Why A-10 Supporters have got the Air Force’s Stance All Wrong

A recent interview with the head of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command,[1] an op-ed by Chuck Norris,[2] and Sen. John McCain’s now month-old exhortation that he would “reverse” the Air Force’s decision to retire the aircraft, the battle for the future of the A-10 has been joined once again, and with new fervor.[3] The reasons why this battle continues onwards, however are arguably due to a fundamental disconnect between the supporters of the A-10.

An A-10C of the 81st Fighter Squadron flying over Germany in the year 2000:

000217-F-0656B-004

What the supporters (still) say:

While lobbing in expensive precision-guided munitions from great distances can be useful in many scenarios, it is a far cry from the kind of CAS of which the A-10 is capable.”[4]

“The cheap, effective A-10 is a symbol and counterpoint for how broken today’s acquisition system for expensive systems like the F-35 is,” Smithberger said.”[5]

“Military.com explains, “Its combination of large and varied ordnance load, long loiter time, accurate weapons delivery, austere field capability, and survivability has proven invaluable to the United States and its allies.””[6]

“Savings of $3.5 billion over five years remains the Air Force’s primary justification for retiring the A-10, which they allegedly want to keep but cannot afford. However, the Air Force budget argument fails to address total defense expenditures. The A-10 is, by far, the cheapest CAS platform to operate.”[7]

These and many more arguments miss the point about A-10 retirement because operating in a sophisticated enemy air-defense network at low altitude is dangerous in any aircraft, the opportunity costs of keeping the A-10 are significant, including on new procurement, and finally, given the current defense industrial footing, replacing the A-10 will not be as difficult as replacing the other Air Force platforms up for retirement.

Sophisticated Air Defense Networks

Proponents of the A-10 often laugh off suggestions that the aircraft is not survivable; with ‘Twelve hundred pounds of titanium armor protecting the cockpit, redundancy of all major systems, and a plethora of other features make[ing] the A-10 the toughest fighter ever built.”[8] Yet, while the aircraft was designed to survive over the Cold War battlefields of Central Europe and survive, the battlefields of the Cold War were decidedly less dangerous than the battlefields of today – and especially at low altitude. For instance, much in the available literature is made of the Warthog’s ability to handily outperform the ZSU-23-4 “Shilka” mobile AAA system, still in use around the world today. It is a known fact that A-10 pilots were readily capable of firing deadly bursts from their GAU-8 cannon without the Shilka’s cannon rounds so much as touching the aircraft, due to the difference in muzzle speeds.[9] However, against a later-generation Pantsir-S1, the A-10 would have a tough time operating at low altitude due to that systems’ sophisticated use of both guns and sophisticated, jam-resistant missiles.[10]

Pantsir-S1:

pantsir-s1

The missiles are the key component to consider because the ability of a missile to hit a target has, since the end of the Cold War, steadily outstripped the ability to defend against missiles, especially sophisticated ones.[11] Nowhere is this more apparent that with air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles.[12] Given this understanding, reliance on stealth, sophisticated and thick electronic jamming, standoff weapons, and staying out of low-altitude environments are paramount factors for any air platform’s survival. Due to the fact that the A-10 is purpose-built to operate at low-altitudes, it simply would not survive for very long in a contested air environment. Additionally, as my previous article outlined, the survivability of the A-10 even in Desert Shield and Desert Storm was simply not good enough to avoid the Air Force brass curtailing its area of operations for over half of the war.[13] While the A-10 could absorb more small-arms and AAA fire than any other aircraft, the modern low-altitude environs are occupied with far more than just AAA; sophisticated MANPADS and SHORADS proliferating to such an extent to make the lower altitudes more lethal than ever, especially for targets such as helicopters.[14]

ZSU-23-4 “Shilka:”

