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Why Nothing (Even The Air Force) Can Kill The A-10 Warthog

A-10 Warthog Army
Image: Creative Commons.

Will no one rid us of this troublesome A-10 ‘Warthog’? The United States Air Force (USAF) has spent almost two-thirds of its existence as an independent service trying to get rid of the A-10, one of its most well-known aircraft. But has the Air Force finally given up? It is odd to think that a fifty-year-old aircraft might have more job security now than at any time in its long history, but it does seem that the Warthog now has a relatively secure space in the USAF fleet.

The USAF has operated the A-10 Thunderbolt II, known affectionately as the “Warthog,” since 1976.  The attack aircraft was designed on the one hand as an update to piston-engined planes such as the A-1 Skyraider, and on the other as a hedge against the development of advanced attack helicopters by the US Army. The USAF worried that technologically advanced Army helicopters could take over the close air support mission that its aircraft had (grudgingly) performed in Korea and Vietnam, thus undercutting the argument that the Air Force needed multi-use jets to perform that task.

It is only a mild exaggeration to say that factions of the Air Force have been trying to eliminate the A-10 since the day it first flew.  Indeed, some in the Air Force sought to strangle the project in utero after the cancellation of the Army’s Cheyenne attack helicopter. While the A-10 was expected to be more at home on the battlefields of Central Europe than the aircraft it replaced, the Air Force still believed it would suffer from high rates of attrition against well-protected Warsaw Pact forces.  This was an acceptable sacrifice in the context of a war that was expected to last days or weeks rather than years, although the aircraft was unpopular with a service more interested in advanced fighter aircraft. Thus, the A-10 remained controversial throughout the 1980s.

With the end of the Cold War and the end of the threat of the Red Army, the logic of retaining the Warthog seemed to lose its edge. The immense and unexpected success of the Warthog in Operation Desert Storm helped validate the plane’s concept and win it a degree of public acclaim.  Nevertheless, the Air Force undertook a study to retire the A-10 as part of the general drawdown of Cold War aircraft in the 1990s, and similar studies in the 2000s and  2010s. In both cases Congressional pressure, along with the quiet influence of the US Army, helped save the aircraft. Similar pressure seems to have convinced the USAF that there’s no good prospect for eliminating the plane in the foreseeable future.

The arguments for retiring the A-10 are sound, as far as they go. The Air Force does not believe that the A-10 is any more survivable in hostile air space now than it was in 1976. While maintenance and operational costs for the A-10 are low, it still takes up a cadre of pilots and aircrew who could more profitably be allocated to other aircraft. A half-serious proposal to shift the A-10 to the Army ran aground on a host of bureaucratic and logistical difficulties. Efforts to protect the A-10 have typically come from Congress, which has repeatedly demonstrated a reluctance to give up on the attack plane. This in itself is somewhat unusual, as the A-10 no longer offers any particularly useful “pork” to more than a very few members of Congress who represent districts with basing, maintenance, and upgrade contracts.

There are also sensible arguments in the Warthog’s favor. While it is true that the A-10 will not fare well against modern air defenses, the same can largely be said of other legacy platforms such as the F-15, F-16, and B-52. In any imaginable conflict scenario against a peer opponent, US aircraft will need to put themselves in harm’s way. There will undoubtedly be instances in which the A-10 could effectively be used in relatively safe ways; for example, an isolated conflict zone in which enemy resistance persisted but the main air defense assets had been destroyed. The A-10 has also demonstrated its utility in expeditionary conflicts against enemies without advanced air defenses, and the United States may still feel the need to fight these kinds of conflicts, even in the era of renewed Great Power Competition.

Still, it is awfully strange from the perspective of 1970s to imagine the USAF fleet full of aircraft it had expected to eliminate in the 1960s (the B-52), and that it never really wanted in the first place.  Indeed, the decision to restart the acquisition of the F-15, while quite sensible in its own terms, speaks to the strange and unpredictable relationship between military procurement and geostrategic influences. The A-10 has already flown longer than anyone expected, and the end is no longer in sight.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Donald Link

    October 6, 2021 at 1:53 pm

    A couple of points. The red line for the Air Force is that the Army should NEVER have a pure jet fixed wing aircraft. A FIAT from Italy was tested at Ft. Rucker Al in 1964 but crashed, killing the pilot and any hope for the Army in the pure jet business. Also, the Air Force wanted to use the $178M F35 in a ground support role to knock out tanks and drop a few anti personnel bombs that could more efficiently be done by the $11M A10. The Air Force has a habit of getting their way with gee whiz weapons and then finds they take 15 hours of maintenance to 1 hour flying time because of the wear and tear on sensitive parts.

