Shredding Pace-Finletter, the U.S. Army, and Close Air Support

The recent debate over the retirement of the A-10 Warthog and OH-58 Kiowa aircraft and helicopters respectively has sparked a very fervent debate over the future of the mission of close air support.[1] With the 2011 Budget Control Act still serving as a significant brake on U.S. military spending (with the Pentagon’s budget request coming to 3.24% of U.S. GDP), the cutting of both of these platforms is seen by the U.S. Air Force and Army as a sad but inevitable occurrence.[2] By detractors, however, both decisions are seen as hopelessly misguided ones, as they throw out the most effective (the Air Force) and most frequently used (Army) close air support assets.[3]

What this article will suggest, however, is that rather than splitting the mission of close air support (CAS) up by service, it may be a good idea to blend the efforts of the two services once more.[4] While this may not be a novel solution, it is one which may allow the U.S. military to retain a crucial, and importantly cost-effective, ability to support troops at the forward edge of the battle area. Before outlining why, however, the origins of the current split in close-air-support assets need to be explained.

Pace-Finletter MoU

The split in close-air-support asset types was first really delineated with the Pace-Finletter Memorandum of Understanding in 1952.[5] At a time when the USAF was still only five years old and when the Korean War was going on, both the U.S. Army and Air Force agreed to limit the size of U.S. Army fixed-wing strike aircraft to below 5,000 pounds in weight – deliberately precluding the opportunity for the Army to build up a capable fixed-wing CAS fleet.[6] This agreement was later built upon by the Johnson-McConnell agreement of 1966 which resolved the Air Force and Army to not command units of rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft respectively.[7]

While these existing agreements limit the Army’s options, the general climate between the Air Force and the Army would suggest that they could probably be overwritten.[8] No longer is the Air Force struggling to forge an identity as a service branch, or fighting with the same ferocity for budget dollars with the other services; it does not “need” the close air support mission to justify its independence. However, to override previous arrangements most effectively, the agreement would simply need to lift the limits on U.S. Army procurement of fixed-wing attack aircraft. Doing so would give the Army the most flexibility in their effort to fulfill the close air support mission. Given that the Congressional support for the A-10 in part hinges on the fact that no replacement for that aircraft is planned, giving the Army a platform to carry out the close air support mission would alleviate Congress’ concerns.[9]

Given the idea’s feasibility, then the important question then becomes, “how should the U.S. Army go about filling the role of close air support?” To answer that question adequately, however, requires a thorough understanding of the close air support mission.

Close Air Support Currently

The Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Publication “Joint Publication 3-09.3: Close Air Support” defines close air support as: “air action by fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces, and requires detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.”[10] Colloquially, CAS has been described in a variety of ways, with “flying artillery” being a particularly apt one in this case. Historically, especially for fast-moving and mobile campaigns, aircraft have been used to provide fire support in place of artillery.[11] CAS is similar, though the versatility of aircraft (and their greater accuracy in many environments) means that a variety of different effects can be brought to bear against the enemy, from suppression fires, produced from cannon and machine guns,[12] to much larger precision fires such as 2,000lb Laser-Guided JDAM.[13] Most importantly, CAS is a mission most flown when air supremacy has been achieved. However, no matter the payload delivered, close-air-support-specific aircraft generally are designed around several principles; good visibility, slow speed, large amounts of aerodynamic lift, good loiter endurance at low altitude, the ability to deliver significant amounts of munitions and physical ruggedness.

Good visibility is important not only for pilots looking out of the cockpit but also for sensor pods (some are restricted by fixed landing gear, for example). Slow speed (or more specifically, low stall speed) is important especially for unguided munitions due to its effect on accuracy. The lower the speed of the aircraft, the higher the accuracy of the munitions on target. Lift is important because it allows for long loiter periods, but also maneuverability and turn capability, important for dodging missiles and getting inside enemy aircraft if need be.[14] Loiter endurance is important because of the ability it affords one to make multiple target passes, and to stay on station longer, lowering the number of aircraft one needs to devote to CAS, especially in a lower-threat environment.  Having significant amounts of combat ordnance on hand is useful for obvious reasons, namely because you can destroy more targets in a single sortie. Finally, physical ruggedness, both in terms of resistance to enemy fire and ability to operate from a variety of different areas in terms of runways, is crucial for operating as close as possible to friendly troops, affording quicker response time.

