The US Air Force is correct in trying to kill the A-10 fleet. It is an archaic vestige reflecting a technology, and a style of warfare, that is outdated by a generation.
It fulfilled the purpose for which it was procured: Killing the Army’s AH-56 Cheyenne attack helicopter program. As a secondary purpose, it has served reasonably well as an interdiction, combat-search-and-rescue (CSAR), escort and close-air support (CAS) platform. Befitting its unique role and visage, it is surrounded by rumors and myths. These myths need to be dispelled so the US Air Force can do the right thing for the nation, its taxpayers and the infantryman on the ground.
Myth No 1: The A-10 is the best aircraft at CAS. The A-10 is in fifth place, at best. The king of CAS is the AC-130. The attributes listed as critical to effective CAS platforms are lethality and loiter. The AC-130 has the competition beat by a country mile. The AC-130 has a 105mm cannon, dual 40mm rapid firing cannons and a 25mm machine gun capable of over 2,500 rounds per minute. It can fly for hours, has pinpoint accuracy and is able to self-target. Unlike the A-10, there is no need for airmen on the ground to control it. Any infantryman asked to pick a support aircraft would choose the AC-130. Incredibly, the AC-130 is normally available only to special operations troops for reasons that remain a deadly mystery to conventional forces.
The A-10 is lauded for its firepower. Firepower is only relevant, however, if it is lethal. The mighty 30mm cannon on the A-10 was designed to kill Soviet armor, not men. The 30mm is surprisingly ineffective against dismounted enemies. The 25mm on the AC-130 is more effective against all but the stoutest armor.
The A-10 was also designed to take advantage of the revolutionary AGM-65 Maverick missile. Today, however, this missile is only one of a myriad of precision weapons available on virtually all combat aircraft. As long as the infantryman knows the location of the enemy, a wide array of ground and air weapons can destroy them. The runners up to the AC-130 in the CAS competition, the Kiowa, Apache, and Cobra attack helicopters, all have guided missiles.
Myth No. 2: Bombers cannot do CAS. Yes, they can. But that is not a testament to the capabilities of the bomber. Rather, it is an indictment of the dangerously outdated method by which the Air Force provides support to the Army. The Air Force wrote the joint doctrine on CAS using methods based on World War II. Dating to a time when Air Force radios couldn’t talk to Army radios and precision-guided munitions were in their infancy, safety demanded that the aircraft be guided by Air Force ground controllers. The Air Force retains this requirement despite the fact that nearly every individual infantryman can talk directly to any NATO aircraft in the sky.
The AC-130 and attack helicopters of today have no need for Air Force ground controllers. Bombers trump the A-10 in that they have longer loiter time and are faster. Bombers and A-10s are equally capable of hitting a target given to them by someone else.
Myth No. 3: The A-10 is more survivable. Since 2001, no fixed-wing combat aircraft have been lost to enemy fire. They are all survivable in permissive airspace. And there will be no CAS available in non-permissive airspace, as combat aircraft will be dedicated to the first priority of destroying enemy air defenses. In the high-intensity combat environment, CAS doctrine demands the neutering of artillery to keep the busy airspace above the battlefield risk-free. If given a choice of an artillery battalion or an A-10 against a highly capable enemy, the infantryman will take his artillery every time.
Let the aircraft range far beyond the front lines destroying targets of opportunity. Once the five-day battle for the air is over, the 10-year war for the lasting peace begins. And this is where CAS becomes decisive.
The A-10’s greatest success was as a fig leaf to hide the Air Force’s disdain for the ground support mission. When they feel comfortable showing their independent streak, they talk of killing the A-10. When pressured to show concern, it lives on. But we cannot afford fig leafs anymore, so let the A-10 move on to the great airplane graveyard in Arizona.
But do not pump those savings into a handful of additional F-35s. Let us finally get some real Air Force support for the conventional ground forces. The service has hundreds of C-130s that often do little more than fly the minimum hours required to keep crew proficiency. The Marines, experts at providing fixed-wing support to the infantryman, created the Harvest Hawk program that converted their KC-130 aircraft to AC-style gunships. These aircraft have most of the capability of the AC-130 at a fraction of the cost.
Take the money saved from the merciful killing of the A-10 and procure Harvest Hawk-type kits for as many C-130s as possible. Then train these Harvest Hawk-130s to provide CAS using Army doctrine and employing modern technology. Or, better yet, use the money to allow the Army to find a replacement for the Kiowa, which was generally preferred by ground forces over the more expensive Apache. Either way, the Air Force can divest the terminal controller community and save those billets for other, more critical, slots.
As a nation, we could afford to keep the A-10, but we shouldn’t. What we cannot afford is to maintain an outdated doctrine of war fighting that made these aircraft appear more capable than they really were. So, for the sake of the infantryman, kill the A-10.
Darling is a US Army infantryman assigned to the Alaska National Guard. These opinions are his own.