Citing growing budget shortages (and the enormous costs of developing and building the new F-35) the air force plans to retire 410 combat aircraft (and about a hundred support planes) in the next five years. These include 340 A-10s and 70 F-15Cs. In that same time period over a hundred new F-35s would enter service leaving the air force with about 300 fewer combat aircraft. Since the United States currently has about 2,700 combat aircraft (in the air force and navy) that would be a decline of about 11 percent in combat aircraft.
While the A-10 is the most popular ground support aircraft to most soldiers and marines, close air support has evolved over the last decade to using smart bombs or missiles most of the time. To reflect this all A-10s have been upgraded to handle smart bombs. This includes targeting pods that enable A-10s to spot targets while at higher (over 3,000 meters) altitudes. That puts them out of range of small arms and many anti-aircraft weapons. Although the A-10 was built for ground support (using a 30mm rotary cannon) that was intended for shooting up Russian tanks during World War 3 in Europe. That never happened and in 2013 the last A-10 left Europe. But in Iraq and Afghanistan troops appreciated the ability to call in an A-10 for a strafing run. A few hundred 30mm rounds not only did a lot of damage but it also tended to demoralize the enemy and make it easier to capture them alive or drive them away. Smart bombs and missiles tended to leave fewer prisoners and were not as scary and the roar and loud buzz of a low-flying A-10 using its 30mm autocannon.
A-10s were designed during the Cold War for combat against Russian tank forces trying to invade Western Europe. That war never happened, but the A-10 proved to be a formidable combat aircraft in post-Cold War conflicts, first in the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and later in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the last decade the most requested ground support aircraft in Afghanistan has been the A-10. There was similar A-10 affection in Iraq. Troops from all nations quickly came to appreciate the unique abilities of this 1970s era aircraft that the U.S. Air Force has several times tried to retire. In 2011 the air force announced that it was retiring 102 A-10s, leaving 243 in service. Opposition from the army and Congress halted that. This time it may be over for the A-10 because the air force budget is really tight and Congress will have to face the fact that some older aircraft will have to go.
At the same time the air force tried to retire A-10s it accelerated the upgrading of the remaining A-10s to the A-10C standard. Also called the PE (for precision engagement) model, the refurbished A-10s were supposed to remain in service until 2028, meaning most A-10Cs would have served over 40 years and as many as 16,000 flight hours. The upgrade effort has been underway for nearly a decade. The upgrades include new electronics as well as structural and engine refurbishment. The A-10C provides the pilot with the same targeting and fire control gadgets the latest fighters have. The new A-10C cockpit has all the spiffy color displays and easy to use controls. Because it is a single-seat aircraft that flies close to the ground (something that requires a lot more concentration), all the automation in the cockpit allows the pilot to do a lot more, with less stress, exertion, and danger.
The basic A-10 is a 1960s design, so the new additions are quite spectacular in comparison. New commo gear has also been added, allowing A-10 pilots to share pix and vids with troops on the ground. The A-10 pilot also has access to the Blue Force Tracker system, so that the nearest friendly ground forces show up on the HUD (Head Up Display) when coming in low to use the 30mm cannon. The A-10C can use smart bombs, making it a do-it-all aircraft for ground support.
A-10s are worked hard in Afghanistan. For example, an A-10 squadron has a dozen aircraft and 18 pilots. Pilots often average about a hundred hours a month in the air. That's about twenty sorties, as each sortie averages about five hours. The aircraft range all over southern Afghanistan, waiting for troops below to call for some air support. The A-10, nicknamed "Warthog" or just "hog", could always fly low and slow and were designed, and armored, to survive a lot of ground fire. The troops trust the A-10 more than the F-16 or any other aircraft used for ground support.
The A-10 is a 23 ton, twin engine, single seat aircraft whose primary weapon is a multi-barrel 30mm cannon originally designed to fire armored piercing shells at Russian tanks. These days the 1,174 30mm rounds are mostly high explosive. The 30mm cannon fires 363 gram (12.7 ounce) rounds at the rate of about 65 a second. The cannon usually fires in one or two second bursts. In addition, the A-10 can carry seven tons of bombs and missiles. These days the A-10 goes out with smart bombs (GPS and laser guided) and Maverick missiles. It can also carry a targeting pod, enabling the pilot to use high magnification day/night cameras to scour the area for enemy activity. Cruising speed is 560 kilometers an hour and the A-10 can slow down to about 230 kilometers an hour. In Afghanistan two drop tanks are usually carried, to give the aircraft more fuel and maximum time over the battlefield.
If there is another major war in some place like Korea or with Iran, the A-10s would once more be one of the most popular warplane with the ground troops, if they are still around. Otherwise the troops on the ground will have to make do with smart bombs and a growing number of GPS guided mortar shells, artillery shells and rockets.
The F-15Cs are also 1970s vintage aircraft that are being replace by F-35s. Technically the F-22 was the “F-15 replacement” while the F-35 was meant to replace the F-16. Again, money problems will see the F-15Cs replaced by F-35s as well.