These characteristics are, as mentioned, particular to fixed-wing aircraft, and all are applicable to the A-10, especially when compared to other aircraft such as the F-16. However, given the plans to retire the A-10 the question of how to replicate these characteristics without this and other aircraft needs to be asked. In particular, it is worth asking the question of how one would replicate these characteristics without simply bringing these aircraft back from the Boneyard, or by designing something all-new.

COTS[15] CAS

Answering that above question will need to involve an assessment of potential options to fill the role of close-air-support aircraft. Given the current budgetary pressures, any replacement will have to be extremely cost-effective – which almost always means products that have already been developed. In particular, this analysis will look at three classes of aircraft; Armed Agricultural, Light Prop Attack and Light Attack (Jet). While these platforms are undoubtedly less sophisticated than the A-10, for instance, as CAS platforms they have their merits, and in many ways are far more sophisticated than the Army’s principal CAS platform, the OH-58 Kiowa.[16] Hence, examining the options class-by-class, we can come to an understanding of exactly what could replace existing capabilities – and also how much each would cost.

Armed Agricultural

Armed Agricultural aircraft are, in terms of sophistication, the least sophisticated class outlined here. As the name indicates, these aircraft are essentially crop-dusters modified for military use, which, initially, sounds like a fairly ridiculous replacement for dedicated CAS aircraft such as the A-10. However, compared to scout helicopters such as the OH-58 Kiowa, their characteristics would likely lend themselves fairly well to the CAS mission. Firstly, they are aircraft designed to spend life at very low altitude – which gives them large wings, and long endurance, even with heavy payloads. Secondly, they have a slow enough speed (and stall speed) to make them useful for delivering ordnance, while still possessing higher-than-helicopter dash speed enabling them to reach battlefields faster. Thirdly, they are rugged enough to operate from virtually any strip, road, uneven grass or pavement, which means that they are capable of operating close to quickly-moving frontlines. Finally, many of the Armed Agricultural aircraft on the market are equipped with long endurance, enabling them to loiter over target areas for a long period of time, in some cases, much longer than even the A-10.

Aircraft in this class include the Air Tractor AT-802U and the IOMAX Archangel (both pictured below) and are both capable of carrying far more ordnance than Kiowa helicopters (more than twice the number of .50 cal machine guns and rocket pods, while also carrying 500lb bombs).[17] Interestingly, they are also much cheaper to procure and operate, if not as operationally flexible. As seen in the chart below, procuring and operating a fleet of AT-802U Air Tractors (one of the leading aircraft in the class) instead of OH-58D Kiowas would be significantly cheaper based on verifiable cost data for the aircraft in question – though the scale of the cost differential is likely to be narrower in favor of the AT-802 for several reasons.

One, the aircraft’s low cost per flight hour has not been demonstrated in hostile environments where the existing fleet is required to conduct missions at a very high operational tempo, as have the Kiowas. The lower number of annual flight hours means that the real cost per flight hour of the AT-802 is several times higher than the quoted $400 per flight hour.

Secondly, it is unlikely that so many (825) Air Tractors would be procured due to the higher budgetary strain this would impose through necessitating the training maintainers and pilots. This is another reason that the operating cost per flight hour for the Air Tractor is likely to be higher, as the number of airframes procured is likely to be equal to – or lower than – the Kiowa.[18] That number of airframes would have to endure a higher operational tempo, which in terms of fuel and maintenance support, would drive up costs.