  2. Harry_the_Horrible

    October 6, 2021 at 2:19 pm

    The reason the USAF can’t rid of the A-10 is simple: They own the fixed wing close air support role. The Army is not allowed to have its own fixed wing close support aircraft.
    So, if the USAF gets rid of the A-10 they have to develop a replacement. This would cut into their budget for really zoomie things. Of they have to turn the role over to the Army which they won’t do.
    I can easily imagine a replacement for the A-10. An aircraft capable of deploying large numbers of small guided bombs might be a good replacement. But the ordnance and the aircraft would take money away from the things the USAF really likes – fighters.

  3. GA48

    October 6, 2021 at 2:50 pm

    I agree with the above two commenters; the only people who want to get rid of it more are the militants, insurgents, terrorists, and ISIS fighters who suffer when a slow flying, long staying, tough as a boot warthog is flying a circle around their position raining down lead and accurate explosive devices on their rapidly diminishing fighters. Go A-10!

  4. Ray

    October 6, 2021 at 7:31 pm

    This plane belongs in the control of USMC

  5. Frank Sanchietti

    October 7, 2021 at 5:22 am

    This is the olny aircraft(and best) to do the SAR mission effectually.Talk to many flyers and troops saved by A-10 firepower and you will know why it’s worth saving.

  6. NorEastern

    October 7, 2021 at 8:05 am

    The A-10 Warthog was designed for wars that have never and will never be fought. Today’s missiles and artillery rounds will land reliably within 1 meter of their target and will arrive within minutes. If a Warthog is on the ground 100 miles away it may arrive at the point of conflict in an hour. It is past time to retire that dinosaur.

  7. MMurcek

    October 7, 2021 at 12:59 pm

    Planes wear out. No new A-10s will be built and refurbished planes are not new planes. The last A-10 will either one day be scrapped in a planned fashion or will crash on a sortie or training mission due to ill-advised use past airframe lifetime. It is to be hoped, for the sake of the piolets that fly them and the airmen who maintain them that it is the former rather than the latter.

  8. Tom Skarda

    October 7, 2021 at 1:00 pm

    The real issue is that senior USAF leaders are not serious people. Whether you are talking that draft dodging coward Fogelsong or the raging anti-Semite McPeak.

    They’ve never fought people who can actually hurt them, so they have delusional ideas regarding warfare. Keep in mind this is a service that spent 50 years preparing for a war that didn’t happen. And they still keep preparing for it.

    I was on Air Staff for years and never saw any efforts beyond the five meter target being addressed.

  9. Tristan Phillips

    October 7, 2021 at 1:05 pm

    @Noreastern:

    TIL that artillery can fire 100 miles, and that missiles are cheaper than sending in a Warthog.

    I think you should talk to Army logistics about the realities of artillery and various quartermasters to get a real cost/benefit ratio on those very expensive missiles.

  10. Sam L.

    October 7, 2021 at 1:24 pm

    Mainly, it ain’t “ZOOMY”

  11. The Dark Lord

    October 7, 2021 at 1:26 pm

    funny for a an aircraft supposedly designed for wars we will never fight we manage to use it ALOT in the wars we do fight …

  12. Phloda

    October 7, 2021 at 1:35 pm

    They need to rename it – say the Flying White Knight – and it would be gone in a week.

  13. Rinnal

    October 7, 2021 at 1:54 pm

    I love the A-10. Unfortunately, the plane is already dead. The USAF has “upgraded” the aircraft, making it incapable of completing any mission it might be called on to complete. Every “upgrade” causes new problems. There is barely any money available for the “upgrades”, much less any will/resources to fix the issues the “upgrade” causes.

  14. John Powe

    October 7, 2021 at 2:30 pm

    It’s not the Aircraft the the Air Force hates so much as it’s the mission. In general they don’t like to do Close Air Support, especially for the ground forces.
    If they wanted the mission they would’ve used the A-10 as a template to update it to an even better “close air support aircraft”.

  15. Lepke Buchalter

    October 7, 2021 at 3:29 pm

    Other than videos, I’ve never seen A-10s in combat. But I did see A-1s and Ac-47 gunships in action in Vietnam. They were much more accurate than the fast movers, could shoot closer, and could stay around much longer. The Vietcong & NVA learned with fast movers, all they had to do was get in close to the ground unit they were engaged with to escape. From what modern vets tell me, the sound of the A-10s gun alone is very discouraging to the enemy.
    IMO, people on the ground should have a large say in their support aircraft. Their lives depend on it. I think the Army and Marines should control the A-10s and their funding.
    Do F-15, F-16 and B-52 pilots and crew sit in titanium armor like the A-10?

