The Warthog, the Lightning II, and an Air Force

The Warthog, the Lightning and the Future of an Air Force

The United States Air Force has partaken in its fair share of budgetary scraps over the years with the other services, and with Congress. Many of these budgetary crises have literally shaped the way the US Air Force, and the US military in general, fights its wars.[1] The budgetary crisis going on now between the U.S. Air Force and Congressmen and -women such as Senator Kelly Ayotte over the retirement of the A-10 ”Warthog” Thunderbolt II is no exception. To understand this crisis and to ultimately offer my thoughts on it, we will firstly need to broadly outline the debate between Congress and the U.S. Air Force on retiring the A-10 Thunderbolt. Secondly, the arguments of both sides need to be deconstructed. Beginning with the A-10, that necessitates a proper assessment both of the A-10’s actual design and the effects that design imposes upon the A-10’s operational suitability. That will also necessitate a specific assessment of the history of the A-10, particularly how well it has performed in recent and historical operations and why it has done so. Then, with a proper understanding of the A-10, a comparison with the US Air Force’s available capabilities will be capable of being made. Ultimately, this author argues that while the A-10 is a formidable platform, it is not the platform that the USAF should defend at all costs. The strategic choices of the USAF – and ultimately, of America itself will be weighed after an understanding of the A-10 has been achieved.

The Budget Crisis

As we all know, the 2011 budget deal reached as a result of the debt ceiling crisis legally committed the U.S. government to provide for a “supercommittee” of bipartisan legislators to agree upon and produce a plan of action that would decrease the deficit. When they failed, automatic across-the-board cuts were initiated all across the government, especially the Department of Defense. The U.S. Air Force, as part of its significant stake in the biggest military procurement program in recent history, with its purchase of the F-35A, has not been exempted from this “sequestration”. Because of the size and cost of the overall F-35 purchase,[2] it is “muscling in” on the budget dollars of the A-10 and every other platform in the Air Force – including personnel numbers.[3]

Importantly, because the A-10’s retirement is a possibility brought on by the procurement of the F-35, observers have decided to compare the two platforms directly. This is arguably not a comparison made unfairly, as the USAF did state that upon the A-10’s retirement, the F-35 would inevitably take up some of the A-10’s responsibility for Close Air Support(CAS) missions.[4]

The supporters of the A-10 hinge their arguments on three points: that the A-10, as a dedicated ground-attack platform, has “saved many American lives”, and retiring the aircraft without creating a replacement would “place our troops at risk.”[5] At least as importantly, it has a fearsome reputation  – both with friendly troops, for whom it is a significant morale boost, and with the enemy, who frequently suffer a morale in decline when an A-10 pair appears in the same skies. [6]  Given these arguments, why would the US Air Force divest itself of such a capability? The answer behind the thinking of the US Air Force lies both in the unique design and capabilities of the A-10 and also the performance of A-10s in its CAS mission over time. In particular, opinions on the latter are extremely contestable, and as a result, will need to be presented carefully on my part, which I aim to do.

The Warthog’s Design

As hinted at previously, the A-10 Thunderbolt II was an aircraft designed to complete one mission – the mission of close air support (CAS). It was designed in the early 1970s, at a time when the nation was withdrawing from Vietnam and was unsatisfied with contemporary CAS platforms such as the A-1 Skyraider and the F-4 Phantom. As a result of being designed for the CAS mission, it had several unique characteristics. Firstly, for an aircraft with two jet turbofans, it was remarkably slow with a never-exceed speed of 450 knots. The slow speed of the aircraft allowed the pilot to be better able to see the units on the ground and more effectively distinguish friend from foe, as well as increasing the time the aircraft had on target. Secondly, the aircraft was designed to be survivable – not only were the engines and vertical stabilizers separated spatially (to isolate damage done to individual components) but the cockpit was protected by some 1,200lbs of titanium armor. This survivability allowed the pilot to take heavy ground fire that he would inevitably take while operating in the theater the aircraft was designed for – Central Europe, against the Red Army. Thirdly, and finally, the aircraft was designed with the largest and most powerful Gatling gun ever produced – the GAU-8, which is a 30mm chain gun spitting out 2,000-4,000 rounds per minute. This last point is a particularly important one to consider.

