his retiring of the A-10 “Warthog” is predicated on the fantastical disproven idea that the A-10, which to this day is the most cost-effective plane in the Air Force’s inventory, can be replaced by the F-35. “By scrapping the A-10, the Air Force is guaranteeing more Gold Star families will be created,” according to Charlie Keebaugh, president of the largest group of tactical-air-control party airmen.
This power play by the Air Force is just another chapter in the long, ongoing saga of senior Air Force leaders using every tactic, including underhanded tactics, threats and rigged testing to justify retiring the A-10. It certainly isn’t about improving our country’s close air support capabilities (CAS) that have saved countless American lives. Instead, it’s about converting A-10 maintainers to F-35 maintainers in order to satisfy the F-35s endless, ravenous appetite for maintenance and support. And it’s about killing off the plane that will continue to show up the F-35 as long as it continues to fly.
Before talking about the respective CAS capabilities of the A-10 and F-35, an understanding of what’s meant by CAS is necessary. Joint Western military doctrine defines CAS as “air action by fixed- and rotary-winged aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and which require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.” More specifically, CAS pilots must be able to coordinate in real-time and near real-time with their certified joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC), to be able to dynamically adjust targeting and be able to relay enemy positions and movements back to their JTACs in real time.
In a real CAS mission, the plane will be flying close enough to frontlines that even if it’s stealthy, it will still be seen on radar and by plain old human eyes. In terms of what you want in a CAS plane, the engineers and experienced CAS pilots who designed the A-10 in the mid-1960s concluded that a CAS attack plane must be able to operate near the frontlines from an austere airfield with short runways; have low maintenance requirements and high reliability; be able to carry a large weapons load including anti-armor capability; be tough enough to survive small arms fire and be resistant to the kind of anti-air weapons one will find at the frontline of a ground battle; have long range and endurance; have a speed of at least 350 knots; have great low-speed maneuverability; and have a low cost of acquisition so that the CAS planes that will inevitably be lost in combat can be quickly and cost-effectively replaced as needed.
To say that the A-10 design team hit it out of the park is an understatement. And the heavily modernized A-10C, despite unsubstantiated Air Force claims, has the most sophisticated CAS capabilities of any plane in the world. Consequently, modernized A-10Cs, combining modern A-10 enabled tactics with its air defense capabilities, can operate in environments full of anti-air weapons that other aircraft, including the F-35, can’t. And, the Warthog, with its triple redundancy, its twin engines, and its titanium bathtub to protect its pilot, is the toughest plane in the world that gets its pilot home after sustaining many times the damage that would have downed any other aircraft.
While the F-35 certainly can fly fast enough, it fails to meet any of the other CAS criteria. And while, the F-35, a flying fuel tank, does have decent range when flying stealthily, its inability to fly out of austere air bases located near the frontlines means it will spend most of its fuel flying back and forth from the battle. In contrast, the A-10, with its ability to fly from austere makeshift airfields with short, unimproved runways, can be based mere minutes from the frontlines and can spend hours in or near the battlefield. This, plus the fact that the A-10 can conservatively double the number of sorties per day of an F-35, means that an A-10 will minimally be able to spend four to eight times more time at or near the frontlines delivering life-saving, mission-advancing support than an F-35.
Adding insult to injury is that the A-10 can carry far more ordnance than an F-35 flying in stealth mode. And while the-35 can swap out stealth mode for its “Beast Mode” that allows it to carry more ordnance than the A-10, its operational range will be cut in half, meaning that it almost certainly will require infight refueling to be able to use its ordnance. So far, the F-35 isn’t looking so great as a CAS plane, but things only get worse, much worse.
What About The Guns And ‘Danger Close?’
One of the critical missions a CAS plane needs to be able to execute is “danger close” missions. These are operations in which the CAS plane will be attacking enemy troops and equipment that are within 50 meters of friendly troops. Consequently, explosive ordnance use is restricted or not used out of fear of harming or killing friendlies. In these cases, the A-10’s fearsome GAU-8 Avenger 30-millimeter cannon is vastly superior to the 25-millimeter cannons the F-35s mount. And much to the chagrin of enemy forces, the A-10 carries 1,174 rounds of ammunition, five to six times that of the F-35s, allowing it to make multiple attack runs per sortie. However, these comparisons are pointless when it comes to the F-35A, whose gun is hopelessly inaccurate and damages the plane when it’s fired.
Finally, equipment critical to protecting the F-35 from going up in flames was either stripped off or left off due to weight considerations (pdf). This arguably makes the F-35 the most fragile plane in the U.S. fighter inventory. Not only is the F-35 highly vulnerable to small fragments common to anti-aircraft artillery fire and near missile misses, but it can’t fly anywhere near lightning while the A-10 is capable of flying in weather conditions that will ground all other aircraft.
F-35 Will Be Able To ‘Fire & Flee,’ But Can’t Do Real CAS
The F-35’s extreme vulnerabilities to weapons and weather, and its poor low-speed maneuverability, mean it will not be allowed to do genuine CAS; instead, it will fire extremely expensive weapons at ranges far enough from the frontline that the situation will often have changed dramatically by the time the glide bomb or missile reaches its target. The F-35 pilot won’t be able to dynamically adjust targeting second by second, as can an A-10 pilot who can actually see the battlefield, even when electronic jamming is present. Further, the F-35 pilot will not be providing real-time information on enemy movements and positions as can the A-10 pilot.
As Col. William Smith, a retired Air Force pilot with over 3,000 hours of A-10 flight time and 128 combat sorties, noted: “We are regularly able to use something that other planes often cannot, the Mark I Human Eyeball, and sometimes there is no substitute for that,” and “we live in the armpit of the guy on the ground.”
In sharp contrast, the F-35 pilot, in his fragile, flammable, flying tinderbox, will be firing and fleeing many miles away from the frontlines.In conclusion, the F-35 with its extreme fragility, its high acquisition cost, its high cost of support and maintenance, its inability to operate near the frontlines, its poor low-speed maneuverability, its lack of an effective gun, its poor sortie generation rate, its short loiter times, and its lack of ability to carry a large weapons payload without inflight refueling make it the antithesis of a CAS plane.
Consequently, in canceling the A-10, the U.S. Air Force will be canceling the most important and effective plane it has to execute life-saving, mission-advancing CAS. And it will be killing the only plane that can do danger close support. This could cost the lives of countless Marines and soldiers. But on the upside, the A-10 maintainers can be moved over to support the troubled, maintenance-hungry F-35s.✪