The U.S. Air Force, like the army, has been adapting since 2010 to the emergence of near-peer opponents China and Russia after a decade of dealing with low-tech COIN (Counter-Insurgency) threats. The only time the air force has to put its own personnel on the ground in a combat situation is during CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) where downed pilots or aircraft crew downed in enemy territory need rescue. CSAR personnel are a small, elite force that is controlled by SOCOM. In a COIN environment you don’t have to worry about interference from hostile EW (Electronic warfare) or aircraft or air defenses. Near-peer CSAR is likely to face a very hostile environment. One of the first things the air force did was develop and produce an updated CSEL (Combat Survivor Evader Locator) device which incorporates two-way communication as well as GPS, better battery life, ruggedness and so on. The first CSEL upgrade is already in service and another is on the way before the end of the decade. The air force and navy have also increased and improved SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) training, especially for pilots of aircraft most likely to need it. That includes A-10 pilots, whose planes are rugged enough to continue providing support for a pilot reverting to SERE. This was one of the many reasons for the 2016 U.S. Air Force decision that CSAR was a good reason to keep the aging A-10 ground support aircraft in service, at least for a little while longer. In the last decade air force leaders 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 equipped all A-10s 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 can go as slow as 220 kilometers an hour, which was nearly as slow as the A-1 could manage but the A-10 has 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 for COIN operations, 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 air force does not consider the A-10 as the cure for all near-peer pararescue operations. While the A-10 can take a lot of punishment and keep flying, CSAR will require a more vulnerable helicopter to come get the pilot out of danger. To that end the air force is considering developing autonomous small helicopters that can pick up and return downed pilots to safety with much less risk of being shot down again. There are already helicopter UAVs that are usually controlled remotely but can operate autonomously. UAVs often do this automatically when they lose communications with their human operator. The UAV is programmed to return to where it was launched from in cases like this. This feature works and has saved a lot of UAVs that would otherwise have been lost. The unmanned rescue helicopter has one major drawback. Sometimes downed pilots are injured, often to the point where they cannot get into a rescue helicopter unaided or also need immediate medical assistance, which pararescue personnel can administer.