighters with capabilities and weapons exceeding those of our own legacy aircraft. Peer and near-peer threats require a baseline of technological advantage with respect to mass. If you don’t have it, your mass is useless. A perfect example? The development of artillery against fielded infantry units on battlefields during World War I.
The proliferation of those threats and their capabilities are quickly eclipsing the problem of mass. You can rarely guarantee you’ve killed all of the MANPADS and Triple-A, let alone all of the tactical-level SAMs, such as SA-11s and SA-15s. Unfortunately, talk of proliferation of those threats is not an argument easily won with the Army, Marine Corps, SOF units, and the Air Force JTACs embedded with them. It starts to question force makeup and doctrinal emphasis.
In the big picture, you’re talking about the evolution of the Air Force’s full-spectrum, cross-domain warfighting capabilities, whereas pessimists are looking at it as the potential for extinction. It is really sad, because when you speak about solving the problem together as an air component and ground component, there is the tendency to argue about “the way we did it before” versus “the best way we can do it now.”
As it applies to CAS, the Air Force has to both adjust and evolve to ensure it can cooperatively provide that service. You can’t fly CAS without air superiority, which goes back to the fact that the operating environment for CAS assets has been almost entirely permissive for the past twelve or thirteen years. A blended force adaptable to the Combined Forces Air Component Commander’s requirements is a key to success. To sacrifice 5th-generation procurement for the hopes of the A-10 living another ten to fifteen years is irresponsible from an Air Superiority (talking specifically about air-to-air and SEAD) perspective.
Air Superiority is the baseline from which the Air Force operates. To have that going forward, we need more low-observable assets (READ: stealth) in the inventory than we currently have. As mentioned, we didn’t buy enough F-22s, so having the F-35 coming online will bolster our existing LO force. Your reality check on stealth is this: looking at penetrating the airspace over certain countries out there and establishing air dominance is a daunting, nightmarish scenario. I spoke to a good friend, an Air Force Weapons Officer who is also a Risner Award winner, about latest IADS technology and how it applies to Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD). His response was, “Bro, that is the problem set that keeps me up at night.”
Anyone looked at the threat rings around Kiev, for example? Pyongyang? Tehran?? In that environment, the fight of tomorrow, without having space warfare and cyber warfare in play, without having stealth assets out in front, you are hosed. Royally, irrevocably effed. You’ll be able to fight for a few minutes in your legacy jets, but only for a few minutes. People will write books about you and your family will receive your medals. Any legacy platform, without 5th-Gen out in front, gets chewed into ribbons, and American blood gets spilled…to no effect. Take a look at this image below:
That is a fate worse than death. Any mission commander who knowingly, willingly sent dozens of America’s sons and daughters to their doom when different choices could have been made to mitigate the risk or eliminate it altogether would have that blood on his or her hands.
If you want, we can talk about the statistics: the A-10 has only flown 19 percent of the CAS missions since 2006 and has flown only 11 percent of the missions against ISIS. The bulk of those sorties are being picked up by F-16s, F-15Es, Super Hornets, B-1s, AC-130s, and even RPAs–with the Viper flying the most. The F-16 isn’t that much more expensive to operate per hour than the A-10 and plenty of Block 30 and Block 40 units have CAS as a primary mission. There is an entire phase in the F-16 WIC devoted to FAC-A.
Are they as good as the A-10 community at CAS and FAC-A? No. Why? Because the F-16 is tasked with a lot more mission sets. If you were to take Offensive Counter Air (OCA) off the Viper’s plate, and maybe even SEAD when the F-35 is around, how awesome would they get at FAC-A and CAS? Who knows, but I bet they’d be pretty damn good at it.
Counterpoint: There’s a lot more F-16s and Strike Eagles than A-10s, right?
Yes, that’s a fact. But if we’re going to play the numbers game, then spreading those responsibilities across multiple platforms does nothing except help.
I know this is a platitude, but we haven’t lost a single American solider to an enemy aircraft since 15 April 1953. Sixty-two years ago. That’s not about luck, either. Unfortunately, we’ve lost many during fights requiring CAS. Imagine for a moment how we’d look if, back during Operation Desert Storm, the Iraqi Air Force had stood and fought and were slightly more capable. On pure net assessment, the CFACC thought there was going to be a heck of a battle. Good fortune twenty-plus years ago should not give way to blind arrogance on the assumption of Air Superiority. There’s a reason Wild Weasels were airborne on night one in Syria–the same reason F-22s were out in front and dropped JDAMs. You didn’t see A-10s heading to Damascus and Aleppo.
What would have happened if the Department of Defense would have succeeded the last time they tried to retire the A-10 after Desert Storm? Would JTACs, SOF, and other ground forces be singing the praises of the F-16, F-15E, and F/A-18? Would it have made a difference if those bros would have been forced to pick up that slack back then? Who knows, but it’s more food for thought.
At the end of the day, what I believe to be the most telling indicator on how the A-10 community as a whole has reacted can be summed up by a recent visit to The Trough. For those of you who aren’t familiar, The Trough is the space in the U.S. Air Force Weapons School allocated to the 66th Weapons Squadron–home of the A-10 WIC and JTAC Advanced Instructor Course. While the professionals in there expressed their disappointment, they maintain their professionalism and dedication to the mission. No pissing and moaning, no chest-thumping or grandstanding. The Hawg pilots retain their steely resolve to get the job done by whatever means available.
If the announcement was made to the 66th that they were shut down effective immediately…and all the A-10s on the Nellis ramp vanished overnight, what do you think would happen? Those bros would get up and walk down the hall to the F-16 WIC, the F-15E WIC, the RPA WIC, and the AFSOC WIC. They would check into the vault with those bros from the other MDSs and begin the task of writing white papers, passing along the knowledge and wisdom gained from flying the A-10. They would help write new TTPs for those other platforms to pick up where the A-10s left off. That knowledge would not be lost. Their expertise would not be lost. Their passion for the mission would not be lost.
What are the main points of CAS? It’s about getting the right ordnance on the right target at the right time. While there may be a certain amount of intimidation and fear evoked by the high-bypass turbofan engines of the A-10 and the unmistakeable sound of its gun, where the rubber meets the road is in the kinetic effects. I can pretty much guarantee that if you’re taking direct fire from an enemy position and air assets are available to handle that threat, you’re really not going to care if it’s an A-10 or F-16 or B-1 that deals with that threat. As long as the shooting stops and you’re able to either break contact and escape or continue your mission, the platform delivering that ordnance is immaterial.
Attack pilots are problem solvers–just like every other fighter pilot out there. It’s who they are. It’s what they do. Even if in ten years we decide that the F-35 was the biggest mistake we’ve every made in the history of building warplanes, fighter pilots will still solve that problem and figure out how to maximize the effectiveness and lethality of whatever platforms are available. The United States Air Force has a heavily-stacked deck of cards to play with. Even if you take the A-10 card out of the deck, they’re going to annihilate you with everything else.
Count on it.
(Featured Photo by Jonathan Derden)