Twelve years after the U.S. Air Force decided to spend about $8 million per aircraft to repair and reinforce the wings on 252 A-10 “Warthog” ground attack aircraft, work was finally completed, in mid-2019 for the first 173 aircraft. The air force has issued a contract to have the remaining aircraft get the new wings. The wing replacement was part of a series of refurbishment and upgrade programs designed to keep the A-10s flying for another twenty years or, as an air force official recently admitted; “indefinitely.” This is another sign of how much the air force attitudes towards the A-10 have changed. Not only that but in 2007 the feeling was that the A-10 may well be the last manned American ground attack aircraft, and the entire fleet was to be upgraded with new electronics, to make the aircraft as effective as possible until the unmanned replacements arrived. But before this 2007 decision could be implemented, factions in the air force leadership sought to once more get rid of the A-10. The main reason for the 2007 refurbishment decision was the fact that the A-10 was the most heavily used ground support aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the most popular with the troops doing the fighting. It still is. The 2007 refurb plan got delayed by a decade of air force efforts kill the A-10 rather than fix its wings and keep it flying. Most air force leaders recognized that getting rid of the A-10 would not only anger and disappoint many of their army colleagues, but also the A-10 pilots and ground crews as well as the thousands of air force ground controllers who saw the success of the A-10 up close.
In late 2016 the senior leadership of the U.S. Air Force finally agreed that the A-10 was actually worth keeping. The air force leadership had learned that the A-10 was more than just a popular and effective ground support aircraft. Reserve squadrons revealed that they had quietly developed additional uses that were popular with all combat pilots. With A-10 off death row, a lot of uses that had been kept quiet were now not only out in the open but getting more financial support. Chief among these is CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue). To that end, the air force has, so far, equipped 19 A-10Cs with the LARS V-12 emergency radio signal locator. All American warplanes are equipped with an emergency radio that pilots carry and when they eject and are on the ground this handheld radio broadcasts a special signal. Rescue aircraft (usually air force CSAR helicopters) have LARS and the latest (V-12) version quickly tells the LARS user what direction the signal is coming from and how far away it is. Even before the 2016 decision to stop trying to retire A-10s, there were plans to equip a lot (perhaps all) A-10s with LARS.
The air force leadership, during the decades they were dedicated to retiring the A-10, did not like to discuss the usefulness of A-10s in CSAR missions. Yet this was a very popular use of the A-10 because when a pilot had to eject and was on the ground, they quickly learned that if you had the enemy nearby looking for you, what you wanted to see first was not a rescue helicopter, but a heavily armed and armored low-flying “hog” that would make sure the rescue chopper and the downed pilots were not hurt. The A-10s regularly came in low and slow seeking out enemy troops and was, unlike most aircraft, designed and armored to deal with a lot of enemy fire and keep fighting.
This CSAR chore was nothing new for the A-10 and goes back to before the A-10 entered service. Many reserve and National Guard A-10 squadrons regularly practiced CSAR tactics in part because many of the pilots were older and more experienced and retained memories of Vietnam, and the aircraft that inspired the A-10 by showing how such a low and slow aircraft could be invaluable during so many CSAR missions. The Vietnam era A-1 Skyraider (nicknamed "Spad", after a famous World War I fighter) was one of the inspirations for the A-10. The A-1 was the most popular ground support aircraft during the 1960s and proved a literal lifesaver during hundreds of Vietnam CSAR missions. Developed at the end of World War II, the A-1 was an 11 ton, single-seat, propeller-driven aircraft that carried 3.5 tons of bombs and four 20mm autocannon. The four 20mm cannon could, altogether, fire 40 rounds a second. Cruising speed was 320 kilometers an hour (versus 560 for the A-10), and the average sortie was about four hours (a little longer than the A-10). The A-10 could go as slow as 220 kilometers an hour, which was nearly as slow as the A-1 could manage but the A-10 had a max speed of 700 kilometers an hour, more than a third faster than the A-1.
