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It’s ugly. It’s lumbering and it’s old. But the A-10 Warthog almost certainly remains the best performing airplane in the Air Force’s fleet. The 30-year-old attack plane is safe, efficient, durable and cheap. GI’s call it the friend of the grunt, because it flies low, showers lethal covering fire and greatly reduces the risk of friendly fire deaths and civilian casualties.
While the high-tech fighters and attack helicopters faltered in desert winds, smoke-clotted skies and in icy temperatures, the A-10 proved a workhorse in Gulf War I, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the latest war on Iraq.
Naturally, the Air Force brass now wants to junk it.
On May 27, 2003 the New York Times ran an op-ed by Robert Coram describing the Air Force’s plot to retire the A-10. Coram, author of the highly regarded Boyd: the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, revealed that in early April, Maj. General David Deptula of the Air Combat Command, ordered a subordinate to write a memo justifying the decommissioning of the A-10 fleet. Remember, this move came at one of the most perilous moments in the Iraq war, when the A-10 was proving its worthiness once again.
Why does the Air Force want to get rid of its most efficient plane? Coram says that the Air Force never liked the A-10 because it cut against the grain of the post-WW II Air Force mentality, which is fixated on high-altitude strategic bombing and the deployment of smart weapons fired at vast distances from the target. Indeed, the A-10 was rushed into development only because the Air Force feared that the Army’s new Cheyenne attack helicopter might cut the Air Force out of the ground support role, and hence much of the action (and money).
The A-10, built in the 1970s by Fairchild Industries, skims the ground at lower than 1,000 in altitude, can nearly hover over the battlefield, and spews out almost 4,000 rounds of armor-penetrating bullets per minute. (These are also the weapons coated with depleted uranium that have irradiated so much of Iraq and Afghanistan.) Pilots love the plane because it is easy to fly and safe: the cockpit is sealed in a titanium shell to protect the pilot from groundfire, it has a bulky but sturdy frame, three sets of back up controls and a foam-filled fuel tank.
Of course, the most damning factor against the A-10 in the eyes of the generals is the fact that it is old, ugly and cheap-especially cheap. The Air Force generals are infatuated with big ticket items, new technology and sleek new machines. The fastest way to a promotion inside the Air Force is to hitch your name to a rising new weapons system, the more expensive the better. When it comes time to retire, the generals who’ve spent their careers pumping new weapons systems are assured of landing lucrative new careers with defense contractors.
So each time the A-10 proves itself in battle, the cries for its extinction by Air Force generals become more intense and hysterical. Since the first Gulf War, where the A-10 outperformed every other aircraft even though the Stealth fighter got all the hype, the Air Force has been quietly mothballing the A-10 fleet. During the first Gulf War, the A-10s destroyed more than half of the 1,700 Iraqi tanks knocked out by air strikes. A-10s also took out about 300 armored personnel carriers and artillery sites. At the end of the war there were 18 A-10 squadrons. Now they’ve been winnowed down to only eight.
In place of the A-10, the Air Force brass is pushing the congress to pour billions into the production of the F/A-22 (at $252 million per plane) and the F-35 fighter (at a minimum of $40 million per plane). These are planes designed to fight an enemy that doesn’t exist and probably never will.
The generals are trying desperately to convince skeptics that the F-35 fighter jet can perform the kind of close air support for ground troops that is the calling card of the A-10. As Coram notes, the F-35 will be so expensive and so vulnerable to enemy fire (it can be taken down by an AK-47 machine gun) that Air Force commanders are unlikely to allow it to fly over hostile terrain below 10,000 feet.
But before they can consign the A-10 to the scrap heap, the Generals must first silence the plane’s defenders, many of them inside the Pentagon. The witch hunt has already begun.
A few hours after Coram’s article appeared, Lt. General Bruce L. Wright, Vice Commander of the Air Combat Command, at Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia, fired off a scathing memo ordering his staff to begin a search-and-destroy mission against the whistleblowers who leaked information to Coram.
"Please look your staffs in the eye and offer that if one of our officers is complicit in going in going to Mr. Coram, without coming to you or me first with their concerns," the General wrote. "They ought to look hard at themselves, their individual professionalism, and their personal commitment to telling the complete story."
General Wright then reminded his directors that it was their duty to "constantly look at upgrading our aircraft and weapons systems" and instructed them to promote the "good news" about the "B-2, F/A22, the F35 and even the UCAVs."
The problem for General Wright and his cohorts in the upper echelons of the Air Force is that the new generation of high-tech planes have returned from the last three wars with less than stellar records and lots of bullet holes from lightly armed forces with no functioning air defense system.
Take the Army’s vaunted Apache attack helicopter, which the Army generals are touting as a multi-billion dollar replacement for the A-10. During the Kosovo war, 24 Apaches were sent to the US airbase in Albania. In the first week of the war, two choppers crashed in training missions and the remainder of the helicopters were grounded for the duration of the air war.
In Afghanistan, during Operation Anaconda, seven Apaches were sent to attack Taliban forces in the mountains near Tora Bora. All got hit by machine gun fire, with five of them being so shut up that they were effectively destroyed.
In Iraq, according to an excellent April 23 account in Slate by Fred Kaplan, 33 Apaches led the initial attack on Republican Guard positions in Karbala, where they encountered heavy machine gun fire and a few rocket-propelled grenades. One was shot down; it’s crew taken as prisoners. The other Apaches soon turned tail, with more than 30 of them sustaining serious damage.
But instead of rehabbing the fleet of A-10s, the Pentagon persists in promoting budget-busting new systems that are dangerous to pilots and civilians and ineffective against even the most primitively-armed enemy soldiers.
"For more than 20 years, the Warthog has been a hero to the soldiers whose lives depend on effective air support," says Eric Miller, a defense investigator at the Project on Government Oversight. "The A-10 works and it’s cheap. But for some reason that’s not good enough for the Air Force."
For the courtiers at the Pentagon, the battles of Afghanistan and Iraq are mere sideshows to the real and perpetual war: the endless raid on the federal treasury. It is a war that only the defense contractors and their political pawns will win. Everyone else, from pilots and taxpayers to civilians, will be collateral damage.