A-10 looks safe… for now

USAF sings A-10’s praises as CAS mission is reviewed

On December 15, Lisa Disbrow, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for financial management told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the demand for the Close Air Support (CAS) mission had increased due to the current operations in Syria and Iraq.

‘We’re taking a hard look at it, and if confirmed, I look forward to working towards an acceptable plan for recapitalizing this incredibly important mission area.’ she said.

The A-10 was initially reluctant to turn to the A-10 in the fight against so-called Islamic State, but now the Warthog appears to be a platform of choice to strike these targets in the uncontested environment in the eastern deserts of Syria and in Iraq.

The US Air Force’s primary case for retiring the A-10 centers upon the fact that it says precision weaponry has removed the need for a CAS platform such as the Warthog to operate ‘down in the weeds’ over the battlefield. The broad plan is that the new F-35A Lightning II plus types such as the F-15E will easily assume the CAS role, if it is required. Others argue that the US Air Force will bid farewell to ‘true CAS’ forever.

A-10 political supporters argue that there is no suitable replacement for the A-10 mission and they point to current crises in the Middle East. However others point out that the latest block to retiring the A-10 has cost the DoD money that it simply cannot afford. A plan to fund the A-10 for one year under the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act attracted opposition as it drew from the overseas war fund.

The USAF is desperate to ensure it has the correct and requisite funding in place in order to enable a full procurement of types such as its 1,763 F-35As and it therefore needs to make savings whilst protecting important future programs.

Cutting a portion of the A-10 fleet simply wouldn’t yield the level of savings required as all of the support infrastructure, etc, would need to remain in place. So it’s all or nothing.

Transferring the A-10s to another force such as the Army wouldn’t work either. The Army is struggling with funding as it is. It is cutting its entire OH-58 Kiowa fleet to save precious cash, and transferring that mission to the Apache.

Moving the A-10 to the Army would actually increase the funding burden of the A-10. A cadre of Army pilots would need to be trained, plus the support and infrastructure costs would need to be established and would be extraordinary. So, the Army isn’t an option.

What about a close ally? There are few that could take on a fleet such as this but it is an option that has been mooted.

The argument for the retention of the A-10 is pretty clear. The A-10 community is all about flying what it calls ‘true’ close air support. Jotting down the nine-line brief from the JTAC on the canopy in grease pencil, integrating with ground artillery, understanding in real detail what the ground forces require. This is the bread and butter of the A-10 community.

One A-10 pilot that CA spoke to said that his great fear was that other communities such as the F-16 don’t live and breathe CAS. They have a broad understanding and knowledge of a range of roles (multi-role), but they don’t have the same CAS-culture that exists with the A-10s.

So, this is more than an argument about the platform, it’s as much about the mission that the US government wants to meet. And the A-10 community argues that the mission that has been conducted over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan is not ‘true CAS’, but armed overwatch. Non-Traditional Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (NTISR), it is argued, better describes the recent mission; supporting troops in contact in offensive and defensive positions, looking for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), orbiting around areas of suspicion, putting bombs on coordinates. This has redefined what leaders call CAS, and supports the argument that F-15Es and B-1s for example can do it — everyone does everything. However, one A-10 pilot argued that a B-1 would have a hard time engaging troops that are 50m from the friendlies.

Clearly the US military needs to stay at the leading edge, and requires types such as the F-35. However, ending the A-10 would see the end of the ‘true CAS’ culture.

Saving 283 aircraft would be sufficient to sustain the A-10 community, with some possible savings achieved through drawing down the active duty inventory, but many A-10 supporters say that the force is down to the ‘bare bones’ already.

This maybe points to US Air Force priorities. Top of the list is air superiority, followed closely by interdiction; long-range bombers striking targets behind the front line, with CAS being paid lip service further down the pecking order behind logistics and ISR.

However, one could ask when the last time this ‘true CAS’ was needed, in a dynamic confrontation of conventional forces — it was Operation ‘Desert Storm’ in 1991.

Some may argue that the change in the approach to CAS has come about with the advent of greater integration between the JTAC and the cockpit, with datalinks and the greater use of targeting pods and GPS/laser weapons, which means CAS can be conducted from medium level nowadays. A-10 pilots would disagree.

Future solutions

The arrival of the F-35 should, in the opinion of A-10 pilots, work in the favor of the A-10. Many argue that it is the Marine Corps that will suffer most from the arrival of the F-35B. It’s insistency on having a STOVL Harrier replacement in the F-35B that can be deployed to austere strips or operated from its LHD carriers is understandable, you rarely get a capability back once you lose it. But how relevant is the F-35B to the Marine Air Group’s core role of supporting the troops on the ground. The F-35B capability lends itself to the interdictor mission more than the CAS mission. How well will an F-35 lend itself to close air support? The stealthy fighter isn’t known for its agility, and would be unlikely to operate at low level over the battlefield. Instead opting to use the sensors and smart weapons to deliver effect from altitude, keeping armchair CAS supporters happy, but not best serving the troops on the ground in harms way.

What about strafe? Using the aircraft’s gun is very much on the need list for recent operations, with renewed emphasis on this old but effective low collateral tactic. To be accurate, this needs to be done from relatively low level. Pointing at the ground in a shallow dive for a not-insignificant amount of time is going to be a core part of what the Marine F-35B is going to need to do.

So what about the newer CAS applications such as the AT-6B Wolverine or the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano. Both of these have been evaluated as possible low cost CAS-specialist platforms. The Super Tucano in particular was evaluated under the ‘Imminent Fury’ program by the US military, with the type also now having been selected for the LAS requirement to supply a new aircraft to the Afghan Air Force. A-10 pilots argue that platforms such as these are only relevant in conflicts such as the Afghan counterinsurgency that we have seen over the last decade. Unlike the A-10, the turboprops lack the robustness of the A-10 would not stand up well in a contested environment. A-10 pilots point to the Warthog’s maneuverability, its battle-damage protection, redundancy of systems, effective use of electronic warfare, and speed. ‘Couple of pulls of the trigger and an AT-6 would be going home’ commented one pilot.

So, have the senior officers have got it wrong? A true CAS platform is still required, and the A-10 still best suits this requirement. Maybe CAS cannot be achieved from altitude and that the push for the F-35 is aimed more at politics and economics over tactical considerations. Time will tell as to whether the USAF decides it needs to retain some A-10s, or whether it will recapitalise with something like an AT-6 or an A-29.

The full version of this feature appeared in the September 2014 issue of Combat Aircraft.

Our forthcoming February 2016 issue features reviews of the A-29 Super Tucano and the AT-6 Wolverine.

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