Finally, the relative inflexibility of the Air Tractor’s employment compared to the Kiowa, while the Air Tractor’s dollars will perhaps buy more effectiveness in the CAS and surveillance roles, it will not buy as effective overwatch capability or vertical take-off and hovering capability.[19] That being said, it is likely that the Air Tractor and other aircraft in the Armed Agricultural class still have a lower operating cost than the Kiowa, and would be, due to their low speed, and high munition loads, quite suitable for the CAS mission – especially compared to helicopters (frankly, of almost any type) in the CAS role.[20]

Figure 1: Air Tractor vs. OH-58D Kiowa procurement and operating costs[21]

Aircraft Type Airframe Cost ($k) Estimated Sensor Suite Cost($k) Fleet Size  Operating Cost per Flight Hour Annual Number of Flight-Hours Per Aircraft Annual Cost of Fleet Operation ($k) Total Cost of Fleet Ownership ($k) Total Number of Flight Hours(k)
OH-58D Kiowa  –  – 338 $2,931 1080 1,069,932 21,398,640 5,476
AT-802U Air Tractor $3,000 $3,000 825 $400 450 148,500 5,370,000 5,569

 

Figure 2: AT-802U Air Tractor

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Figure 3: IOMAX Archangel Block 3

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Light Prop Attack

Light Prop Attack aircraft, by contrast with Armed Agricultural aircraft, are more sophisticated aircraft. Aircraft of this class (for instance, such as the Beechcraft AT-6, Embraer Super Tucano, and KAI KA-1) are are faster, with top speeds of 300kts compared to 200kts,[22] built for a greater variety of missions, including air patrol,[23] and typically have more sophisticated avionics and sensor systems, allowing them to operate with a lower pilot workload and in denser weather conditions.[24]However, the cost of these aircraft is significantly higher – from $10 million for the KAI KT-1 to up to $20.8 million for the U.S.-manufactured Super Tucano.[25] However, their cost per flight hour is comparable to Armed Agricultural aircraft (~$1,000 per flight hour) and in some cases, they are capable of operating from unprepared airstrips.[26]

Their disadvantages, however, do exist. In addition to the cost, these aircraft, not being derived from crop-dusters, are not designed to spend their time at low altitudes, for one. Secondly, having retractable landing gear, they are not as rugged, especially with regard to takeoff and landing, as an Armed Agricultural aircraft is, an important consideration given the need to be near the frontline for higher responsiveness (though higher dash speed could potentially make up for this). Finally, due to the airframe being more optimized for speed, endurance suffers – even the Super Tucano, an aircraft with the highest endurance in-class, has only 6h 30min of endurance; not the 10 hours regularly achieved with Armed Agricultural aircraft.[27]

While proponents of the Light Prop Attack class will point to the fact that the ruggedness and endurance are sufficient for a variety of customers, their multi-mission capabilities, compared to those of Armed Agricultural airplanes, seem too well developed for the CAS mission. Granted, these aircraft are phenomenal performers in their own right, and would be a valued “low” component of a mixed-sophistication air force, allowing a cheap and readily deployable method of delivering bombs on target and carrying out light air defense. However, every aircraft ever designed is a compromise, and for the U.S. in particular, I believe it makes sense to argue that Armed Agricultural aircraft are a better fit because of their superior ruggedness, endurance, and lower operating costs. While they are not capable of carrying out light air defense missions, flexibility is ultimately not a crucial requirement for the CAS mission, and does little but add cost and complexity.

Figure 4: Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano

AIR_EMB-314_Drakos_Colombia_lg

Figure 5: Beechcraft AT-6C

EVG_1987

Figure 6: KAI KA-1

‘Buddy Wing’ wraps up at Osan

Light Attack (Jet)

In this final class, there is only one particular aircraft capable of being considered: the Textron AirLand Scorpion. Given the fact that this aircraft has not yet been delivered to its first customer, the cost projections may indeed be wildly inaccurate, laying to waste the crux of Textron’s business plan and the structure of this article. However, if this aircraft eventually does what it says “on the tin”, it would be a valuable platform, even for a USAF customer. The aircraft is stated to cost $20 million per platform, a cost which I seriously doubt would include training and support, and could be expected to be a significant amount higher, perhaps $28-30 million with everything included. The reported operating cost per flight hour is $3,000 – higher than Light Prop Attack aircraft, but still reasonable considering the operating cost per flight hour of an A-10 is $17,716 as of fiscal year 2013.[28] At this operating cost, and assuming the $8 million markup holds, buying and operating the Scorpion would be roughly half the cost of the A-10 for the rest of the A-10’s service life (13 years).[29] Granted, standing up a new platform would incur costs that do not factor into that consideration – but the magnitude of those costs is not likely to undermine this fundamental fact: that based on current estimates, the Scorpion is very cheap.