The Warthog’s Capabilities

The first unique capability to the Warthog that needs to be considered and put into context is the GAU-8. While a hugely impressive weapon even today, it is important to consider that in the time in which the A-10 was designed the reliability of the frontline air-to-air missile of the US Air Force (the AIM-7 Sparrow) was so lamentable the missile failed to even launch one in every two firings. In the late Vietnam era, “precision-guided weapons” were not reliable enough to mount on anything but the most sophisticated strike aircraft – a trend that largely continued until the mid-1990s, when production of effective and cost-effective PGMs took off. As a result, any aircraft designer in that era would be foolish to design their ground-attack aircraft around anything but a gun weapon. The A-10’s GAU-8 absolutely reflects this hard-headed sensibility, a sensibility whose logic does not apply today.

The second unique capability of the A-10, of which much has been made by its proponents and detractors alike, is the aircraft’s survivability due to its armor-protected cockpit and isolated flight surfaces. As a recent commentator has stated: “The A-10 was designed to fight in the ultimate of hostile air combat situations, over the forests and valleys surrounding the Fulda Gap, against the crushing force of a westward advancing Soviet military. Basically, the A-10 was designed to fight World War Three and survive long enough to have an impact and what would be the world’s most deadly battlefield.”[7] While an enthusiastic statement, it is unequivocally wrong. The A-10 was designed to provide close air support (along friendly lines) against an advancing Soviet foe. Why have I italicized these two words, you ask? If one’s ground forces are on the defensive, as NATO forces were expected to be, then they would be in friendly airspace – particularly with regard being in airspace protected by their own surface-to-air missiles. The attacking Soviets would, by attacking, be moving out of their own surface-to-air missile shield. As the Soviets moved into NATO-held territory, CAS platforms like the A-10 would be operating in friendly skies against Soviet forces. Even in these friendly skies, the A-10s would suffer immense casualties from the aircraft and  air defenses the Soviets did bring with them, with one estimate being the USAF would lose 60 A-10s a day.[8] So while the A-10 was designed to fight World War III, it wasn’t necessarily expected to do well fighting it.

The Warthog’s Performance – 1991 Gulf War

The Gulf War was, by many metrics, a conflict tailor-made for the A-10 and its capabilities. The A-10 was survivable enough to last against Iraqi air defenses, and it was presented with a huge amount of its favorite targets, APCs and tanks.[9] Furthermore, it was participating in a war where the opposing air forces were vastly overpowered in the air, and who did little to effectively contest the airspace against the coalition. With that in mind, it is interesting to examine the combat record of the A-10.

Firstly, it is worth assessing statistics regarding combat losses of the A-10. Many of the proponents of the A-10 have argued that the aircraft’s superior losses-to-sorties ratio, even while operating at a lower and more dangerous altitude than other platforms, show that the A-10 is a far more survivable aircraft than contemporaries and resultantly possesses unique characteristics for which other aircraft are unsuited. Granted, in spite of the many missions it flew, the A-10 only lost four aircraft during the entire war. However, the aircraft was not necessarily more survivable, mainly due to USAF policy changes throughout the campaign.

After the first four days of combat, CENTAF restricted all fixed-wing aircraft striking targets in Iraq and Kuwait to an altitude of 15,000ft in a bid to get their aircraft out of the employment zone for Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). This was a largely successful policy at avoiding casualties, especially in the KTO, where the Iraqis did not have a sophisticated radar-guided SAM network, except in the north as part of the protection afforded to Basra. For the A-10, which was employed overwhelmingly in the KTO, this altitude restriction helped its loss statistics immensely compared to similar multi-mission aircraft such as F/A-18s, F-16s and F-15Es, all of whom contributed significantly to striking into Iraqi territory which was far more heavily defended. This policy then changed for the A-10 on 31 January, and the A-10s were then free to fly and fight in their favorite four to seven thousand feet altitude bracket. This policy was effective, with A-10s being sent to attack the Republican Guard divisions positioned on Kuwait’s northern border and making mincemeat of them with their AGM-65 Mavericks. However, on February 15th, two weeks before the ground campaign began, the USAF lost two A-10s in quick succession to IR-guided SAMs – and nearly lost a third A-10, which was only just able to get back to base. Importantly, they achieved these two-and-a-half kills with only eight missiles fired – a worryingly high success rate to the JFACC Lt. Gen. Horner.[10] As a result, the A-10s were limited to within twenty miles of the Saudi frontier until the beginning of the ground war – another two weeks. As a result, the A-10 was essentially limited from operating in environments its proponents would argue it should have succeeded in for approximately for 23 out of 42 days of war, which should serve as an important fact for A-10 proponents to consider.[11]

