When he spoke about next year’s defense budget on February 24, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addressed his decision to go along with the Air Force and retire all existing A-10 close air support aircraft. In that statement, he made the following assertions:
* “To fund these investments [the new long range bomber, the new tanker and the F-35], the Air Force will reduce the number of tactical air squadrons including the entire A-10 fleet. Retiring the A-10 fleet saves $3.5 billion over five years and accelerates the Air Force’s long-standing modernization plan – which called for replacing the A-10s with the more capable F-35 in the early 2020s.”
* “The ‘Warthog’ is a venerable platform, and this was a tough decision. But the A-10 is a 40-year-old single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield. It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses. And as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, the advent of precision munitions means that many more types of aircraft can now provide effective close air support, from B-1 bombers to remotely piloted aircraft. And these aircraft can execute more than one mission.”
* “Moreover, the A-10’s age is also making it much more difficult and costly to maintain. Significant savings are only possible through eliminating the entire fleet, because of the fixed cost of maintaining the support apparatus associated with the aircraft. Keeping a smaller number of A-10s would only delay the inevitable while forcing worse trade-offs elsewhere.”
Many of these statements are questionable; several are poorly informed; at least one of them is materially incorrect.
In saying “the A-10’s age is also making it much more difficult and costly to maintain,” Hagel is implying, if not saying directly, that the A-10’s “40-year” age is making it so expensive compared to other aircraft that it makes little sense to keep on throwing so many more dollars at the program.
The Air Force maintains a data base on the cost to operate and support its aircraft. It’s called the “AFCAP” database which is a part of the Air Force’s Total Ownership Cost (AFTOC) program. It is available on public request from the Air Force Comptroller’s office. Data from the 2013 version of the AFCAP database, the latest available, is at the POGO website.
We have worked with this annually available data for the last few years, using it for analysis, reports and articles. While it has not been yet verified by an independent audit by an outsider like GAO, it is the most comprehensive data available on the operating and support costs for Air Force aircraft. It includes all known Air Force costs to keep its aircraft operating, as well as contractor supplied logistics and services. One variation of the cost estimates, known as “Ownership” cost, even includes the cost to modify aircraft with upgrades.
(If you are hoping for a peek into the cost to support the F-35A, you will be disappointed. As it was explained to us the F-35 data is too incomplete and preliminary; none of it is yet available. Moreover, flying costs for programs in their early stages are typically astronomical, and the Air Force is hardly enthusiastic about releasing preliminary data that will stun even the skeptics of the controversial F-35 program.)
The data for every operational aircraft in the inventory are available, however. The data address multiple issues: the total and operational number in each fleet of aircraft types, the number of hours each fleet has flown in a given year; the total cost to operate each type, and-perhaps most usefully-the cost per flying hour (CPFH) for each type of aircraft. It is the latter that amortizes total operating costs across each aircraft in each fleet and gives an apples to apples comparison across different aircraft types; it is a measure that has been used inside DOD by specialists for decades; that it is publically available is significant.
The Air Force contends that fighter-bomber and even long range-heavy bomber aircraft can perform the close air support mission effectively enough to allow the A-10, and its “difficult and costly” maintenance burden, to be fully retired. Thus, it would be appropriate to compare the A-10’s cost per flying hour to both existing fighter-bomber and long range bomber types, both stealthy and un-stealthy-for those who think stealth is an essential survivability characteristic on modern battlefields (more on that later).
See the data, from the Air Force Comptroller’s office in the figure below.
At an “Ownership” cost per flying hour (CPFH) of $19,736, the A-10 is the cheapest in the inventory of aircraft the Air Force asserts is capable of close air support. All other aircraft, including the most prevalent version of the ground attack-capable C-130, are almost twice or more to operate-except for the F-16C/D, which at $22,954 is only slightly higher than the A-10. A-10 operating costs have been just above or just below their 2013 level for years, making the statement “age is also making it much more difficult and costly to maintain” nonsense.
Note the extraordinary costs to operate stealth aircraft. The F-22 costs $68,262 for every hour of flight, and it has cost close to or above that level for every year of its operational existence. 2013 is no outlier. Note also the astronomical cost to operate the B-2A: $152,871 for each hour of flight. However, it is lunatic to think that the Air Force would be willing to consider trading in either of those aircraft to preserve the A-10.
On the other hand, consider the B-1B. The Air Force is just beginning $1.8 billion dollars in electronics upgrades for the B-1B, and Air Force Comptroller data shows that operating the B-1B fleet of 66 aircraft currently already costs $1.4 billion, or more, per year. Ever since its debut in 1986, the B-1B has been beset with major problems: it failed to meet its range threshold and has a combat radius 24 percent less than a B-52; it failed to meet its stealth requirement; its supersonic dash capability is so short as to be unusable; it has a high accident rate; its major electronics problems began long before the current upgrade, and it is only “mission capable” 57.9 percent of the time (compared to 75.3 percent for the B-52). The Air Force has already retired a third of the fleet and has completely withdrawn it from any nuclear missions-for which it was originally designed.
Given the B-52H fleet’s better performance, higher reliability and superior utility in both conventional and nuclear missions, we would lose much less combat capability if we retired the B-1B fleet rather than the A-10, and we would save every bit of the $3.5 billion that Secretary Hagel says he needs from retiring the A-10.
Moreover, the A-10 has just finished a major and expensive program to give the aircraft a new wing; to retire it now would be to squander the $1.1 billion just spent. Other upgrades are also just now being installed for the A-10 program.
The uniquely low cost of the A-10 aside, it is widely held conventional wisdom that the A-10 cannot survive on the modern battlefield. Secretary Hagel expressed that widespread thinking by saying, “It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses.” And, it is well beyond the pale of conventional thinking to assert that the A-10 can survive as effectively as stealth aircraft.
