December 09, 2013
Credit: Staff Sgt Aaron Allmon/USAF
Once again, the U.S. Chair Force wants to sacrifice the blood of the heroic infantry in favor of Mitchellesque strategic-bombing dreams and white-scarf fighter missions. It should be disbanded and its functions assigned to fighting services made up of Real Men.
That view is not far beneath a debate over close air support (CAS) that has smoldered over decades like a case of inter-service malaria. The latest attack of fevers and night sweats has been triggered by the revelation of Air Force sequester-based budget plans that include retirement of the A-10 Warthog, which nobody ever calls by its official name of Thunderbolt II.
The Air Force is in a fiscal trap that is partly of its own making. Aging combat fleets and an unmanned aerial system (UAS) force that can't survive against any form of air defense are two of its closing walls. The service cannot find the will to escape from its commitment to raise its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter buy rate to 80 per year, but it also sees a stark need for aircraft with longer range.
The way to make big savings, the service argues, is to chop entire fleets, shut down their training and logistics infrastructure, and stop paying modernization bills. The KC-10 and B-1 bomber—alongside the A-10—are in just the first wave, but older F-16s and F-15C/Ds are next.
Unfortunately, the A-10 has been the big, ugly symbol of the CAS debate since its conception in the 1960s. The USAF only built it in the first place, it is argued, to deflect the Army's attempt to take over the mission with the fast and costly AH-56A Cheyenne compound helicopter. Now, say the boot-centric warfare believers, the USAF wants to dump CAS completely.
That argument is off-target. In the last 10 years, the USAF and its allies have provided CAS using fighters, helicopters and gunships. The soldier on the ground wants firepower and cares little where it comes from, so guided artillery and fiber-optic guided missiles have a role to play as well.
Within this family, the A-10 is different but not unique. What it brings to the party is better persistence than a supersonic fighter, lower cost per hour and—its advocates argue that this is crucial—flight characteristics that are better suited to operations beneath an overcast.
You may argue that I'm missing something here. How do you know when your conversation with a Hog pilot is half over? “That's enough about me, let's talk about my gun.” But the A-10 gun, designed to decapitate T-62 tanks, is not ideal for CAS. The attack profile calls for the pilot to turn into a gun run at a considerable distance from the target, at an angle where a small difference in elevation means a big difference in where the bullets hit, and to finish firing before the aircraft busts a height limit. Today's CAS technology has many ways to deliver the precision that in the 1970s demanded a gun.