On a second note, the Warthog’s unique weaponry, the GAU-8 gun designed to blitz Soviet armored columns with its 30mm cannon rounds, is argued by its proponents to be a fearsome weapon which inspires friends and terrifies foes on the battlefield to the extent that the aircraft itself is worth saving. However, according to the authoritative commentators on the air wars, including A-10 pilots themselves, the most effective weapon on the A-10 by far was the AGM-65 Maverick missile, for which the A-10 was practically the only delivery platform.[12] There are identifiable reasons why the GAU-8 didn’t live up to its high expectations – the altitude limitations imposed on the A-10 for the first two weeks of the war come to mind, but the overall trend, suggestive of the dominance of the AGM-65 Maverick, is an important one worthy of investigation.[13]

As an example, on February 25th, 1991, a pair of A-10s flying six sorties in a single day destroyed 23 Iraqi tanks.  Given that the ground war had begun and that the A-10 was therefore operating at its intended altitude, the A-10 had ample ability to use its GAU-8 in the role its designers had intended.[14] However, the AGM-65 Maverick missile outscored the GAU-8 by three-to-one in terms of kills on that day, earning 17 kills to the GAU-8’s 6.[15] The A-10s employment of the Maverick was, however, an exclusive one; the Maverick was a weapon which was employed by other aircraft, including F-16s, but they had not trained to use Mavericks – the A-10 pilots were the experts.[16] As a result, A-10s were regarded as the second-most effective aircraft for carrying out strikes against Iraqi ground forces – second only to the swing-wing supersonic F-111F, which employed the 500lb GBU-12.[17] However, this high regard they were held in was largely the result of the A-10 pilots’ superior training with the use of Maverick missiles and a deliberate US Air Force policy to mount Mavericks on their wings as a result; not due to the aircraft’s easier flyability at low altitude or its survivability, as would be alleged by its proponents.


The Warthog’s Performance – Iraq and Afghanistan

The Warthog’s performance in Iraq and Afghanistan is arguably the most relevant and certainly the most recent experience that A-10 proponents can draw upon to make their case for why the A-10 is so important to have for ground forces. The issue with these wars, is of course they are “messy” and not amenable to statistics about tanks and vehicles destroyed as readily as the previous conflict. I could indeed throw statistics around as CENTAF itself does to illustrate that the A-10 has only carried out some 15-20% of all CAS missions in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2006 – which is an important statistic given the fact that the A-10 is the only dedicated fixed-wing CAS platform in any service (though the US Army in particular is aflush with rotary-wing CAS platforms).[18] However, such a statistic would most certainly not capture the uniqueness of the missions covered by each aircraft, so each CAS platform could conceivably be filling its own individual niche, with the A-10 fulfilling the 20% of missions suited to its characteristics. Given also that these conflicts are recent ones, and thus are emotionally charged, criticism of such a platform’s performance is difficult to pull off. As a result of this, plus the facts that these conflicts do not readily lend themselves to analysis in the military sense, first-hand accounts of the A-10 will be relied upon to illustrate how the A-10s have performed in these recent conflicts.

