The U.S. Air Force won’t consider retiring the A-10 Warthog from service at least until 2021, according to news reports. That’s a relief for ground troops who have come to rely on this workhorse of a plane.
Defense News reports talks over the A-10's future are still ongoing, with some deliberations over if the platform needs to be replaced with a new program altogether. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said today that he would like to see the conversation around the close air support mission (CAS) move from a “platform-centric discussion” that focuses on whether the A-10 is needed or not, to a more “family of systems” approach that recognizes that a variety of aircraft support operations on the ground.
Translation from bureaucrat to real English: the Warthog, like any other plane, is not a multi-purpose aircraft, and the military these days loves multi-purpose everything, as the great F-35 can program makes clear. The A-10, on the other hand, needs to be discussed with the purposes it was built for in mind.
Goldfein also admitted to the A-10's usefulness on CAS missions, particularly in Afghanistan. For example, in southern Afghanistan, the open fields are ideal for the A-10; B-1B bombers, he said, were ideal for northern Afghanistan.
“If I had gone to those ground force commanders and said, ‘Hey, I’ve swapped out B-1s for A-10s or F-16s,’ he would have rightly looked at me and said, ‘Why? They can’t get there fast enough and they don’t have enough gas,’” he said.
The Air Force has tried for years to retire the Warthog to no avail. In 2015, the service called for the aircraft’s end to save costs to pay for the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter. As much as $4.2 billion could be saved over five years by retiring the Warthog, the Air Force argued.
However, the Government Accountability Office poured cold water on that argument in a report, saying that:
A-10 divestment could increase the operational tempo of remaining CAS-capable aircraft, which could increase costs related to extending the service lives of those remaining CAS-capable aircraft. To the extent that this occurs, it would reduce the actual savings from the A-10 divestiture below the estimated $4.2 billion.
As Foxtrot Alpha previously reported, the Air Force never really provided a good reason for retiring the Warthog in the first place:
Sure it may not have a stealthy airframe, but that does not mean that the A-10 is not survivable. In fact that means that the designers at Fairchild Republic, who originally built the Warthog, were realists when it came to the myriad of threats facing such a machine. The aircraft was designed to absorb enemy fire, not rely on perishable technologies to hide from it, something it has done and survived to fight another day many times over. Additionally, the Warthog was designed to operate at extremely low attitudes, even in dismal conditions under a low hanging cloud deck, which is in its own right a form of radar avoidance still highly relevant to air arms around the world today. In other words, the same “inhospitable environment” that Pentagon leaders are pitching to justify the A-10's final farewell, are exactly the same conditions the jet was designed to survive in some 40 years ago.
Basically, the designers of the Warthog intended for it to fight in the very conditions the brass claims it is not qualified for.
Officially called the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, the Warthog was developed during the height of the Cold War during the 1960s and was brought into service during the 1970s. It has been deployed regularly to help troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is the only plane in the Air Force designed to engage in close air support to defend troops from tanks, artillery fire and other attacks. What makes it particularly deadly is its survivability, which can take intense enemy fire and keep on fighting another day.
The Warthog is armed with a seven-barrel GAU-8 Avenger cannon that fires 30mm armor-piercing shells at a rate of 3,900 rounds per minute. As deadly as that sounds, the barrel is incredibly heavy, taking up as much as 16 percent of the plane’s unladen weight. It’s not the fastest bird in the air, that’s for sure. But in exchange for speed – which isn’t really needed for a close air support mission – it gets survivability, like a cockpit and flight control system that are protected with 1,200 pounds of titanium armor called the “bathtub.” It can take fire from armor-piercing projectiles up 23mm rounds and 57mm fragments.
And there’s another reason why the Air Force’s past attempts to ditch the A-10 haven’t met with much traction: it has a low rate of killing civilians than other fixed-wing aircraft, according to a report report from RAND. The lower number of casualties is attributed to its direct-fire cannon in CAS situations. Other aircraft tend to use guided missiles.
In layman’s terms, a cannon is much more precise than a bomb.
The Air Force has been trying to retire the Warthog for years, but research—and testimonies from troops praising its qualities—conclude that it works just fine for the purposes it was built for: saving American and coalition troops’ asses in the 11th hour.