Remember the A-16? Don’t worry — the US Air Force doesn’t, either.
Without question, the stepchild of the Air Force is the A-10 “Warthog.” It isn’t pretty. Worse, it’s defined as a single-mission aircraft — a cardinal sin in today’s environment where even air superiority aircraft have to portray an ability to perform a secondary mission.
Yet, thanks to civilian control of the Air Force, the venerable and battle-proven A-10 is now approaching its fourth decade of service to the United States. Throughout its illustrious career, the Warthog has faced only one serious threat: the budget cutters within the Air Force.
Each trip to the gallows for the A-10 has been accompanied by the rationale that other platforms can adequately perform the close-air support (CAS) mission. The common denominators of the “other platforms” have been afterburning engines (read fast), air-to-air radars (read cool and highly desirable for Red Flag and other training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.), and cannons either designed for air-to-air combat or added as an afterthought. In short: characteristics necessary for modern fighter aircraft but having little utility in the CAS environment.
Today’s replacement for the A-10 is the F-35. Like the previous CAS replacements, it has the common denominators listed above. But before the Air Force starts making room for the remaining A-10s at the boneyard in Arizona, it would behoove the service to study its first attempt to replace the slow and ugly Warthog during the 1980s. The blond-haired, blue-eyed choice of that era: the A-16.
According to an April 1989 Air Force Magazine article, the “close air support fighter” for the 1990s was “stuck in the bureaucratic bogs of Washington.” About $27 million had been spent on the issue, and the debate was settled. The answer was the A-16, a modified variant of the F-16.
Critics of the A-16, flat-Earthers of the day, were labeled as supporters of a nostalgic “mudfighter,” an upgraded A-10 or similar plane that was “slow and simple, but heavily armored.” According to the article, such a platform would not survive the battlefield of tomorrow and was not even capable of providing the “kind of air support the Army needs and says it wants.” Speaking at an Air Force Association symposium in January 1989, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Welch said, “The data does not say ‘mudfighter.’ No matter how you slice it, the data says A-16.”
Fast forward to 1991. Among the many types of aircraft sent to expel Iraq from Kuwait were squadrons of A-10s and F/A-16s of the 174th Tactical Fighter Wing. Modified with a 30mm gun pod, the F/A-16s would validate the $27 million study and show the doubters in Washington that the days of the mudfighter had passed. It didn’t work out that way. The A-10 performed brilliantly. The F/A-16 proved to be a near disaster, and the gun pods were downloaded within days of the start of the air war. And the A-16? It was never heard of again.
So what’s different this time? Not that much. Like the F-16, the F-35 will be a remarkable aircraft. It will excel in interdiction and is expected to be very capable in counter-air operations against near-peer competitors. Unfortunately, the ability to conduct traditional, primary, or in the words of the critics, glamorous air operations does not translate well into the CAS environment. “Traditional” air combat values speed; CAS does not. Traditional air combat is one pass and haul ass; loiter time is a critical requirement of CAS.
In CAS, size and numbers matter. The A-10 was built around a 30mm cannon with more than 1,000 rounds. The Air Force version of the F-35 will carry a smaller 25mm cannon with 180 rounds (yes, 180 — that’s not a typo. Strafe the ditch by the line of trees? You’ll need a four-ship of F-35s.
In the Air Force’s defense, it should be noted the Navy and Marine F-35s do not even have a gun. They will have to carry the 25mm cannon in a gun pod. There is not one key aspect of the CAS mission where the F-35 will be better than the A-10. Not one.
No one envies the Air Force’s budget dilemma. However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the wars we’re fighting today are ones where the enemy has more in common with a 19th century militia than a modern military. The low-end war is not going away, and to succeed, our nation will need to fight and bring home every son and daughter we possibly can.
For troops in contact, the A-10 is one of America’s best weapons. It should be retained until we can afford a real replacement. ■
Chris Choate is a retired US Air Force colonel who performs operational test and evaluation work with the service as a civilian employee. These views reflect only those of the author.