Death, taxes, and the A-10 getting the axe in the most recent U.S. budget proposal. You can almost set your watch by it.
The United States Air Force is trying to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II, better known as the Warthog, for the umpteenth year in a row. But the USAF’s case to retire the A-10 is taking on water, and they’ve recently been shown to have “cherry-picked” data to make the A-10’s performance in the Middle East look bad.
Yet, in the same breath, they sent A-10s to the Middle East to help combat ISIL in October of last year, and now they are sending a few more back to Eastern Europe in case the Russians get too frisky with Ukraine.
As this article on Foxtrot Alpha declares in no uncertain terms, the USAF’s case for retiring the A-10 is:
“…total bulls**t and both the American taxpayer and those who bravely fight our wars on the ground should be furious.”
Tyler Rogoway has gone so far as to declare it “sabotage.” And he’s right. The A-10 is, contrary to what the Air Force wants you to believe, a cheap and deadly multi-role aircraft that can do the jobs that nothing else can do.
This is par for the course for the Air Force brass, who cannot make a halfway logical procurement decision if it meant saving their own lives. Retiring the A-10, so they say, will save the USAF $4.7 billion over five years – $4.7 billion that could go to bringing the F-35 along, as though that’s all it would need.
First flown in 1972, and introduced into service in 1977, the A-10 is unquestionably the greatest close support attack aircraft ever produced. So great is the A-10 at its job that, nearly 40 years after its service introduction, it still flies in front-line service, and has outlived its original manufacturer, Fairchild-Republic.
That, the Air Force says, is the problem. They want to shut down the last 315 Warthogs still flying to clear room in the budget for their beloved and problematic F-35
jobs program Joint Strike Fighter.
Truth is, the USAF is right. The A-10 is approaching 40 years old. There is only so much upgrading the Air Force can do to a four-decade-old airframe before the airframe itself is simply done. It does need to be retired.
But here’s the issue: What the Air Force needs to replace the A-10 is…wait for it…more A-10s.
The F-35 can’t do what the A-10 does
Fairchild-Republic built 716 A-10s. It was the last production military aircraft built by the storied stable that also produced the P-47 Thunderbolt, F-84 Thunderjet and F-105 Thunderchief – all tough aircraft that were built to get dirty and help the grunts on the ground. The A-10 was the next logical step in that evolution, and embodied everything that Republic stood for from World War II on.
Now that we’re in 2015, there have been a number of technical advancements that the A-10 has simply missed out on. What has held up over time is its legendary toughness, maneuverability, and the deadly accuracy and hitting power provided by its GAU-8 Avenger cannon.
But the aircraft the USAF wants to replace the Warthog with – the problematic F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the A-10:
- Being a stealth aircraft, it’s designed to evade radar detection. Where the A-10 flies, among the weeds and behind hills, the concept of radar evasion is irrelevant.
- The A-10 was built around its gun and a titanium “bathtub” in which the pilot sits. The F-35 doesn’t have that armor.
- The F-35 is designed to be supersonic. The A-10 most certainly was not. In fact, its lack of speed is an asset, in that it is a stable platform to aim its weapons from.
- The A-10 is highly maneuverable, with its long, straight wings and dual tailplane. The F-35’s high wing loading reduces its maneuverability to a point that air-to-air tests are showing it’s a serious problem.
- The A-10 costs $18.8 million per copy in 2004 dollars. A single F-35A – the Air Force version – costs $114 million per copy.
- The A-10 has 11 external hardpoints, which can carry up to a maximum of 16,000 pounds of ordnance, although usually it carries less than that. The F-35 can carry 18,000 pounds max, but on only six hardpoints, plus two internal bays, so it can carry heavier loads, but not as much stuff in one go.
- The A-10 has two engines arranged on pylons at the rear, such that it can get home on one of them if the other gets blown up. The F-35 has one engine, so if you knock that out, you knock out the whole plane.
If the USAF decides to replace the A-10 with the F-35, it will be a multi-billion-dollar mistake. It’s already shied away from it once because the F-35 couldn’t “generate enough sorties” to replace the Warthog. So what the hell good is a front-line close support aircraft that can’t get into the air enough when things go sideways?
Reopen the lines
The Air Force should not buy the F-35 to replace the A-10. Instead, it should re-open the production lines and buy more A-10s.