That presumed sagacity is contradicted by the facts.
In Operation Desert Storm in 1991, six A-10s or OA-10s were shot down and 14 were significantly damaged. Meanwhile no stealth F-117s were either killed or damaged, and they were the only aircraft to penetrate what the Air Force described as the heaviest air defenses of the Iraqi air defense system over downtown Baghdad.
Doesn’t that prove the conventional wisdom?
In a 235 page unclassified report, GAO extensively assessed the Desert Storm Air War. That report evaluated the aircraft survivability data in some detail. The casualty figures cited above are indeed accurate, but GAO also found that the stealthy F-117 flew so few combat sorties and the A-10s flew so many that their survival rates were statistically indistinguishable: GAO found that “This calculation showed that 0 hits would be the most likely outcome for a non-stealthy aircraft [including the A-10] conducting 1,788 strikes [the number of missions performed by the F-117]. This indicates that although there were no F-117 casualties in Desert Storm, the difference between its survivability and other aircraft may arise from its smaller number of strikes as much as other factors.”
GAO also found the total casualty rate of the A-10 (for aircraft both shot down and damaged) was extremely low, just 0.0023 aircraft per sortie, and that it was zero for the missions the A-10 flew at night-the only environment the F-117 was able to operate in. Significantly, the A-10 flew sorties more frequently at night than did the F-117, and it faced both daytime and nighttime defenses more lethal than the type deployed around “downtown Baghdad” that the F-117 typically flew against, according to GAO.
Both the A-10 and the F-117 also flew in the Kosovo Air War in 1999 against Serbia. In that conflict, one F-117 was shot down, and one was significantly damaged. Flying a greater number of sorties, no A-10 was shot down.
While it may fly in the face of accepted wisdom in Washington that the A-10 is too slow and primitive to survive modern air defenses, it has already survived such defenses, precisely as it was designed to. In addition, it has done so at a rate that equals or exceeds that of more sophisticated (complex and expensive) aircraft, such as the F-117. And, there is reason to believe that if a thin-skinned and highly flammable aircraft like the F-35 attempted to perform all elements of the close support mission, it would prove far, far more vulnerable than the A-10.
Third, as it has in multiple conflicts, the A-10 also flew multiple mission types in Desert Storm, including not just tank busting and close support against infantry but suppression of enemy air defenses, combat search and rescue, battlefield search, and even air-to-air combat-against helicopters, against which the A-10 is extremely lethal. GAO also found the A-10 to be extraordinarily effective against that wide variety of targets, just as Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans persistently report it is today.
In 1991, Iraqi war prisoners told DOD interviewers that the A-10 was one of two aircraft they feared the most; the other was the B-52.
Also, while no one was looking, the A-10 has been totally modernized, now using a variety of guided munitions, the latest video displays and improved radios, essential for direct contact with troops-and missing from other Air Force aircraft.
To dismiss the A-10 as an ancient “single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield” is hogwash.
The fourth key element of Secretary Hagel’s argument against the A-10 is that “the advent of precision munitions means that many more types of aircraft can now provide effective close air support.” That statement ignores essential elements of the close support mission.
Far more than hitting a specific target list is involved, if and when guided munitions, such as GPS-guided JDAMs or laser guided bombs (LGBs), can do that. (In its study of the Desert Storm Air War, GAO found that LGBs could not be used in any adverse weather conditions–or even Persian Gulf levels of humidity–or against certain types of targets. The probability that a technologically competent enemy will render GPS guidance unusable in the future is considered high by experts.)
More importantly, as pilots and ground force leaders made clear at two seminars on close air support in late 2013, there are essential elements to the close support mission that high speed, high altitude, delicate, multi-role fighter-bombers and long range heavy bombers can do only poorly or not at all.
Due to their un-maneuverability and vulnerability to small arms fire, bombers and high speed jets cannot operate in mountain valleys or under 1000 foot cloud ceilings, exactly the conditions enemy forces favor for attacks against our troops. Video, radar and infra-red sensors in high speed planes at 10,000 feet and above have resolution too poor to reliably find targets requested by ground troops or to find threatening targets the troops can’t see. Nor can they safely separate friends from enemies, or combatants from civilians.
Even more importantly, effective close support requires pilots who have an intimate understanding of ground tactics and the constantly shifting ground battle–skills obtainable only through specialized and dedicated close support training and combat experience. Crucial is direct, constant professional exchange with ground troops (“living in each others’ arm pits”) to develop the bonds and implicit communication essential to cope effectively with the split second decisions and stress of land combat. A-10 pilots, focusing only on supporting ground combat, do these things as a matter of routine. Multi-role fighter pilots, let alone long range bomber pilots, do none of that. The dispersal of this uniquely skilled close air support A-10 pilot cadre will be the biggest loss of all if the air force gets its way on the a-10 controversy. It is that which Secretary Hagel seems to understand the least.
As a combat veteran and non-commissioned officer of the Vietnam War, Chuck Hagel should understand these things. It would seem that he suffers not from the fog of war but from the miasma of being too long at the upper regions of politics and from the sludge being served up to him by Air force leaders too eager to drop their moral obligation to American soldiers and marines engaged in combat-now or in the future. Mediocre close air support is not what those troops deserve. We should like to see what Secretary Hagel tells the family of the next American serviceman killed in action because he let the brass convince him our country could only give soldiers and marines second rate support.
The A-10 should stay in the inventory of the American armed forces for however many years it takes for us to field a plane that does an even better job of supporting the troops.
Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight. He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.
Pierre M. Sprey, together with Air Force Cols John Boyd and Everest Riccioni, brought to fruition the F-16; he also led the design team for the A-10 and helped implement the program. He is one of a very small number of Pentagon insiders who started the military reform movement in the late 1960s.