Just about 10 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall stated that he was “not aware of any current plan, or even discussion of a current plan to field or provide A-10s to the Ukrainians. This was when the Pentagon was predicting that Kyiv would fall within days and the entire country within a week or so. What a difference five months makes. Months that pointed to two distinct failures of the intelligence agencies of the US and NATO. One of those failures was to grossly overestimate the capabilities of the Russians and the other was to grossly underestimate the fighting capabilities of the Ukrainians. The reasons we so overestimated Russia comes as some surprise as it is no longer closed to the West in the way it was during the Soviet Union and we had few eyeballs on the ground in that country to give us first-hand knowledge of the condition of the Russian army, navy and air forces. People from the West can travel pretty freely to Russia now and it’s really surprising we seem to not have any human intelligence assets in the country. During the Cold War, most of the Russians who spied for the US did so for ideological reasons, they hated Communism. Today, Russia is a kind of kleptocracy within a police state and has its ideological dissenters that might help the West with intelligence (if we asked). The other option is paying cold, hard cash in a country that is notorious for its deep, systematic corruption (if we offered to pay).
We also got the fighting ability of Ukraine all wrong as well. This one is more disturbing because we actually have intelligence assets in the country and even working with the Ukrainian armed forces. Since 2014, the US and NATO have had a permanent training mission inside the country working with all of Ukraine’s uniformed services. Somehow all these US and NATO military personnel working side by side with the Ukrainian military for 8 years all came away with the impression that Ukraine would be all but helpless against a Russian invasion.
These two faulty intel assessments led to some unfortunate consequences for Ukraine. For years before the latest invasion, both NATO and the US refused to provide Ukraine with the offensive weapons they were begging for. It seems the general attitude was that any weapons sent to Ukraine represented throwing good money after bad and would only result in upsetting Putin.
Even after Ukraine showed they could hold their own against what was believed to be the second most powerful army in the world, the US and NATO have rummaged around in the bargain bin giving Ukraine mostly obsolete and discontinued weapons systems like the Javelin ATGM, Stinger missile, Harpoons Anti-ship missiles, aged howitzers, self-propelled guns, and fighting vehicles like the M-113. Even with the very limited numbers of HIMARS missile artillery we have sent over there are about two generations behind the curve in terms of the missiles it fires. The administration refused to give Ukraine the 300km range M-48 (ATACMS Quick Reaction Unitary (QRU)) missile with GPS-aided guidance for fear Ukraine would shoot them into Russia to target their cruise missile launch sites.
We also balked at the idea of providing Ukraine with F-16s which are well past their freshness date as we replace them with variants of the F-35. While it’s true that training pilots and ground crew to operate the F-16 does take months to do, the US has now had months to do it. Had we started immediately when the invasion began in late February, F-16s would now be in the skies over Ukraine.
Now, the latest Bargain Bin War idea has the idea of sending A-10s to Ukraine back on the table. On July 20th at the Aspen Forum reporters were told that the Air Force planned again to retire the A-10s after spending a small fortune on upgrading them in 2020 after the last time they tried to get rid of them, promising that the F-35 could fill that role. There are very good reasons to doubt the Air Force would ever be willing to let a $110 million dollar fighter like the F-35 fly low enough to the ground to do effective Close Air Support(CAS). The Air Force generally hates the idea of dedicated CAS role aircraft and squadrons(it is a specialty) and wishes the army would just do with Apache helicopters and leave them alone to do air superiority at 35 thousand feet.
The F-35, with its amazing Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire control radar, could perform CAS from high altitude but it would have to first develop guided munitions with low explosive yields under 100lbs to drop bombs danger close to the troops. So far, the Air Force hasn’t shown much interest in doing that.
In Aspen, Secretary Kendall told reporters that they were now open to “discussions” with Ukraine as to what their requirements might be and how the A-10 might help meet them.
Asked if the US could give the A-10s to Ukraine, the @usairforce Secretary Frank Kendall tells #AspenSecurity it is largely up to Kyiv and its needs: “We will be open to discussions with them on what their requirements are and how we might be able to satisfy them” 2/2
— Deborah Haynes (@haynesdeborah) July 20, 2022
The Cross of Death
The A-10 was developed in the 1970s (when I was a kid in school) to try and counter what was expected to be a massive invasion of Western Europe by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries with swarms of tanks and armored personnel carriers in the thousands. I remember watching Congressional hearings about the “Warthog” where critics of the jet said it wouldn’t survive for a minute on the “modern” battlefield of that era and was a complete waste of money.
What people miss about the A-10 is that it was purpose-built for a Close Air Support role, combining a long loiter time, 250-300 kt speeds that allow the pilot to make out close details on the ground and then turn tightly into a turn to attack it. It can also operate in bad weather under 1,000 ft which most air superiority fights cannot, or will not do. It was also made to be shot at, with armored glass and an armored cockpit, the fuel is located away from the engines to prevent fires and its landing gear allows it to fly out of very austere airstrips. An A-10 can hot refuel and reload ammo without shutting down its engines and fly three strike missions a day.