“The A-10 is the most requested asset for CAS period. The aircraft was built for the job and the pilots were as well. Not only are they good with the targeting pod, but they are fantastic with a pair of binoculars. They can give us LGBs (laser guided bombs) from up high or they can tear up the bad guys at eye level with the gun. That gun is a powerful psychological weapon as well, the enemy knows the distinct “burp” sound and it is very morbid and demoralizing to them when it announces itself. Second to the A-10 the AC-130 is really fantastic for certain applications. After that the menu just gets less appealing. The fast jet guys do a great job, Harriers in particular, but none match the A-10’s unique abilities. It has saved and taken many lives, I can attest to that.”[19][my italics]

As we can see here, key points I would like to emphasize about the A-10 are the fact that psychologically, nothing beats the A-10s gun. The A-10 not only scares away enemy ground forces, but it also boosts the morale of friendly ground forces in a way that only those who have experienced its support can understand. Similarly rated to the A-10 (likely for similar reasons) is the AC-130 gunship, likely because that aircraft has many of what the A-10 has – cannon and guns.[20] Thirdly rated is the Harrier, likely because of that aircraft’s slower speed than other fast jets, as well as the fact that all of its pilots are carrier-rated. The point that I have yet to emphasize is the point about pilots; which is that yes, while the A-10 is arguably the best CAS platform designed, the pilots matter as least as much as the platform itself. Given that A-10 pilots are largely dedicated to their mission of CAS, they are simply better at it than multi-mission, jack-of-all-trades F-16 and F-15E pilots will be.[21]

Onto another instance of the A-10 playing its trade, this time from Air Force Times:

In July, the A-10’s capabilities were evident when two pilots came to the rescue of 60 soldiers during a convoy ambush in Afghanistan. The convoy came under attack while patrolling a highway. They became pinned behind their vehicles, facing heavy fire from a close tree line. The group didn’t have a JTAC, but a joint fire observer was able to communicate an estimated location to the A-10s. “I flew over to provide a show of force while my wingman was looking for gunfire below,” the flight lead said, according to an Air Force release on the mission. “Our goal with the show of force was to break the contact and let the enemy know we were there, but they didn’t stop. I think that day the enemy knew what they were going to do, so they pushed even harder and began moving closer to our ground forces.” One A-10 fired two rockets to mark the area with smoke. The wingman came in next and pulled the trigger on the Avenger cannon. The enemy moved closer to the friendly forces. “We train for this, but shooting danger-close is uncomfortable, because now the friendlies are at risk,” the second A-10 pilot said. “We came in for a low-angle strafe, 75 feet above the enemy’s position and used the 30-mm gun — 50 meters parallel to ground forces — ensuring our fire was accurate so we didn’t hurt the friendlies.”[22]

The points I would like to stress here are that the A-10’s gun can and is used accurately even when close forces are in proximity. This is not a capability that is widespread among CAS-capable platforms. However, I would also like to stress that this is not by any means a new capability, nor is it unique to the A-10:

“USAF tactical fighters pounded troops, tanks, and artillery positions – helping to break the enemy’s momentum. High-flying B-52s put heavy payloads as close as 300 meters to dug-in defenders; circling AC-130 gunships “hosed down” defenders to within 30 meters.”[23]

The year, as keen students of history might have correctly divined, was not 2002, but was in fact 1972. This is the same 1972 in which solid-state electronics were just about becoming integrated in avionics and defense electronics, and the same 1972 in which the personal computer did not yet exist. This is an old capability, and most importantly, a capability which did not begin with the A-10 – nor will it end with it.

What the A-10’s proponents are arguing is simple and elegant – the A-10 is the last aircraft designed explicitly for the purpose of close air support and therefore it can, nay it must be able to, do things that no other aircraft can do. Is it the last aircraft designed for close air support? Yes. Is it possibly the best aircraft designed for close air support? Possibly. Does that mean it can do things in that realm that no other aircraft can do? That is a much tougher question to answer in the affirmative, not considering the psychological effects it has on the enemy and friendlies. Ultimately, as will be outlined, the choice between whether to keep or retire the A-10 depends on the types of conflicts one expects to see the USAF participating in in future years.

The USAF’s strategic options: The $3.7 billion Bake Sale?

Given the budget crunch the USAF is currently under (as are all the services, including the US Army) it is quite clear that no good budget decisions are capable of being made.