Ever since Vietnam ground troops have been agitating for another A-1. The A-10 came close but did not have the persistence (long time over the combat area) of the A-1. But when the A-10 did get to demonstrate its CSAR capabilities during the 1991 Gulf War, there were still some Vietnam era pilots around who made the A-1/A-10 CSAR connection vividly clear. The A-10 CSAR capabilities were obvious to pilots. The A-10 is built to fly low and slow and better survive any ground fire it encounters. A-10s being jets could get to where the downed pilot was fast and then go down low to better deal with any enemy ground threat until the air force CSAR helicopters arrived. This was the same method used by A-1s in Vietnam.
CSAR capabilities were one of the many reasons the U.S. Air Force, in 2016, officially canceled plans to get rid of its most popular combat aircraft; the A-10. In doing that the air force, faced with the reality that the A-10 was its most effective warplane in the current war against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria and Iraq, announced it was restoring maintenance funds for the A-10 and indefinitely delaying plans to start retiring all A-10s in 2018. Now the money is allocated to keep the 283 A-10s flying into the late 2020s. Restored maintenance funds are increasing availability rates back to 70 percent or more. In 2015 A-10s flew over 87,000 hours and they could have flown more (as ground troops demanded) if maintenance funds had been available.
The A-10 is a special Cold War era design that was optimized for operating close to troops on the ground. A-10s were designed for use against Russian tank-heavy ground forces in Europe. That war never happened and the last American A-10 attack aircraft left Europe (for good, it was thought) in mid-2013. By 2015 it was back to deal with a new Russian threat. Meanwhile, 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. Since 2003 the most requested ground support aircraft in Afghanistan and Iraq has been the A-10. Troops from all nations quickly came to appreciate the unique abilities of this 1970s era aircraft that the U.S. Air Force leaders were constantly trying to get rid of.
Before the air force leadership got enlightened they made numerous attempts to retire the A-10. In 2011 the air force did announce that it was retiring 102 A-10s, leaving 243 in service. At the same time, the air force accelerated the upgrading of the remaining A-10s to the A-10C standard. This was long overdue because the original A-10 was a 1960s design and had not been upgraded since the 1980s because it was always supposed to be retired soon. Most A-10s have now been upgraded to the A-10C standard. That means new commo gear that allows 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.
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 through the thinner top armor of Russian (or any other) tanks. These days the 1,174 30mm rounds carried 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. In Afghanistan, two drop tanks were usually carried to give the aircraft more fuel and maximum time over the battlefield. The A-10, nicknamed "Warthog" or just "hog", could always fly low and slow and was designed, and armored, to survive a lot of ground fire.
A major reason for the air force leaders’ change of attitude towards the A-10 was a 2017 survey of Marine, Army, and Air Force JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) and JFOs (Joint Fires Observers) which showed an overwhelming preference for the A-10. JTAC and JFO teams are trained to call in air strikes and most of these teams contain a fighter pilot. At the same time, these teams work directly with ground forces and are well aware of what kind of air support the ground troops find most useful. Ground controllers mostly (48 percent) preferred the A-10. The next most popular aircraft (which 13 percent preferred) was the AC-130 gunships. While the AC-130 was, and is in no danger of elimination (it is an armed C-130 transport used mainly by SOCOM) the A-10 was. Yet the air force leaders insisted jet fighters (like the F-16, F-15, F-18 and F-35) could replace the A-10. Yet these fighters are preferred by only 14 percent of JTACs. The AV-8B vertical takeoff jet is preferred by only four percent. Armed helicopters are preferred by 11 percent and armed UAVs by nine percent.
Air force leaders long insisted jet fighters could adequately replace the A-10 but ground troops and fighter pilots serving as JTACs thought otherwise. As useful as armed helicopters and UAVs are the overwhelming preference is for the A-10, an aircraft explicitly designed to provide the best ground support, especially against a heavily armed foe who is shooting back. The air force refused to consider developing a 21st century A-10 (because it would take at least fifteen years) and there were no other aircraft in service that even come close to duplicating what the A-10 can do.