ZSU-23-4-latrun-4

The Opportunity Costs of Keeping the A-10

What has been so absent from the discussion of the A-10 have been even approximate understandings of the opportunity cost of keeping the aircraft in service. While the U.S. Air Force’s current number has wavered from $3.5 billion to $4.2 billion, one thing that has remained apparent has been the focus on the cost of retiring the aircraft, scheduled under budget plans to occur within five years.[15] Unlike what its proponents seem to acknowledge, however, this is much, much less than the cost of “saving” the aircraft by keeping it in service.[16] Before sequestration, USAF plans had the A-10 retiring from the fleet at 2028; with potentially more service-life upgrades possible.[17] Given a retirement date of 2028, then, the actual cost of keeping the A-10 in service is not a pittance, as its proponents argue; it is, even with conservative estimates, it incurs a significant operating cost. Simply by extrapolating the $700 million-a-year figure of the US Air Force retirement estimate, over the next 13 years, the aircraft would incur nearly $10 billion in operating costs. While this is not a large number overall, the nature of sequestration budget limits will mean that the money will have to be found elsewhere; and looking in the F-35 program, one would have to forgo, given average procurement costs, 85 F-35s. Given the loss of international customers, and the further driving up of unit price that would likely occur as a result of a smaller production run, it seems likely that this number would be much higher, possibly as many as 120-140 F-35s. When overlayed against other, less-expensive but still critical Air Force programs, (for instance, such as the KC-46 tanker) the relative numbers of aircraft at stake would be higher still, arguably impacting readiness across a wider and more critical range of missions than the cost of keeping the aircraft in service.

Table 1 ($ in millions, where listed)

Category 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027 2028 Total
A-10 Operating Cost  $700  $700  $700  $700  $700  $700  $700  $700  $700  $700  $700  $700  $700  $700  $9,800
F-35A Acquisition Numbers 26 44 48 60 60 60 80 80 80 80 80 80 80 80 938
F-35A Total Program Cost  $4,106  $5,848  $6,056  $6,788  $6,642  $6,499  $8,170  $8,288  $8,536  $8,588  $8,737  $8,967  $9,121  $9,094  $105,441
F-35A Program Unit Cost  $158  $133  $126  $113  $111  $108  $102  $104  $107  $107  $109  $112  $114  $114  $116
Number of 2015-Cost F-35As Forgone by A-10 62
Number of 2021-Cost F-35As Forgone by A-10 96
Average Number of F-35As Forgone by A-10 85

 Even the most intelligent and lucid commentators regarding keeping the A-10 in service, however, have been blind to the dichotomy faced by Air Force leaders. For instance, Major Ben Fernandes, in his closing statement, recommends that “If measures of effectiveness show the A-10 to be more effective and less costly [for Close Air Support missions] then the Air Force should change its decision and retire one of the six operational F- or B- series platforms.” Most frequently, A-10 proponents argue that due to their lack of effectiveness in CAS roles, especially in environments such as Afghanistan, at least one of the B-series bomber aircraft should be retired.

While the B-52 and B-1 do suffer from several problems, such as low mission readiness rate, high amounts of maintenance, operationally, their size and flexibility is incredibly useful for delivering a wide range of ordnance and winning control of the air. For instance, from the internal bomb bay alone, a B-52 can deploy 20 2,000lb guided bombs, and with external stores can carry far more than that.[18] Even conventionally, single bomber sorties can decimate swathes of enemy targets from long-range.

Perhaps most importantly, the B-52 and B-1 are the mainstay of one of the USAF’s legs of the nuclear triad. Cutting these fleets will cut back nuclear force readiness massively, due to the rarity of nuclear platforms in the U.S. arsenal and the financial difficulty of recapitalizing the triad’s other elements.[19] While the A-10 has a wide mission benefits, namely, being able to carry out CSAR missions in conjunction with helicopters, and being indisputably the best aircraft for conventional close air support missions, it does not have anything like the range of critical responsibilities that USAF bombers have.[20]

The Defense Industrial Side of Things

Finally, another strong justification for the retirement of the A-10 is that, from a defense industrial perspective, manufacturing an attack aircraft from scratch is far simpler than manufacturing a bomber or fighter (to replace a F- or B- series aircraft) from scratch. In particular, the contrast between attack aircraft and bombers is especially important from a defense industrial perspective.

Recent defense analysts, and the commanding general of Air Combat Command himself, have raised the prospect of the A-10 being replaced by a new, off-the-shelf aircraft: the Textron Scorpion. While certainly not a direct replacement for the A-10, lacking a 30mm cannon and a titanium tub to protect the pilot, the Scorpion is nevertheless an aircraft capable of delivering ordnance on-target and most importantly for the Air Force, at extremely low costs per flight hour. While the aircraft has not been ordered yet, Textron claims that the entire program went from concept to fully-fledged flight prototype in 23 months – an astonishingly short time. Such a platform could be completely fielded in close to a half-decade, were the USAF to express interest in it. The Scorpion would by no means be the only aircraft on the market, either; the clean-sheet or older designs for the densely populated T-X program could likely be adapted for a close-air-support aircraft, and all are likely to be capable aircraft.

