Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force began to finalize its plans to retire its premiere close air support (CAS) aircraft, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II. According to their master plan, all of the Warthogs in the USAF inventory will be mothballed in the Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Center by 2019. The retirement is driven by the severe DoD budget cuts imposed by sequestration, as well as the desire by Air Force leadership to preserve funding for the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lighting II and other R&D programs.
What’s going to replace the A-10, you ask?
Wait for it…ummm… Nothing.
Many argue that the A-10’s lack of stealth reduces its potential survivability in future conflicts. Both the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff have argued recently that other weapons systems like the F-16, F-15E, F-35, B-1 and UAVs will fill the CAS gap left by the A-10’s retirement. While most of the debate focuses on the CAS mission in specific, I would like to address one of the A-10’s fortés that is near and dear to this tac airlifter’s heart: armed escort.
The A-10’s unique combination of massive firepower, slow speed maneuverability and survivability in the low-level environment give it an unmatched ability to perform the armed escort role, pioneered by the Douglas A-1E Skyraider in Vietnam. Assigned to the forerunner of today’s Air Force Special Operations Squadrons, the Air Commando Squadrons in Southeast Asia flew the A-1E with tremendous success.
Using the call sign “Sandy,” the Skyraiders provided armed escort to HH-3 “Jolly Green Giant” combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopters as they rescued downed airmen. The slower cruise speed of the prop-driven A-1Es was perfect for the mission. Eventually, the A-1Es were replaced by the Vought A-7 Corsair II, and ultimately the A-10.
The Warthog has escorted and coordinated U.S. CSAR assets in every armed conflict the U.S. has entered since Operation Desert Storm. One of the more well-known occurrences was during Operation Allied Force, when A-10s escorted CSAR helicopters successfully rescuing an F-117 pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko, who was shot down over Serbia.
Ever since it entered the Air Force inventory in the mid 1970s, the Hog has faced its share of detractors. It was never the sleek, sexy, high-tech fighter jet that some many of the Air Force brass get enamored with. The A-10 has been on the DoD’s chopping block several times over the past four decades. Prior to the A-10 proving its worth during Operation Desert Storm, the Air Force planned to replace it with a CAS version of the F-16.
Ten years later the Air Force wanted to say goodbye to the Hog once again. While I was at Squadron Officers School in June of 2001, a guest lecturer from the Pentagon told my class that the A-10 had no place in any future conflicts and would be retired by 2009. Less than four months later, we found ourselves in a conflict that would require the services of the A-10 once again.
During combat operations in the skies over Afghanistan I got to experience the true effectiveness of the A-10 in the armed escort role first hand. In the summer of 2002, I deployed to Pakistan as a member of the 50th Airlift Squadron, along with several crews and our “slick” C-130H3s. We were tasked with the airdrop resupply of several Army Special Operations and regular Army fire bases throughout the Hindu Kush Mountains along the boarder between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
During our deployment, we operated with several different airframes that provided armed escort for our missions. While we were assigned everything from F-14Ds to AC-130s, the A-10 was far and away the best. No offense to the other escorts, but they were just “there” if we needed them. The A-10 fully integrated themselves into our missions.
Flying unarmed at 300 above ground level, at night, on night-vision goggles in mountainous terrain controlled by enemy forces can be a daunting task, but with the Hogs as our escort, we knew that we were in good hands. One of the A-10 pilots told us during our first mission brief, “Don’t worry, if anyone down there messes with you guys, we’ll f**k’em up good.” If that statement doesn’t give you pre-combat mission a warm fuzzy, I don’t know what does.
On a typical airdrop mission, we had a two-ship A-10 escort. En route to the drop, one Hog kept pace 15,000 feet above us, ready to take out any pop up threats, while the other A-10 reconnoitered our ingress and egress paths to and from the drop zone to ensure that any and all threats were neutralized.
During one mission, the weather in the mountains was less than the preferred CAVOK, and as a result, we had a lot of trouble visually identifying our drop zone, marked by a Special Forces operator holding a single IR strobe. Back in ’02 we didn’t have the fancy JPADS (Joint Precision Air-Drop System) that uses GPS to fly the loads right to the desired point of impact. We were relying on the good ole Mark I, Mod Zero eyeball, and with the reduced visibility at 300 feet we couldn’t see jack squat on our NVGs. After discussing the situation with our “Sandys”, the Hog drivers came up with an innovative solution. When we called one minute out from the drop the lead A-10 used his IR laser target designator to illuminate the DZ. Problem solved!
It worked like a champ, too. As we opened our cargo door and stabilized at 140 KIAS for the drop, the A-10 hit its IR designator. The DZ lit up on our NVGs bigger than Dallas. The Green Berets got their beans and bullets with our on-target drop. I don’t think that a Predator or a Lancer is capable of providing that kind of timely flexibility and support.
I fully recognize that budget constraints are the limiting factor affecting the current A-10 situation. I’m not some luddite who doesn’t recognize the need for advanced technology fighters like the F-35 and the follow on to the F-22, but the Air Force must find some middle ground. Completely retiring the A-10, and losing its capabilities, would be a tremendous mistake. My recommendation is to stand up at least one Air Commando Wing of 72 A-10Cs.
Based on the Air Commando concept used during Vietnam, these Hogs would not be front line fighter/attack jets assigned to Air Combat command. Instead, the Hogs would be used in a more specialized role assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command. They would provide not only as CSAR support and armed escort but CAS when circumstances on the battlefield require the A-10’s unique abilities. While keeping a smaller number of Hogs does negate the economy of scale that results keeping more airframes in the inventory, it does save money while still preserving a capability for which the Air Force doesn’t have a replacement.
At the same time that the Pentagon was again planning the A-10’s demise, they announced last week that they are deploying 12 Hogs from the 122nd Fighter Wing, Indiana Air National Guard to the Middle East to support combat operations in Syria and Iraq. I guess the A-10 hasn’t out lived it’s usefulness just yet.