Warthog Woes

The A-10 Thunderbolt, most commonly known as the Warthog, is an aircraft so ugly you have to love it. Despite the love the public has for the Warthog, financial realities are rearing their head. It looks like the A-10’s time in service is about to come to an end. Many bemoan this development, without fully understanding the aircrafts history, or how time has passed the A-10 by. My opinion is an unpopular one in many circles. Some will likely tell me I’m simply pro airpower, but my opinion is my own, and an opinion developed by someone who was Army. So no, this isn’t me supporting any effort to deny soldiers and Marines on the ground Close Air Support (CAS).

The single most important thing one should remember, is that CAS is a mission, not an aircraft. The confusion found in the irritable hive mind of the internet on this point is simply incredible. My growing theory as to why the public loves the flying phallic symbol that is the A-10 revolves around the GAU-8. This meshes with the American love of guns. Yes, I fully expect flak for making that statement, but it is a statement I believe to be true.

The beloved GAU-8 is an impressive weapon, no doubt. When used, it sounds a bit like an angry deity unzipping his fly. When you hear that sound, you know trouble is coming. As I said above, people love the gun. What they fail to realize, is that gun is not the most potent weapon carried by the A-10, and the gun was a source of problems during development. During development, exhaust gas ingested by both engines caused a flameout, resulting in the loss of the test aircraft. In the early days, the GAU-8 was just as dangerous to pilots, as it was supposed to be for tanks.

The single most effective anti-armor weapon carried by the A-10 is the AGM-65 Maverick. Review of armor kills by the A-10 in Desert Storm prove this. Those who make the claim that the F-35 cannot serve as an effective CAS aircraft love to overlook the Maverick kill data. Admittedly, the F-35 lacks the GAU-8, but as the GAU-8 was far from the most effective weapon carried by the A-10, this entire line of argument is singularly lacking in merit. F-35 will not carry the AGM-65, but that isn’t something to cry about.

The AGM-65 is a great weapon, but one that has become increasingly long in the tooth. AGM-65 has a range of around fifteen miles. By contrast, the F-35 carrying the JSOW, with weapons released from high altitude, can strike targets out to seventy miles. F-35’s making use of the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, can hit targets out to the fifty mile mark when launched from high altitude. Take note, I am using high altitude release figures for a reason. An F-35 employed in the CAS role at low altitude would be a misuse of capabilities. The same fact applies to the A-10, for different reasons, but I’ll cover that in a moment.

In the public, a position exists that feels the USAF must maintain a dedicated CAS or COIN platform. Once again, those holding this position overlook the fact that CAS is a mission, not an aircraft, and that counter insurgency (COIN) is a doctrine. CAS and COIN are not the same thing, but you will go blue in the face trying to explain this simple truth to ‘true believers’. The A-10, like the A-1 Skyraider, is a CAS aircraft pressed into the COIN roll, due to a lack of mission in the anti-armor role.

One thing many overlook, in regards to the A-10, is where it was designed to operate. The A-10 is an aircraft optimized for operations in a permissive environment. People often liken the Warthog to a flying tank, but that is an incorrect assumption. Yes, it is heavily armored, but is not optimized for operations in an environment where Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) or man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) are present. Lessons were learned from observing the 1973 Arab-Israeli October War, where fourteen percent of Israeli Air Force front line strength was lost in the first forty-eight hours. Only five of these losses came from air-to-air combat. Look at the markedly increased capabilities found in modern IADS and MANPADS today, and you see just how unsurvivable the A-10 would be today, on a battlefield against a well equipped peer opponent. Being overlooked by certain critics is the repeated successful use of Chinese manufactured MANPADS by rebels against the Syrian Air Force. That is a clearcut example of how dangerous such a threat environment would be for the A-10.


At low altitude, the A-10 is incredibly vulnerable. It all boils down to speed, or in the case of the A-10, a lack of speed. Combine this vulnerability with a MANPADS saturated environment, and you have a recipe for disaster. During Desert Storm, the A-10 took extensive damage from ground fire, leading to the A-10’s being re-tasked to engage less formidable targets than the Republican Guard tank divisions. When you point this out to certain highly opinionated individuals, they sputter with ‘but….but…its a flying tanks’. As armored as the A-10 may be, it is not invulnerable to ground fire, let alone MANPADS or SAMS. Instead of covering the large number of A-10’s damaged, I’ll simply cover those downed by enemy fire.

Desert Storm:

OA-10A 76-0543

Shot down by Infra Red SAM (SA-9) 19 Feb 1991 62 nm North West of Kuwait city. 23rd TASS/602nd TACW (NF). The 23 US combat lost aircraft. Pilot Lt Col Jeffery Fox (40 from Fall River, Mass) call sign “NAIL53” was injured as he ejected and captured as POW and released 03/05/91.

OA-10A 77-0197

Crashed on landing. 23rd TASS/602nd TACW. Aircraft had been hit by small arms and was attempting a landing at KKMC FOL while in Manual Reversion after loosing all its hydraulics and in extreme weather conditions. On landing the aircraft cat wheeled wingtip over wingtip flipped over on to its back killing the pilot Lt Patrick Olson. There was nothing left of the aircraft. The remains of the aircraft were buried at the FOL.

A-10A 78-0722

Shot down in combat 15 Feb 1991. 353rd TFS/354th TFW hit by ground fire 60 miles north west of Kuwait city while attacking Republican Guard targets. Thought to have been engaged by SA-13 ‘Gopher’ SAM. Pilot Lt James Sweet ejected and made Prisoner of War.

