This December saw the climax of one of the more peculiar conflicts in Washington. It was a battle over an Air Force plane. But it was not one of those standard-issue Washington procurement battles in which congressional bean counters seek to kill off a hugely expensive project that the relevant military branch insists is vital for American security. It was almost the opposite: The politicians were trying to save a weapon system, and the service brass, together with one of America’s aerospace giants, were trying to get rid of it.
The weapon in question is the A-10 ground attack plane, officially the “Thunderbolt II” but widely known as the “Warthog.” It has been around for more than three decades. It’s one of the outstanding successes of modern American military aircraft, and its effectiveness in recent wars has made it beloved by American and allied troops.
The effort of the Air Force to retire prematurely this storied plane has few parallels, not just because it has faced dogged, and ultimately successful, resistance from well-informed members of Congress, but because it has lasted 25 years and has its origin in what looks like a troubling moral and intellectual crisis among Air Force leadership.
Every service has its cultural eccentricities, its strategic fashions, its technological fetishes that cause it to see defense priorities in terms of its parochial interests. But the obsessional Air Force campaign to get rid of the A-10 suggests an especially perverse set of priorities. After all, the A-10 has been one of the great airborne success stories of the last two wars, and even now is enabling the United States to battle ISIS in Iraq in a way that is not just far more economical than flying fast jets from distant aircraft carriers or bases at the other end of the Gulf, but highly effective.
Ask anyone who has served on the ground—or worked near ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan—what aircraft they would prefer to come and give them close air support and they will say the A-10. They don’t just love the Warthog because it is deadly, though the distinctive “Brrrap” sound of its 30 mm cannon is dreaded by the likes of the Taliban. Ground troops prefer it because planes like the F-16, the French Mirage, and the British Typhoon are just too fast to carry out genuine close air support efficiently and safely and are much more likely to kill them—or civilians—by mistake.
Even early in the Iraq war when U.S. forces called for air support, some 80 to 90 percent of the requests specifically asked for the A-10. In 2006 a leaked email from a British Army officer involved in fierce fighting in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province prompted a political storm in the U.K. by talking about near misses of his own troops by RAF fast jets and praising the Warthog. “I’d take an A-10 over a Eurofighter [Typhoon] any day,” said Maj. James Loden of the Parachute Regiment. U.S. soldiers have similar stories. One experienced NCO in Afghanistan told National Defense magazine, “The A-10s never missed, and with the F/A-18s we had to do two or three bomb runs to get them on the target.”
The pilots of fast jets, no matter how good they are, simply have less time to see what is happening on the ground. They are more reliant on technology that can go wrong, and there is little question that they are more likely to inflict friendly fire and collateral damage casualties.
USAF brass don’t like to admit this. That’s partly because they tend to look down on both the A-10 and the mission for which it is so suitable, but also because it implicitly undermines their massive, desperate public relations campaign on behalf of the troubled, hugely over-budget F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a high-tech multirole plane that they claim, unconvincingly, will be able to replace the A-10 as a close air support aircraft.
Quite apart from the unlikelihood that the Air Force would ever want to risk a fragile $200 million stealth jet “down in the weeds” on low-level missions against ISIS, the Taliban, or their equivalents, it makes little sense to replace a plane designed specifically for a task with one that may be fundamentally unsuited for it. As Pierre Sprey, who played a key role in designing the F-16 and the A-10, has written, “As a ‘close air support’ attack aircraft to help U.S. troops engaged in combat, the F-35 is a nonstarter. It is too fast to see the tactical targets it is shooting at; too delicate and flammable to withstand ground fire; and it lacks the payload and especially the endurance to loiter usefully over U.S. forces for sustained periods as they manoeuvre on the ground.”