Figure 7: AirLand Scorpion, A-10 Procurement and Operating Costs[30]

Aircraft Type Airframe Cost ($k) Estimated Sensor Suite Cost($k) Fleet Size  Operating Cost per Flight Hour Annual Number of Flight-Hours Per Aircraft Annual Cost of Fleet Operation ($k) Total Cost of Fleet Ownership ($k) Total Number of Flight Hours(k)
Textron AirLand Scorpion 28,000,000 350 $3,000 300 315,000 13,895,000 105
A-10 350 $17,716 300 1,860,180 24,182,340 105

 

Figure 8: Textron AirLand Scorpion

_DSC2201

Operationally, the aircraft is not purpose-built for close air support, a fact that the supporters of the A-10 are likely to allege is the reason why the Scorpion is not a “suitable replacement”. However, the Scorpion does have several strengths which play strongly into CAS duties. For one thing, unlike typical fast jets, the Scorpion has excellent endurance of up to 5 hours’ time on station. That is more than double the A-10’s endurance.[31] Secondly, it has a two-man crew, which the A-10 does not, better divvying up workload and freeing air planners from the necessity of operating aircraft in pairs, as A-10s frequently do.[32] Thirdly, the aircraft is capable of flying just as “low and slow” as the A-10 is, ensuring the accuracy of unguided weapons.[33]  The aircraft is not as resistant to small-arms and AAA fire, admittedly, but unlike the A-10 it is not burdened electrically by the need to operate a massive cannon, meaning that more sophisticated EW and radar / IR jamming equipment can be mounted onboard to improve survivability.[34] Plus the fact that it has a second seat means that this GIB[35] can more effectively operate these EW and IR jamming systems than on the A-10, given that pilot’s already high workload.

However, it is clear that the replacement of the A-10, if indeed it is to occur, is not going to be directly achieved with purchasing the Scorpion or a product like it. But if the U.S. Army were to replace its Kiowas with an Air Tractor or something comparable, it could massively increase its effectiveness in CAS roles and reduce the pressure on the Air Force’s existing CAS fleet. That then would open up the Air Force to procure the Scorpion (if it worked as advertised) to augment this capability. With the money saved by procuring the Scorpion, one could easily break off a segment of the Scorpion fleet (or even the entire 350-aircraft fleet itself) and dedicate it to close-air-support duty. This would mean that like the A-10, Scorpion pilots would be trained 24/7/365 to carry out close-air-support and nothing but it – a factor which is consistently underappreciated in why A-10 pilots are so successful at helping ground troops.

In short, while the retirement of the A-10 and the OH-58 Kiowa is a loss for the close air support capability of the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force, should budget caps be rescinded and investment opened up again, it would make sense for the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force to not stick to what is known – and procure new aircraft to carry out the close-air-support roles for both services. By procuring fixed-wing aircraft to deliver CAS for the Army, and more cost-effective ones to do so for the Air Force, the CAS mission will be well served.

Sources:

[1] Here, “close air support” is defined as the delivery of aerial fires (bombs, missiles, cannon rounds, etc.) to the forward edge of the battle area. http://fas.org/man/dod-101/army/docs/fm101-5-1/f545-f.htm#FEBA

[2] http://www.newsweek.com/us-military-spending-lot-or-lot-more-305019

[3] http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2014/01/22/save_the_a-10__give_it_to_the_army_107047.html, http://www.army.mil/article/144918/Armed_Aerial_Scout_still_valid_requirement__Army_says/

[4] http://snafu-solomon.blogspot.com/2012/02/modest-proposal-scrap-key-west.html