This hostile attitude by air force leadership is to the A-10 was nothing new. The air force has been trying to retire its A-10 aircraft since the 1990s and by late 2014 found that issuing studies and analyses showing that the A-10 was too specialized and too old to justify the cost of keeping it in service did not work. These “studies” generated more opposition and more effective opposition than the air forces expected. This was helped by the fact that some of the “studies” were more spin than reality. All this created unwanted publicity about something the air force denies exists but is nevertheless very real; the air force has never really wanted to devote many resources to CAS (Close Air Support) for ground forces. Officially this is not true but in reality, it is and the ground forces (army and marines) and historians provided plenty of evidence.
The A-10 problem was complicated by the fact that the air force did not want to allow the army to handle CAS, as is the case with some countries and the U.S. Marine Corps (which provides CAS for marines and any ground forces the marines are operating with). Soldiers and marines both insist that marine CAS (provided by Harriers, F-35Bs and F-18s flown by marines) is superior. The army and marines also have their own helicopter gunships for support, but they lack capabilities only the fixed-wing aircraft have.
Despite all that the air force long wanted to eliminate the A-10, which soldiers, marines and many allied troops consider the best CAS aircraft ever, and replace it with less effective (for CAS) fighters adapted for CAS. The ground forces don’t want that mainly because the A-10 pilots specialize in CAS while fighter pilots must spend a lot of time training for air combat and different types of bombing, The A-10 pilots are CAS specialists and it shows by the amount of praise they get from their “customers” (the ground troops). To the dismay of just about everyone, the air force dismisses all this as much less important than the fact that the A-10 cannot fight other aircraft. That was how the A-10 was designed, on air force orders, but that is somehow irrelevant now.
Meanwhile, A-10s are again in demand in Europe (to confront Russia) and the Middle East (to deal with ISIL in Iraq and Syria). While sending more A-10s to East Europe and the Middle East the air force continues to insist that it must retire all of its A-10s in order to deal with a shrinking budget and this time the A-10 has really got to go. The air force had a point because their budget was shrinking and Cold War era aircraft, especially the F-16, need replacing and the replacement is the more expensive F-35. The air force plays down the fact that for CAS missions the fighter jets sometimes used, like the F-16 or even the F-35, are much less effective as well as being more expensive to operate than the A-10. A sortie by an F16 costs 80 percent more than an A-10, F-15E is twice as much, F-22 four times as much and the F-35 is somewhere between the F-15E and F-22.
But the key advantage is that the troops trust the A-10 more than the F-16 or any other aircraft used for ground support. If there is another major war in someplace like Korea, Eastern Europe or Iran, the A-10s would once more be one of the most popular warplanes with the ground troops, unless the air force manages to get rid of it. The air force leadership has not completely turned around on the A-10 and there is still talk of reducing the number of A-10 squadrons (from nine to six) but time has been a friend of the A-10 in this case. One reason air force leadership slowly came around during the last fifteen years was that more fighter pilots with recent (since 1990s) combat experience and firsthand knowledge of A-10 usefulness, were rising in the ranks. Slowly the ranks of senior air force leadership contained more fighter pilots who had good things to say about the A-10. These pilots also knew ground support was a lot more dangerous, and less effective, for an F-16 pilot. These officers, who were eagerly awaiting the F-35, were also well aware of the fact that the last thing you want an F-35 is trying act like an A-10.
Such generational shifts in air force leadership, because of the personal experience of a new generation of combat pilots (which most senior generals are) heavily influences air force plans, outlook and attitudes. The current generation of generals has more and more pilots who know very well what the A-10 can do and how much better the A-10 does it than another other aircraft. The survey of JTAC and JFO personnel confirmed it and the new generation of air force generals understood that and agreed that the A-10 was worth keeping “indefinitely.”