  16. yeah right

    October 7, 2021 at 5:17 pm

    While the A-10 is vulnerable to enemy aircraft and SAMs, it’s made to take a beating. During Desert Storm they were using it to fly SAM suppression missions. One took a hit from a SAM and a large part of the right wing was destroyed (gone). The pilot flew it back to base. NOTHING can take the abuse an A-10 can and keep flying. CAS requires flying close to the ground where a lot of small arms and MG fire will come at you; fast-movers can’t take too much damage before they fall out of the sky. The A-10 can almost ignore anything smaller than 30mm. The Air Force hates “air to mud”, it isn’t sexy enough; except for their A-10 pilots, who understand that the job of the Air Force is to support the boots on the ground, and the A-10 can do that better than anything. During Desert Storm, 2 A-10s flying as a pair destroyed 23 Iraqi tanks in a single day. Nothing kills armor better from the air. With the A-10C they now can attack at night and in poor weather. As said previously, the measure of how good the A-10 is can be seen in how much the ground troops love it.

  17. Walter Sobchak

    October 7, 2021 at 5:23 pm

    The real mistake was separating the air force from the army in the first place. The separation created a bureaucracy whose mission was self preservation, not the defense of our country.

  18. NorEaster

    October 7, 2021 at 6:24 pm

    Has the A-10 fired munitions in CAS combat ten times in the last decade? Probably not. So why spend billions of dollars a year on an antiquated dinosaur?

  19. Charoles B Van Duzer

    October 8, 2021 at 2:41 pm

    Like squirrels the air force brass is constantly distracted by the appeal of bright, shiny, new and ridiculously expensive planes. Seems the outstanding mission performance of the A-10 doesn’t fit the perceived optics of ever faster jets.

  20. Practical Civilian

    October 8, 2021 at 9:29 pm

    @NorEasterOctober
    ‘Has the A-10 fired munitions in CAS combat ten times in the last decade? Probably not. So why spend billions of dollars a year on an antiquated dinosaur?’

    Probably because our enemies are antiquated dinosaurs themselves.

  21. Rick

    October 8, 2021 at 11:49 pm

    @Noreaster:

    “Has the A-10 fired munitions in CAS combat ten times in the last decade? Probably not.”

    Cute – but wrong. In Afghanistan, they have frequently engaged in CAS ten times in just one day. Never mind in a week, a month, a year – or the decade you claimed they couldn’t run up ten missions in.

    That’s a novel way of telling everyone you never put on the uniform – and certainly never did a deployment to Afghanistan, where the A-10 was often the lifesaver to those of us on the ground that the fast movers and artillery never could be. Which explains your lack of insight and understanding of what both CAS requires – and what does it best.

    “Today’s missiles and artillery rounds will land reliably within 1 meter of their target and will arrive within minutes.”

    That would be false. The Excaliber GPS guided artillery round isn’t even remotely close to 1 meter accuracy. Not even remotely close, even in the dreams of Airsoft military experts. It has a maximum range of a little less than 60 kms, and accuracy of roughly 20 meters CEP. A long way from 1 meter.

    Indirect fire by any means is often unavailable/useless. For example, when it’s too far away. For another example, where the fighting is taking place on the wrong side of the terrain, where the trajectory of indirect fire cannot reach the area the fighting is taking place. You cannot fire an artillery round through a mountain to get at the enemy below the military crest on the side opposite from the artillery firing point.

    The things you never think of when you’ve never served, and think of every battleground as being a flat piece of prairie. Rather than having ravines, caves, canyons, depressions, broken terrain, etc.

    Another thing artillery indirect fire simply cannot do is loiter on station as a CAS aircraft of any kind can. They also cannot be either redirected to another target that suddenly poses a greater threat. Artillery indirect fire also cannot act as an overhead observer, communicating what they see, where they see it, and what is developing around the friendly troops below that are being supported.

    “If a Warthog is on the ground 100 miles away it may arrive at the point of conflict in an hour.”

    Artillery without a trained forward observer will probably never arrive. It will never arrive if the fighting is taking place on the other side of a mountain from where the battery is located And it never, EVER will arrive as fast as a CAS aircraft loitering on station, called into action by the troops below.

    “It is past time to retire that dinosaur.

    So why spend billions of dollars a year on an antiquated dinosaur?”

    Simple. It saves lives that indirect artillery can’t.

    The lives of those of us who actually put on the uniform, and actually do get deployed to the two way rifle range and often do need CAS. While others stay at home on the couch, playing Call Of Duty as their way of getting military experience, followed by theorizing on how support for ground forces in contact works.

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