[5] http://xbradtc.com/2011/06/20/army-fixed-wing-cas-pt1/

[6] http://books.google.com/books?id=uC1I3vTSaEsC&pg=PA241&lpg=PA241&dq=Pace-Finletter+MOU+1952&source=web&ots=2hZwRweXe-&sig=q4QNY2qYfBCYGe9ImDc-YHuJjsU&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result#v=onepage&q=Pace-Finletter%20MOU%201952&f=false

[7] http://archive.defensenews.com/article/20140512/DEFFEAT05/305120022/Commentary-Give-10s-Army, http://www.dtic.mil/ndia/2008systems/7131jacques.pdf

[8] See, for instance the fact that, with the exception of a couple, most of the proponents for the A-10 have been either JTACs or USAF A-10 pilots, and not U.S. Army personnel (certainly not U.S. Army brass): https://arizonadailyindependent.com/2014/06/15/a-10-preferred-by-jtacs-for-troops-in-contact-fight/, http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2014-05-15/soldiers-fight-to-save-a-10-warthog-jet http://thehill.com/policy/defense/205312-armys-odierno-troops-believe-in-the-a-10 – “Odierno said he believed the Air Force would find the right mix of aircraft to make up for the Warthog” http://blogs.cfr.org/davidson/2015/03/05/the-air-forces-argument-to-retire-the-a-10-warthog-doesnt-add-up-heres-why/#comment-44436

[9] http://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/opinion-editorials?ID=6a20a884-6e03-446f-a99e-a0f9627a7b4f

[10] https://fas.org/irp/doddir/dod/jp3_09_3.pdf

[11] The role played by the Luftwaffe’s Ju 87 Stukas in the Barbarossa campaign, when panzer and mechanized divisions frequently outran the mass of horse-drawn field artillery, is archetypal of “flying artillery”

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0-lOQFnXUQ – See here

[13] http://defense-update.com/20100928_laser_jdam.html#.VSnJ1_nF98E

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEdy84YGf1k

[15] Commercial-Off-The-Shelf; not directly applicable here, but used to refer to the fact that market-only options are being used

[16] http://www.army.mil/article/144918/Armed_Aerial_Scout_still_valid_requirement__Army_says/

[17] http://www.802u.com/ , http://www.iomax.net/pdf/IOMAX_Archangel_Brochure.pdf

[18] See also: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:DPLVVcHGfrgJ:vendornet.state.wi.us/vendornet/wais/docs/14610_1.XLS+&cd=8&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

[19] The Kiowa is frequently used in overwatch roles: http://www.fayobserver.com/military/with-the-troops-kiowa-pilots-have-been-protecting-soldiers-on/article_14e480cb-306f-5b97-98db-52d7705165d9.html http://www.mensjournal.com/magazine/kiowa-helicopters-americas-new-cavalry-20131211

[20] http://aviationintel.com/amy-say-goodbye-oh-58-kiowa/

[21] The total cost of fleet ownership includes aircraft procurement as well as 20 years of fleet operation costs. List of sources: https://www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=5f604bd69a18b4848a7162a49b02ca72&tab=core&_cview=1,  http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/lima-air-tractor-goes-on-the-offensive-383891/ – AT-802U operating costs, http://www.asafm.army.mil/offices/office.aspx?officecode=1400,  http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/keeping-the-oh-58-kiowa-warrior-flying-and-fighting/ – OH-58D costs

[22] http://www.802u.com/, http://aviationweek.com/defense/hawker-beechcraft-6c

[23] http://www.defencereviewasia.com/articles/190/Super-Tucano-leads-the-flock   – Python 4 missile integration, http://defensetech.org/2011/09/21/at-6-tested-for-light-air-defense-missions/

[24] Not to say that Armed Ag planes do not have this capability, just that they are not typically deployed with those systems due to the additional cost. It is likely that the UAE’s IOMAX AT-802Us have some sort of night attack / bad weather capability. http://www.iomax.net/archangel/avionics/

[25] This cost also likely includes training for the Afghan Air Force; and it should be noted that SNC and Embraer built an entire production line specifically for 20 aircraft, further inflating the cost: http://www.dodbuzz.com/2013/06/25/beechcrafts-bid-was-higher-risk-air-force/

[26] This capability varies; the Super Tucano is capable of this, and perhaps the KT-1 is as well, but the AT-6 has notably come under fire for its perceived shortcomings in this area. http://aviationweek.com/defense/hawker-beechcraft-6c

[27] http://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/super_tucano/ http://www.janes.com/article/38800/iomax-offers-archangel-light-attack-turboprop-to-the-philippines

[28] http://nation.time.com/2013/04/02/costly-flight-hours/

[29] This is also assuming that the A-10’s operating cost per flight hour will not increase, which it plainly will as it ages.