This is not unprecedented. The U-2 was initially produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When the USAF needed more U-2s, they asked Lockheed to re-open the lines to produce two new variants, the TR-1 (later U-2S) and U-2R. Production ended in the mid-1980s, 25 years after the first U-2s rolled off the line at the Skunk Works.
There is only one snag in doing the same with the A-10: The original manufacturer, Fairchild-Republic, no longer exists. Currently, Northrop Grumman is the owner of all A-10 assets, having purchased them from the dying firm in 1987.
A new A-10 variant – let’s call it a Northrop Grumman A-10D Super Warthog – as speculated in this article from War is Boring, would retain the A-10’s rugged survivability and performance, while adding these new things the pilots want:
- Upgraded engines from the old and tired TF34 turbofans. Currently, the A-10 has a hard time taking off with a full modern weapons and fuel load. A little more speed always helps too.
- Better avionics and weapons equipment, like infrared sensors, cockpit displays, and as suggested, Northrop-Grumman’s own LITENING II targeting equipment.
- Better defensive systems, like missile warning and electronic warfare equipment.
Should a new A-10D variant come on line, it should have these and more and still remain under $20-25 million a piece. If it did, the Air Force could save the taxpayers a lot of money and re-focus the development of the F-35 to replace just the F-16 instead.
In addition, there could be some new customers.
An A-10 for the Marines
If the Marines had waved a magic wand in the early 1970s and said, “Give us an attack aircraft,” they would have gotten the A-10.
They probably wouldn’t have gotten the AV-8B Harrier II, which, despite its remarkable ability to take off and land without a runway, is highly vulnerable and occasionally unreliable.
But the Harrier’s best advantage is that it can operate very close to the battlefield and from ships, like the Marines’ Wasp-class amphibious assault carriers.
Now the Marines want their own variant of the F-35, the F-35B, complete with weight-costly and vulnerable STO/VL technology, to replace the Harrier. For a service hell-bent on reliability and toughness, the F-35B sure looks like it’s full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
The F-35B is also slated to replace the F/A-18 in Marine service, and perhaps it can as a lightweight multi-role fighter. But for close air support, again, what the Marines need is their own version of the A-10.
Let’s say we re-opened the lines again for a Marines version of the A-10. It should be just as tough as the USAF version, but let’s see if we can do something really fun: make it carrier-capable.
The message board folks have already speculated about it on occasion, but let’s think about it seriously. A theoretical A-10E Sea Hog close support carrier-capable aircraft would require more than a few modifications:
- Folding wings for storage on a carrier.
- Heavily strengthened undercarriage to handle violent carrier landings and take-offs.
- Arresting gear to land on the carrier.
- It might be interesting to see if an A-10 could take off from a carrier using a ski-jump (like the British and Russians) with a full load and without a catapult. The Marines do not have ski-jumps on their carriers for the Harriers, even though the Royal Navy does.
This image is not real. But if it were, it would be very cool:
As it is, if the USAF doesn’t want their remaining A-10Cs anymore, the Marines should take them off their hands. Heaven knows they’d be all too happy to do so.
Could there be room for the A-10B?
In 1979, The USAF converted one A-10A with a second seat, as the YA-10B. The plane was designed as a Night/All-Weather attack aircraft. Trials were successful, but Congress did not fund production of the A-10B, so the program was abandoned.
But now would be an interesting time to resurrect the A-10B concept. While night and all-weather chores can be handled by single-seaters thanks to the march of technology since 1979, a two-seat A-10 might be a useful prospect in areas like the Middle East, where forward air control and counter-insurgency aircraft would be needed. In addition, the A-10B would also be a useful tool in the Air Rescue Escort role, a-la the old ‘Sandys’, the A-1 Skyraiders, in Vietnam.
The A-10 now
All of this is speculation and wishful thinking. For the moment, the A-10 will remain in service until at least 2019 if retirement is to commence, but if Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona, a former A-10 driver, gets her way, the Warthog will be around until 2028.
Also coming to the aid of the Warthog are numerous veterans, who say they owe their lives to the A-10 and its pilots.
Ultimately, the truth is that the USAF doesn’t have a replacement for the A-10. The F-35 can’t do it. And for that matter, the F-35 cannot do what the Marines want it to do either, at least not in comparison to existing hardware, like the Harrier or the A-10 itself.
As we said above, the only realistic replacement for the A-10 is the A-10, and it will continue to remain so until the chiefs either come up with a cheap alternative, or take the not-unprecedented step of re-opening production of the Warthog.