Still Needed: A-10 aircraft. (US Air Force)
The US Air Force’s recent proposal to eliminate the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft from its inventory in order to eventually save money for other acquisitions has obvious repercussions far beyond the individual service. It effectively eliminates the close-air support required for the US Army, particularly if the Army intends to focus on its strategic landpower role.
(A recent measure approved by the House Armed Services Committee would block plans to retire the A-10).
While US Marine Corps aviation, whose primary mission has always been close-air support, might be able to provide a slice for the Army, as well as its own forces, that certainly cannot cover what is needed if the Army ever has to engage in close-with-the-enemy-combat with even a moderate army. Does anyone actually believe that the F-35, or even the workhorse F-16, will ever be put into jeopardy in a close-air support role?
Known also as the Warthog, the A-10 is the only aircraft that can consistently survive in that close-air support role. Can the Warthog survive in contested air space? Of course not, but that’s the role of the rest of our tactical aviation inventory — to suppress enemy air defenses so they can’t get close to the battlefield, allowing the A-10 to do what it is designed to do: tank-plinking and destroying other armor and vehicles.
If the Army wants close-air support for its troops, it has no choice but to ensure the A-10 survives as a part of Army aviation, if not in the Air Force.
On the surface, the suggestion that Army aviation take over the A-10 seems a non-starter. It would cost the Army a lot of money (the Air Force estimates they will save $4.2 billion if it is eliminated), money it wants to use elsewhere. But why does the Department of Defense budget have to be a perpetual four-piece pie of equal sizes (the fourth piece being defense agencies and everything else outside the purview of the services)?
At this point, the A-10 still has a logistics infrastructure. There is also no reason the Air Force cannot train Army pilots to fly it, or transfer the A-10 pilots to the Army. And far behind the scenes, there are replacement engines residing out in the desert boneyards in the Navy’s former S-3s, which use the same engines and were retired at their planned half-life.
Air Force airpower doctrine accepts that air support is part of its mission — air support that can be conducted at many thousands of feet, but not the close-air support required for close-with-the-enemy ground combat.
Close-air support has never been part of strategic airpower doctrine, and certainly not a part of the dominant “strike at the center of gravity” or concentric circle theories articulated by Col. John Warden. The US Air Force is about air supremacy, strike and attack of follow-on forces.
Some can argue that in a world of precision weapons and anti-access area-denial threats, the US will never engage in another full-blown land battle, and therefore the issue doesn’t matter. History will prove them wrong, of course.
But they also miss the fact that retaining the ability to conduct determined land combat has both a deterring effect on potential continental enemies, and a reassuring effect for South Korea and our eastern-most NATO allies, among other partners.
One of the lessons of Desert Storm taken away by potential future antagonists — the lesson that propelled their interest in anti-access strategies — is that if the US gets its forces in theater, they will defeat you on the ground. We cannot do that without close-air support.
So what could replace the A-10s in the close-air support role?
Quite frankly, helicopters are more vulnerable than any fixed-wing aircraft, and are slow and have a limited ceiling.
Tilt-wing MV-22 gunships perhaps? Along with potential, they too have limitations, but since it has never really been ascertained whether they should be classified as rotary-wing or fixed-wing aircraft, they would not tread on Air Force doctrine, which has long held that every fixed-wing aircraft belongs in its domain.
In accordance with the inter-Service Johnson-McConnell agreement of 1966, the Army transferred all its remaining fixed-wing aircraft to the Air Force, mostly short-range transports.
In the near term, there is simply no replacement for the A-10. If the Defense Department allows the A-10’s removal, it has effectively given up the close-air support mission — with the exception of that of the Navy/Marine Corps — from its portfolio of capabilities. And without close-air support, alas, it has also given up effective ground combat. ■
Sam Tangredi is a retired US Navy captain and author of the book, “Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies,” and a member of Strategic Insight Ltd., a planning-consulting firm based in Arlington, Va.