In 1984 I was in the Navy as an aviation anti-submarine warfare operator and was attending training on the various types of US, NATO and Russian aircraft we had to be able to recognize while memorizing some of their capabilities and they showed us a grainy, black and white picture of an A-10 standing on its tail and climbing straight up. It stood out to me because the other pictures of aircraft and helicopters we were being shown were sharp and clear. I asked the briefer why they using such a crappy picture of the A-10 and he said,
‘That’s because the Russians took it about 10 miles inside Germany using a high-power telephoto lens. The Russians call this, ‘They Cross of Death.'”
I asked why it was called that and he replied, “The Soviets train their own tank crews on this photo and tell them that if they see an A-10 out of their periscope in this configuration they have about 20 seconds left because the A-10 will reach the top of that loop, roll over and hose them with that 30mm cannon.”
So, the Russians had a lot more confidence in the survivability of the A-10 than Congress did just a few years before when I was still in high school.
Of course, the unsurvivable A-10 “Warthog,” went on to make quite a name and reputation for itself deploying to Iraq in both Gulf Wars, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, and the Balkans. It seemed the renamed “Thunderbolt II” was able to survive these battlefields quite well, as the world continues to stubbornly refuse to fight the kind of “Modern War” the A-10 can’t survive on for more than a minute. The A-10 has flown more than 8,000 combat sorties with only 5 ever lost in combat. By the numbers, that makes the A-10 the most survivable aircraft ever built, by any nation.
Of course, the talk of sending them to Ukraine has renewed the claims that the A-10 is a sitting duck that wouldn’t survive in Ukraine with modern air defense radars, guns, and missiles. I think people making those claims are missing something important.
First, it is true that air defense missiles, guns, and even shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles have created a pretty non-permissive environment for air operations in Ukraine at low, medium, and high altitudes as losses to both sides show pretty readily. There are lots of these systems in use by both sides, while neither is operating very many aircraft anymore.
That does not mean the A-10 can’t survive. In the Mideast, Iraqi soldiers learned very quickly not to be too hasty in shooting at an A-10 from the ground. You could get off a burst of machine gun fire at a fast, low-flying F-16 and by the time the pilot looked over his shoulder at where it came from he might be a mile away from you.
This was not true when taking a shot at the slow and low A-10, his wing would dip, he would see you and come back to kill you. In Iraq, A-1os in pairs operated in portions of airspace called Kill Boxes, hoping someone would take a shot at them so they could reduce you to atoms with that gun or a missile. The Iraqi never learned how to take them down, they learned how to hide from them and not be seen.
If Ukraine uses A-10s in ones and twos, they will for sure lose some of them. If they fly them in flights of four or six, they are a lot safer. War has a survival calculus that most soldiers, sailors, and airmen do almost unconsciously. A ground unit that sees four or six A-10s in the sky will not be as inclined to take a shot at them as they would at a single A-10 or a pair unless they have plenty of guns and missiles to shoot at them with. At this point in the war, the average Russian infantry unit on the ground is seriously under strength and short on everything from bullets to food, they aren’t swimming in shoulder-launched anti-air missiles either. Additionally, Russian troops being thrown into the meatgrinder in Ukraine are getting as little as a single week’s training before they are sent to the fighting. It takes little more than a week to learn how to competently use something like a shoulder-launched missile like a Strela.
Here is how that survival calculus works.
Lt Ivan in Donbas has one 9K32 Strela-2 missile for the 8 remaining men in his 14-man squad. Ivan thinks he might take a shot at one of those four A-10s that he sees about 400ft off the ground. He figures he might get one of them but remembers that the Strela will leave a smoke trail that leads directly back to him and the location of his unit. He might get one of those A-10s but knows the other 3 will then follow that smoke trail back to him and they will get worked over by three 30mm cannons, missiles and rockets. He also knows they can loiter over him for a least 2 hours and take their own sweet time killing him and his men. Those A-10s have chaff and flare dispensers that might cause his missile to miss meaning he then gets clobbered by all four of them. He also knows they have a reputation for being able to absorb enormous damage and keep flying so even if his missile hits, it may not bring it down.
He decides it’s not worth the risk to him and his men. He just wants to finish his patrol, get back to base to file a no-contact report, and survive another day in this mess of a war. Lt Ivan and his men get deep into the foliage and let the A-10s go by, “Let someone else deal with them,” he thinks to himself.
So yes, the US and the Air Force should think very seriously about sending several squadrons of A-10s to Ukraine, along with all the 30mm cannon rounds and Hellfire-guided missiles that make them such a terror of the skies. We might as well since the Air Force was going to throw them out anyway.