Apart from retiring the A-10 fleet, there are several choices the USAF has stated they could make, and there are others that I would like to suggest, which could prove a solution to the problem were the A-10 required to be retired. However, these are cuts which have been potentially linked to the retirement of the A-10 by the USAF leadership.

Retire F-16s [24] 350 aircraft
Retire F-15Cs[25] 51 aircraft planned by 2020 – 179 remaining
Retire B-1Bs[26] 66 aircraft, B-1 retirement has been blocked by the House Armed Services Committee
Retire KC-10s[27] Several dozen aircraft; KC-10 retirement has been blocked by the House Armed Services Committee
Cancel F-35 purchases[28] If sequestration continues, purchases will be cut by 17 aircraft in FY2016/17
Cancel purchase of combat rescue helicopters 117 aircraft – $6.8 billion (already deferred until 2019), cancellation expected to be blocked by Congress


And potentially others. Other cuts are being made in fleet numbers across the USAF but these have not necessarily been tied to the retirement of the A-10; for instance, the U-2 retirement is being driven by a Congress insistent that the Global Hawk program is preserved by the USAF. However, as a basic student of airpower will know, any of these retirements are high-risk to the USAF’s ability to execute any and all operations. The F-16 and F-15C retirements are troublesome because they retire aircraft required for the defense of American and allied airspace, missions which cannot be carried out by the A-10, and more importantly do so without an adequate replacement – the F-35 reaches full-rate production in 2016 by Lockheed Martin’s current schedule.

KC-10 and B-1 retirements would affect significantly US ability to carry out long-range strikes and to enhance the operational range of existing platforms. Granted, the B-1B is the least useful of the two, but retiring that platform leaves the USAF with aging B-52s which would not be really capable of operations when the LRS-B is expected to come into service.[29]

The combat rescue helicopter program could be under threat, though no one likes to take away assets from combat search and rescue programs; we like our pilots to be rescued, thank you very much. However, while CSAR is a crucial role for US armed forces, it is not necessarily a role that is crucial for the USAF to have on its own, and pooling of rotary-wing assets with the US Army, combined with a smaller CRH buy (the current purchase in 117 helicopters, I believe) may prove to be a smart way of saving money here.

Finally, and last but not at all least, we have the possibility of cuts to the F-35 program. Covering the pros and cons of giving up part of the F-35 buy for the A-10 properly would take a serious word length to complete – and wary of the time I have spent during this existing article, I will not delve into the specifics of the argument. However, the only way the F-35 program manager has pointed out will cut F-35 program costs are more orders – possibly both from the U.S. but also internationally. Given the instability of the program’s future in many potential markets, it seems apparent that cuts to the F-35 program, at least until Full Rate Production is expected to begin in 2016/2017, do not make sense, risking as they do cuts of orders abroad and a real jeopardy to the unit costs of the program. More importantly, these cuts to the F-35 program will have to come now – and they will not solve the problem of an F-35 program eating up a larger and larger share of the USAF budget as time goes on.

The only real way out the USAF has of making a bad decision is to find the money. An end to sequestration is the only realistic way the USAF and all of the other services, especially including the US Navy, can meet their objectives set by policymakers.

A-10 Retirement Alternatives; My Suggestions

Should the US Air Force given up 30 F-35s in exchange for the A-10 fleet, then? No, of course not, because that figure is misleading – it is not calculated for the savings over the expected remaining lifecycle cost on the airframe, which, make no mistake, is significant. What the Air Force should do, and what has been their first priority, has been to end the sequester. Given the expected failure of that course of action, the Air Force has several choices I would like to mark as equal-risk on their ability to directly wage combat operations (if not their ability to support them):

The Combat Rescue Helicopter Program

The B-1B Lancer program

The F-15C fleet

Granted, it seems apparent that at least two of these options would need to be carried out to preserve strike capability alone (the CRH program will likely have a very expensive cancellation fee, and retiring the F-15C fleet early would mean that the F-16 CAPES program (worth $2.8 billion over the program’s life) would have to be undergone.[30] But if the US Air Force were to retire the A-10, I think the important parts of the A-10 program would have to be salvaged – the mission and the pilots.