[30] http://www.afsec.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-150116-014.pdf,

[31] http://www.scorpionjet.com/files/TAL-2014-OVERVIEW-LITHO.pdf

[32] This, I would argue, not only lowers costs, but because the guy in the back doesn’t have to worry about flying the airplane (as an A-10’s wingman would), spotting the enemy will be quicker.

[33] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMfYIjsGEmQ

[34] The power generation capacity of the A-10 has improved, but it is likely that it is fairly limited still. http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/products/a10.html

[35] Guy in the Back

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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/

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. http://breakingdefense.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/04/F-35-2013-SAR.pdf and http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/15/us-lockheed-fighter-orders-idUSBRE92E15020130315

[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/06/us-usa-budget-airforce-idUSBRE91516120130206

[4] http://www.democracyarsenal.org/2013/12/can-the-.html

[5] http://breakingdefense.com/2013/10/sen-ayotte-to-air-force-get-me-a-10-answers-keeps-secaf-nominee-hold/

[6] http://breakingdefense.com/2013/10/sen-ayotte-to-air-force-get-me-a-10-answers-keeps-secaf-nominee-hold/

[7] http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/the-usafs-rationale-for-retiring-the-a-10-warthog-is-bu-1562789528

[8] https://medium.com/war-is-boring/an-a-10-pilot-could-hope-to-last-two-weeks-against-the-soviets-1ebff9bfa4df

[9] http://www.simhq.com/_air/air_049a.html

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

[11] Especially Tyler Rogoway. http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/the-usafs-rationale-for-retiring-the-a-10-warthog-is-bu-1562789528

[12] Hallion (1992) Pg. 211

[13] http://www.simhq.com/_air/air_052a.html, 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

[18] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/10-aircraft-designer-explains-warthogs-unique-characteristics/

[19] Unspecified JTAC speaking to Tyler Rogoway: http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/the-usafs-rationale-for-retiring-the-a-10-warthog-is-bu-1562789528

[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: http://breakingdefense.com/2013/10/sen-ayotte-to-air-force-get-me-a-10-answers-keeps-secaf-nominee-hold/

[23] Rowley (1976) Pg.1

[24] http://www.defensenews.com/article/20140318/DEFREG02/303180039/B-1B-F-16s-Could-Next-Congress-Blocks-Air-Force-PlanTo-Retire-10

[25] http://www.stripes.com/nearly-half-of-air-force-s-planned-f-15c-eagle-cuts-could-come-from-overseas-1.272303

[26] http://www.defensenews.com/article/20140318/DEFREG02/303180039/B-1B-F-16s-Could-Next-Congress-Blocks-Air-Force-PlanTo-Retire-10

[27] http://www.dodbuzz.com/2013/09/17/air-force-may-scrap-kc-10-tanker-fleet-general/

[28] http://www.defensenews.com/article/20140511/DEFREG02/305110015/USAF-Faces-More-Tough-Choices-2016

[29] The B-1s currently undergo 374 flight hours per year – the B-52s undergo 216 (per airframe). http://www.afsec.af.mil/organizations/aviation/aircraftstatistics/index.asp http://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenthompson/2013/08/16/some-disturbing-facts-about-americas-dwindling-bomber-force/

[30] http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?List=7c996cd7-cbb4-4018-baf8-8825eada7aa2&ID=1441

[31] The Israelis have recently lead the way on showing how to effectively use multi-role aircraft for CAS missions. http://www.defensenews.com/article/20140915/DEFREG04/309150012/Gaza-War-Leaned-Heavily-F-16-Close-Air-Support