A-10A 79-0130

Shot down in combat 15 Feb 1991. 353th TFS/354th TFW hit by ground fire approx 60 miles north west of Kuwait city while attacking Republican Guard targets. Thought to have been engaged by SA-13 ‘Gopher’ SAM. Pilot Capt Steven Phyllis killed in action. Capt. Steve Phyllis died while protecting his downed wingman, 1st Lt. Robert James Sweet.

A-10A 79-0181

Crashed on landing, wheels up, hard stick landing by pilot Capt Rich Biley on 22 Feb 1991.

A-10A 80-0248

Shot down in combat by ‘optical AAA’ fire 2 Feb 1991 shot down by ground fire or SAM 20 NM SW of Kuwait City, Kuwait. Pilot Capt Richard Dale Storr ejected and captured as POW Released 03/05/91. From 23rd TFW.

Operation Iraqi Freedom:

A-10A (Serial Number : 78-0691) of 124th Wing/190th FS shot down by enemy fire, probably by an Iraqi Roland SAM; pilot survived and was recovered by friendly forces.

What did the USAF send after Republican Guard formations? The F-16. Over the course of several wars, the F-16 has proven a very capable CAS platform. Throughout operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the F-16 has performed this role. That is the benefit of a multi-mission aircraft. Often, critics bemoan multi-mission aircraft as jack of all trades yet master of none. That is a foolish complaint, in my opinion. For those who question this stance, I suggest you read the opinion of General Chuck Horner on the matter.

An example of the effectiveness of the F-16, and by default multi-mission aircraft in the CAS role, read an exert from the 50th Tactical Fighter Wing Report from Desert Storm.

On 24 February, an Air Force Captain leading a flight of four F-16s from the 10th Tactical Fighter Squadron was redirected to support a 16-member Special Forces team in trouble more than 135 miles from the flight’s original target. The SF team was surrounded by a company size Iraqi force. The lead pilot directed his flight to attack the approaching enemy troops. With disregard for intense enemy 23-mm and 37-mm anti-aircraft fire, his flight made multiple attacks, placing cluster bomb munitions on target – as close as 200 meters from friendly positions. On the last pass, while low on fuel, the Captain put his bombs exactly on target, causing numerous enemy casualties and forcing the remaining enemy troops to retreat. Army helicopters extracted the SF team without a single Coalition Casualty.

                                                                                                                                            -50th Tactical Fighter Wing Report

In the current budget environment, no room exists for a single mission platform. The military as a whole must focus on multi-mission platforms as a matter of course. To stretch defense dollars to their most, each dollar invested must be used for platforms that can serve many roles. Sadly, the A-10 is not that platform. Over a decade of war has shown the flexibility afforded commanders with multi-mission platforms. If anything, the value of the F-35 in the CAS role is one the programs many critics fail to grasp. Operating at high altitude, the F-35 need not worry about absorbing the punishing ground fire that claimed so many A-10’s, and damaged so many others. The weapons set is there, the sensor set is there, and the survivability in an IADS threat environment is there. The A-10 is a platform lacking in sensors, whereas the F-35 is not. Consider for a moment, the use of the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System in the CAS role.

Many love to believe that the A-10 is a less expensive aircraft to operate, than other multi-mission platforms. What these individuals overlook is the total cost to operate versus the per flight hour cost. People, infrastructure, and logistics chains are the true high dollar costs. Retirement of the A-10 does not bring the large scale savings the current budgetary environment demands. Instead, the elimination of supporting organizations, personnel, and support infrastructure is where true savings are realized. The A-10 is a narrowly purposed platform, with dubious value in a peer threat environment. Eliminating the cost of maintaining a platform with limited major war value justifies increased costs found in maintaining more expensive and survivable multi-mission aircraft, such as the F-35.

This is the point where many put forth the idea that the A-10 should simply be turned over to the Army, or Marines, or even USSOCOM. That idea is a nonstarter on many levels. Instead of delving into the many failings of these ideas, I’ll concentrate on budget alone. Neither the Army or USMC could afford the A-10. Take a look at the budget contractions for both services. If they were to somehow talk their way into laying claim to the A-10, already painful budget shortfalls would turn lethal. Within these shrinking budgets, the Army and USMC would be forced to standup training, logistics, basing, and sustainment programs. For those who cry about reduced troop levels, I find it incredible that they fail to wonder how many further troop reductions would be required to support the A-10.  Ongoing structural upgrades, along with the wing replacement program, would be far more expensive than you think. As for giving the A-10 to USSOCOM, the problem is they don’t want it, it does nothing to support the overall mission, and their budget is also going to shrink

Retirement of the A-10 isn’t an example of the Air Force walking away from the CAS mission. This also isn’t an example of an airframe being retired to make possible procurement of another, such as the F-35. This is a simple matter of functionality and total cost. If you want to vent your spleen over the A-10’s retirement, its silly to direct your anger at the F-35, Lockheed Martin, of the United States Air Force. You would be better served directing your anger at Congress. All of this stems from sequestration, so if you want something to be angry at, be angry at sequestration and the refusal of Congress to address the sequester. For advocates of a strong defense, I ask why is it you feel such rage for investment in a survivable multi-role aircraft, yet advocate continued investment in a single role platform that is widely known to be unsurvivable in combat against a peer nation equipped with modern equipment?

Its easy to get romantic about the venerable Warthog, but committing scarce defense dollars to a platform that offers limited functionality is the height of folly. Those who demand a strong defense should applaud the retirement of the A-10, as this allows for continued investment in platforms and capabilities that will better serve our nation, while performing missions vital to the safety of those who serve in uniform.

~ by arcturus415 on September 19, 2013.

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