The ideal platform for pilots kicked off of A-10s would in fact be the F-16. Already the platform operates as a Fast FAC and since 2006 has carried out 33% of CENTAF’s CAS missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. More importantly, those missions were carried out by multi-mission pilots. If the Air Force stands down its best CAS platform, it does owe it to Army and Marine personnel to stand-up a dedicated ground attack unit. This unit would, like A-10 units now, be trained 24/7, 365 to respond to CAS missions and CAS alone. Doing so would not only allow the Air Force to transition the F-35 to its role as a multi-role aircraft capable of winning air superiority and allow for a better division of labor between the F-35 and F-16 fleets with regard to mission roles, but it would also save on maintenance costs, because the maintainers would transition from the A-10 to the F-35 and the F-16 fleet would be split between multi-role and dedicated CAS F-16 platforms. [31]

Granted, this is not the ideal solution given that the F-16 fleet still has some life left in it – that solution would be to task the F-15 with the CAS role given that airframe’s earlier retirement, but the airframes being retired (the F-15C) are air-supremacy-only fighters, and are pretty lousy at CAS missions. Hence, if the A-10 is to be retired, this solution is the only real way forward for the Air Force, at least until someone decides that the CAS mission is important, and worthy of a successor to the A-10, which due to its single-mission focus could arguably be designed to be an even more effective aircraft than its predecessor.

Ultimately, the U.S. Air Force cannot make good choices, choices that are not hard given the current conundrum of being forced to cut $12 billion every year. However, there are certainly ways in which the Air Force can soften the blow – and the creation of a dedicated unit for CAS and ground attack, even without a dedicated CAS or ground attack platform, seems to be a crucial way in which to do so if the A-10 does need to be cut.

[1] For the USAF, this crisis was arguably the one raised by the failure and cancellation of the XB-70 Valkyrie. That aircraft’s unpalatable cost and complexity spelled the end of the manned bomber as the prime delivery system for the US nuclear arsenal.

[2] 1,763 aircraft, worth roughly $194 billion USD at current estimates – though the aircraft will procured to 2037. and








[10] See also Hallion (1992) Pg. 211

[11] Especially Tyler Rogoway.

[12] Hallion (1992) Pg. 211

[13], Gulf War Air Power Survey, Volume II, Part I: Operations Pg.260, 279

[14] Gulf War Air Power Survey, Volume II, Part I: Operations Pg.279

[15] Granted, these were tank kills, and the A-10s may have also achieved kills on APCs or soft-skinned vehicles which went unrecorded. The analysis of how effective the GAU-8 was against soft-skinned vehicles has not been found by the author, but it seems apparent given the weapon’s lethality, and more importantly, high amount of ammunition carried, that soft-skinned vehicles would be ones most susceptible to the GAU-8’s firepower.

[16] Gulf War Air Power Survey, Volume II, Part I: Operations Pg.261

[17] Gulf War Air Power Survey, Volume II, Part I: Operations Pg.280


[19] Unspecified JTAC speaking to Tyler Rogoway:

[20] While a nice suggestion, the AC-130 could not be an adequate replacement for the A-10; firstly, there are too few of them compared to the A-10. Secondly, the aircraft is even less survivable than the A-10 given its need to loiter and circle around a target making its flight path predictable. Thirdly, the aircraft is slower than the A-10 and needs more time to reach station (though once there, it has sufficient loiter time). Fourth, the operating costs are higher, though the advantage of such a platform is that it can call down more direct-fire firepower than an A-10.

[21] A-10s have proven their use for FAC missions as well as CSAR missions. They are more than a “single-mission” aircraft, but as any Air Force leader will tell you, they are incapable of the most crucial mission for any Air Force – winning control of the airspace from the enemy.

[22] Quoted in Breaking Defense:

[23] Rowley (1976) Pg.1






[29] The B-1s currently undergo 374 flight hours per year – the B-52s undergo 216 (per airframe).


[31] The Israelis have recently lead the way on showing how to effectively use multi-role aircraft for CAS missions.


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