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 itsJoint 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 olderand /Ds are next.
Unfortunately, the A-10 has been the big, ugly symbol of the CAS debate since its conception in the 1960s. Theonly 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.
The A-10 may have a valid niche role. Its existence alone preserves an Air Force CAS culture, a force that practices that difficult art most of the time. But there is no scenario that calls for 240 of them (the Air Force's pre-sequester planned fleet, through 2030) and the Pentagon's cumbersome economics make small fleets expensive. A better solution might be to think of unconventional ways to sustain a small force of A-10s at a reasonable cost.
Anyone who has been following the development of CAS ought to know these things, as they ought to know that the theoretically CAS-mindedhas mortgaged its future in order to acquire supersonic stealth fighters (with a two-burst gun pod option), the U.S. Army's attack helicopters have been generously funded, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff—chaired by one aviator in the last 30 years—signed off on the F-35 as the A-10 replacement. (But it's the Air Force's fault somehow.)
What is really happening is that some critics of the Air Force like the A-10 not for what it can do, but for what it can't—operate offensively against air defenses—and because it forces the Air Force, despite its own selfish plans, to do its job and support ground forces.
But there's that irritating real world, where the ground forces can't get to the fight without airlift; can't stay there without air supremacy; don't know where their adversaries are without air force-provided intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and can't talk to their headquarters or even know where they are without spacecraft, which were not wafted into orbit by green-cammo'ed leprechauns, strange as that may seem.
One sure way to get nowhere is to use the A-10 as a symbol of an offensive against independent airpower. In World War 1, debate over military aviation pitted Army officers who thought that the airplane was a very large horse against Navy leaders who saw it as a small torpedo boat. Some people don't seem to have moved on.