Textron AirLand Scorpion:

_DSC2201

By contrast, replacing a bomber fleet within the next two decades, let alone one, would be very difficult. The expected initial operational capability for the USAF’s Long-Range Strike-Bomber (B-3 as it is called by some) is expected to be sometime in the mid-2020s but production will be relatively slow, and only two defense companies have demonstrated they are even capable of producing the product.[21] The B-52 is scheduled to be in service until at least 2044,[22] with the B-1 scheduled to serve through 2040.[23] Given the importance these two bombers have in the nuclear triad, and the operational necessity of keeping them in service for several decades more, the operational risk of divesting either one of these bombers early (with their retirement the U.S. bomber fleet will shrink significantly and impact readiness) is arguably too high.[24]

A B-1B Lancer releasing munitions over a USAF desert test range:

B-1_03

Conclusion

While the A-10 retirement is unpleasant, the Air Force is standing on fairly solid ground when it says that the A-10 is the “lowest risk” option. The Air Force is also standing on solid ground when it says that the A-10, due to its unique mission profile, is not survivable against modern, sophisticated air defense networks, which are significantly more lethal than in the skies over Central Europe in the 1980s. Finally, the Air Force, especially when it comes to bomber platforms, is standing on solid ground for the future. By retiring the A-10, it does so in the knowledge that the defense market is capable of providing a veritable array of replacement types, and in doing so quickly, unlike other options posed to the service by proponents of the A-10.

[1] http://www.janes.com/article/49836/pentagon-study-validates-usaf-a-10-retirement-plan-but-no-cas-specific-replacement

[2] http://www.wnd.com/2015/03/save-the-a-10-thunderbolt/

[3] http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2015/03/15/could-this-airplane-replace-the-a-10-warthog.aspx

[4] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/414635/case-warthog-mike-fredenburg

[5] http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2015/03/15/the_a-10_warthog_too_old_to_keep_fighting__107750.html

[6] http://www.wnd.com/2015/03/save-the-a-10-thunderbolt/

[7] http://blogs.cfr.org/davidson/2015/03/05/the-air-forces-argument-to-retire-the-a-10-warthog-doesnt-add-up-heres-why/

[8] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/414635/case-warthog-mike-fredenburg

[9] See Spick ed. (2000) The Great Book of Modern Warplanes Pg. 58-59

[10] http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-96K6-Pantsir-2K22-Tunguska.html

[11] http://www.armedforces.co.uk/army/listings/l0050.html – With a rumored 95% one-shot hit-to-kill probability, the Starstreak is a short-range SAM likely of above-average (not necessarily class-leading) performance.

[12] http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-SAM-Effectiveness.html “In conclusion, the perception that contemporary Russian and Chinese SAM systems can be defeated as easily as Syrian and Iraqi systems in 1982 and 1991 is nothing more than wishful thinking, arising from a complete failure to study and understand why and how SAM defences failed or succeeded in past conflicts.” The development here is admittedly greater than for MANPADS

[13] https://bigtalksmalltalk.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/the-warthog-the-lightning-ii-and-an-air-force/#_ftn10

[14] http://defense-update.com/newscast/0207/analysis/analysis-100207.htm “Helicopter countermeasures are probably effective against the 1960s era SA-7, but their effectiveness against the 1980s era SA-18 is less certain, cautions John Pike.”

[15] http://breakingdefense.com/2015/02/air-force-boosts-a-10-retirement-savings-4-2b/

[16] http://blogs.cfr.org/davidson/2015/03/05/the-air-forces-argument-to-retire-the-a-10-warthog-doesnt-add-up-heres-why/

[17] http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/us-air-force-may-extend-fairchild-a-10-life-beyond-2028-216249/

[18] http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/the-b-52-is-becoming-a-terrifyingly-intelligent-smart-w-1679885252

[19] http://breakingdefense.com/2015/02/want-stability-fund-nuke-triad-modernization/

[20] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/29/defense-budget-cuts-b52_n_2978892.html?

[21] http://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/2014-07-13/us-air-force-releases-rfp-long-range-bomber

[22] http://articles.latimes.com/2013/aug/19/business/la-fi-ageless-b52-bomber-20130819

[23] http://defensetech.org/2014/02/21/air-force-begins-massive-b-1b-overhaul/

[24] http://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/2014-07-13/us-air-force-releases-rfp-long-range-bomber – Only 80-100 replacement B-3s are being built. Currently the Air Force has 20 B-2s, 66 B-1s and 76 B-52s. Divesting one of the B-series bombers would have significant consequences on the size of the overall fleet, an important consideration given the low mission availability rates of all B-series aircraft. http://blogs.cfr.org/davidson/2015/03/05/the-air-forces-argument-to-retire-the-a-10-warthog-doesnt-add-up-heres-why/

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