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A Seminal Question

Should the Air Force Retire the A-10?

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

The Air Force has decided to retire the A-10 attack aircraft from its inventory.  To people who follow defense, particularly old timers, this cynical move is hardly surprising.

The A-10 is arguably the most effective combat airplane ever designed to provide close support to ground troops in combat.  This is a very demanding mission, because it is usually necessary when the troops are in trouble.  Pilots have to develop a feel for the battlefield and need to think like infantrymen.  The A-10 pilots are trained specifically for this mission, and work with ground forces in training exercises.  The A-10′s staying power over a battlefield (i.e., long loitering capability) gives it a level of responsiveness that high speed jets like the F-15 can not equal.  Moreover, its excellent low speed maneuverability, its highly effective 30mm cannon, and its low vulnerability to enemy fire make it the most responsive and capable CAS weapon in our air inventory.  It is no secret that ground troops in the dusty of battlefields of Afghanistan love the A-10.

Nevertheless, the AF hates the A-10 with passions rooted deeply in its founding culture of precision strategic bombardment.

The history of this hatred goes back to the doctrinal debates in the Army Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s, the so-called precision bombardment of Germany and Japan, and the evangelism surrounding the AF’s fight for institutional independence that ended with the AF’s successful secession for the Army in 1947.  If you doubt the AF’s evangelism surrounding the claim of the independent war winning capabilities of strategic bombing, watch and listen carefully to the dialogues in the movies “12 O’Clock High” or “Command Decision.” (Available on Netflix)

Fundamentally, the AF’s animosity toward the A-10 is rooted in the fact that the A-10 works for the Army, and the A-10 subordinates its operational art to that of the Army ground forces it supports.  This combined-arms outlook stands in sharp contrast to the Air Force’s view of itself.  Since well before WWII, the AF has promoted its organizational independence from the Army by claiming it could provide a unique independent war winning capability — precision strategic bombing and destruction of what it deems to be the vital organs of its adversary’s supporting economic and political infrastructure — for example, ball bearing production by Germany during World War II.  This claim leads to a vision of war that is diametrically opposed to one of being part of a combined-arms team. The AF’s old old motto, ‘Victory Through Airpower Alone,” may have fallen into disuse after its litany of failed promises, not least because its theory of vital nodes has not been proven in real war, but the dream has never been forgotten; and today, it remains deeply rooted in the AF’s cultural DNA.

Before rejecting this argument, readers should remember: The A-10 had to be forced upon the AF by the Secretary of Defense in the aftermath of the AF’s poor performance in the close air support mission during Vietnam, a war where the AF chose to concentrate the bulk of its efforts on the strategic bombing of North Vietnam — far more heavily, in fact, that when it bombed Germany.

Another indicator of the AF’s dislike of the A-10 becomes apparent when one considers the historical fact that the A-10 production line was the only AF fighter/attack airplane production line that was shut down at the end of its production run in the early 1980s, during the glory days of the Reagan spending spree.  This was a period when everything got funding extensions.  The higher cost F-15 and F-16 production lines, in contrast, were kept open, and the AF bought far more than these fighters than originally planned in the 1970s.

Also, remember how tens of billions were spent during those glory days restarting the flawed B-1′s production, producing only 21 super expensive B-2s — both strategic bombers, and even restarting the troubled C-5, arguably one of the biggest cost overrunners in DoD’s history.

Moreover, despite the unconstrained programmatic hijinks in the 1980s, routine efforts to replace the A-10 in the mid-to-late 1980s with a more modern version of itself (i.e., a low-cost dedicated CAS platform) were sabotaged by the AF after the initial work was approved by the Secretary of Defense.

Finally, consider the fact that while the AF now says it must trash the A-10 for what it says are budgetary reasons, it also is lobbying hard to start a $500 billion next-generation strategic bomber program that will suck money out of the taxpayer for the next 50 to 75 years.

Despite the AF’s long-term opposition to the A-10, it should be remembered that the A-10 has been a stunning — some might say embarrassing — success in every war in which it has been employed, beginning with the First Gulf War in 1991 — a war, it should be remembered, where the AF reluctantly deployed the A-10 only after the theater commander, an Army general, insisted on it being deployed.  And in today’s wars, Marines and Army grunts in Afghanistan will tell you, as they have told me, they love the A-10.

Yet, despite this success story, the AF now claims it is being forced to retire the A-10 as cost saving measure, while at the same time, it is cobbling together a plan to spend $500 billion on a new bomber.  This crazy situation is made even more bizarre by the fact that retiring the A-10 won’t even save much money, because it has, by far, the lowest operating costs per flying hour of any fighter/attack aircraft in the AF inventory.

The current ‘plan’ for its close support mission in the future — really a ludicrous rationalization — is that the AF will replace the low-cost A-10′s low-cost, proven capability to support ground troops with the high-cost, highly problematic, multi-mission capabilities of  F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The F-35, as just about everyone knows, is a  deeply troubled, super-high-cost stealth fighter that is way behind schedule.  The F-35, predictably, is plagued with a host of technical problems.  If the F-35 ever becomes operational, it  will be completely unfit for the kind of knife fighting the A-10 excels at — low and slow jinking around a battlefield saturated with small arms threats.  The F-35 will be far too vulnerable to these cheap threats (including light machine guns).  The F-35′s poor thrust-to-weight and high wing loading guarantee poor agility at low speeds and long re-attack times; it will have nothing comparable in offensive capability to the A-10′s 30mm gun; its low fuel fraction guarantees the F-35 will have no loitering capability.  Any battle damage the F-35 somehow manages to survive will be almost impossible to repair at the field level without depot-level contractor support, because of its high complexity systems and exotic stealth structures.  Moreover, the F-35′s high cost and complexity will guarantee much reduced inventories, poor availability, and low sortie rates coupled with very high operational costs.

Readers who are interested in learning more about these issues and live near Washington DC are invited to a seminar discussing them.  Participants will address questions surrounding (1) the vital importance of the Close Air Support mission, (2) the controversial decision to retire the A-10 in favor of the F-35, (3) what it will take to provide a CAS capability in the future, and most importantly, (4) how the Defense Department should proceed to insure our ground troops will be given the support they need and deserve.

The seminar will take the form of a discussion among people having long experience in this mission area — from a variety perspectives — from aircraft designers, to pilots with A-10 combat experience and, most importantly, the views soldiers and marines on the receiving end of close support in ground combat operations.  In the interests of having a vigorous debate, pushbacks by people supporting the AF decision will be not only welcomed but emphatically encouraged and solicited.  The goal is to promote a free market of ideas.

This seminar will take place on 0930 Nov. 22  at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and will be sponsored by the Strauss Military Reform Project, a subsidiary of the Project on Government Oversight.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

This article originally appeared in Small Wars Journal.