Simply put, the A-10 is the best plane ever designed to support troops in combat. By any nation, anytime. The U.S. Air Force is trying for the second year in a row to get rid of it; there are holes in their arguments.
The A-10 was uniquely designed to assist ground troops in battle. In an age of jets that can fly very high and very fast, this one works low and slow. Instead of going Mach 2, it usually flies at 350 mph. It can enter a combat zone and access what is happening, rather than whisk by and drop bombs on GPS coordinates. And once engaged, it can stay and loiter, unlike any other fixed wing jet airplane in the modern inventory.
Thus, the A-10 is uniquely constructed to take punishment so it can get hit and still fight; it was designed to withstand a succession of knocks from a 23mm automatic cannon (US fighter planes, by way of comparison, employ a lesser 20mm cannon for air-to-air defense), and even some from a 57mm cannon, a round powerful enough in WW II to take out tanks.
In battle, the most vulnerable part of the plane is the cockpit, the human-machine interface that controls everything. But the pilot here sits in a titanium enclosure weighing 1,200 pounds, providing substantial protection. All control surfaces, meanwhile, are quadruple redundant; you can shoot out two full systems and the A-10 will still be flying and trying to take you out. For striking power, the Warthog (as the plane is known) has eleven pylons to carry a veritable arsenal of ordinance; right now the Maverick missile is considered its primary tool for helping our troops and taking down the enemy.
But most of the attention goes to its 30mm gatling gun, capable of firing at one of two rates: 2,100 or 4,200 rounds per minute (the fastest rifle caliber machine gun in WW II only fired 1,200 rounds per minute; at that speed–a half or even a quarter of the A-10’s weapon–you cannot hear individual shots; it sounds like fabric ripping).
So it can get in the mix like no other plane, and save the lives of U.S. ground troops. U.S. Army Capt. Rudy Varner–who deployed seven times, five in Afghanistan and two in Iraq–feels that A-10 pilots have “the knack of knowing exactly what we’re looking for on the ground….And they can do it in a more responsive fashion than…any other airframe…compared to anything else in the inventory [the A-10] is really unparalleled.”
Now, for the second year in a row, the Air Force wants to scrap the entire A-10 program. The new F-35 will be a multiple use aircraft that will take on air support instead. And it’s running way over budget. Hence the need for money. So let’s get rid of the A-10.
The Air Force provides two rationales for this change. First, other planes can do the job. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James explained, “close air support is not a plane. It’s a mission.” They will still provide air support, with fast movers like the F-15 and F-16, and later, the F-35. Second, in this age of tight budgets, the service cannot afford single purpose craft dedicated to one function.
There are several counterarguments. If one accepts the importance of the mission (which the Air Force swears it does), there is no multiple function aircraft that can do the job nearly as effectively, especially not the high speed jets proposed to carry this till the F-35 comes on line. But that won’t be until 2023, at the earliest date; for eight years there won’t be a plane designed for this mission, and even after that, it won’t be done as well.
The projected substitute, the F-35, doesn’t have the protection, doesn’t carry the ordinance, doesn’t have the gun, can’t loiter to see how the battle works out, without getting blasted out of the sky. Unless, of course, it goes at Mach 2, in which case nothing on the ground will hit it, and it can’t see or hit anything except by remote control. There is just no plane that comes close to what the A-10 does to help soldiers fighting for their lives, not now and not in the future.
As to the argument that they can’t afford a single mission plane. Right now the most expensive fighter plane in the history of the world is the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force’s beloved air superiority master. Or to put it a different way, a single mission plane that does what it is supposed to do better than anything else. The Air Force fought long and hard to protect this one.
The reality is that the service heads never liked the A-10. The official nickname is “Thunderbolt II” but everyone calls it the Warthog, an ugly animal if ever there was one. In a service dominated by fighter jocks and bomber barons, there is no love for a plane that is not glamorous in mission or appearance.
So no one loves it. Except for the pilots and the troops on the ground. A U.S. Army colonel told how “most, if not all …soldiers that have been on the ground in a fight take real comfort when A-10s are inbound or overhead.” One senior senator on the Armed Services Committee commented, “I’ve yet to meet a general, an Army commander whose responsibility is with the troops on the ground, that believes a B-1 or an F-16 replaces the capability of an A-10.”
But we’ll let a grunt have the last word. Master Sgt. Charlie Keebaugh, president of the Tactical Air Control Party Association, dryly and accurately noted, “The people who are saying this have never been shot at, have never been on a battlefield and had to employ that asset.”
Protect our troops. Keep the A-10.