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Warthog Contratemps

[ 55 ] February 8, 2012 |

Over at WPR, I have some thoughts on the USAF’s latest effort to get rid of the pesky A-10 Warthog:

For whatever reason, the A-10 has become a people’s favorite. It graces the cover of such popular texts as Charles Gross’ “American Military Aviation.” In the 1980s, it served as the inspiration for toys such as the Cobra Rattler and the Transformer Powerglide. Hollywood has also featured its anti-robot capabilities prominently, in “Transformers” and “Terminator: Salvation.”

But the Air Force comes by its contempt for the A-10 honestly, and not just for aesthetic reasons. The Air Force conceives of itself as a strategic institution dedicated to shaping the entirety of a campaign, rather than as an organization that plinks away at enemy tanks in support of ground troops. Not only does the A-10 stand outside of that self-image, it draws resources away from the Air Force’s preferred strategic mission. By contrast, the F-35 allows the Air Force to redistribute resources from what it considers the antiquated mission of close air support to the much more important, from the USAF’s point of view, strategic mission. What’s more, for the Air Force, a successful strategic campaign makes the A-10’s contribution largely irrelevant.


Comments (55)

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  1. mpowell says:

    Yes, but isn’t the real issue here that the AF strategic mission is a steaming pile of sh*t? Strategic C&C interruption doesn’t work.

    • Njorl says:

      But it isn’t.

      The idea that you can win a war that way is a pile of shit, but the contribution to winning a war is significant.

      • firefall says:

        Really? when?

        • Njorl says:

          I was referring to the entire Air Force strategic mission, not just disrupting C&C.

          Creating an environment where you can use airspace and the enemy can not is a strategic mission.

          Deterring the enemy from concentration of force is a strategic mission.

          These were important in the most recent invasion of Iraq.

          • a noter of such things says:

            Yeah. I think OIF proved that pretty clearly. The Iraqi army wasn’t exactly top-notch or anything, but strategic air put it in a double bind: either disperse your heavy equipment to preserve it from air attack (and lose the ability to effectively fight ground forces) or try to fight the ground fight (and get effectively attrited from the air). EBO wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but as a shaping of the battlefield, the USAF did some good work.

      • mpowell says:

        What’s more, for the Air Force, a successful strategic campaign makes the A-10’s contribution largely irrelevant.

        I guess I agree with your point, but I was responding to this last line. What the AF perceives as its strategic mission is certainly valuable to war-fighting, but not so valuable that what the army wants from the AF is ‘largely irrelevant’. Maybe the A-10 investment doesn’t make sense, on balance, but just because it doesn’t fulfill the strategic mission the AF has defined for itself, doesn’t make it so. Of course, the AF only carrying about strategic tasks is, for better or worse, the consequence of separating the AF and army.

  2. CJColucci says:

    I want my very own A-10!

  3. Clark says:

    I never understood why the Marine Corps doesn’t use the A-10. It’s right up their ally.

    • Alan Tomlinson says:

      Not a lot of Marine Corps airfields outside of the US and the A-10 is not an aircraft that can be launched from an aircraft carrier.


      Alan Tomlinson

  4. dr_eats_babies says:

    I’ve always been fond of the A-10. fwiw, my guess is that it’s popularity stems from the fact that it doesn’t really look like any other airplane.

    wrt the close air support mission, this really seems like it ought to be done by drones.

    • Njorl says:

      It seems like that would be the way to go.

      There are potential problems, though. Close air support is not the same as what armed drones do now. Predators generally attack from surprise, and don’t have to deal with countermeasures.

      A drone made for close air support could go two ways. You could go small and cheap, so losing it isn’t a big deal. Or you could go bigger, and armor it against small arms fire – or bigger still and give it countermeasures against shoulder launched SAMs.

      You could even go really small, and just use them to illuminate targets for guided, indirect munitions.

      • Spud says:

        I am trying to picture a drone capable of carrying the A-10’s avenger cannon.

        It would probably be automated awesomeness incarnate.

      • Jonathan says:

        There are potential problems, though. Close air support is not the same as what armed drones do now. Predators generally attack from surprise, and don’t have to deal with countermeasures.

        This is patently untrue. Especially in Afghanistan, Predator drones operate with nearly every patrol. Their modified Hellfire missiles can reek havoc on personnel as well as most structures. Most Predators can carry at least 1 Hellfire. Many of them carry 2. The newer versions can carry 4, and I’ve heard scuttlebutt about some that have up to 8. Combined with the intelligence they provide, and the fact that a single pilot will often opperate up to a dozen drones at once, the Predator has shown itself to be a highly effective CAS platform.

  5. Paul Cutlip says:

    If they don’t want to fly them give them to the Marines.

    • Jonathan says:

      If they can’t fly them off of a small-deck carrier, the Marines don’t want it. That’s why the Marine Corps have been such advocates of the F-35 and the V-22. The long=term goal of the Marine Corps is to get out from under the Navy command as much as possible. They don’t want to depend on them for anything.

  6. Anderson says:

    Fine, Air Force, fine. You don’t want the ground-support plane? Fine.

    Just let the Army have its Air Corps back and let it buy and deploy A-10s. And then the USAF can forsake ground-support altogether and do … whatever it does.

    • R Johnston says:

      You’re not thinking quite ambitiously enough. The Air Force simply shouldn’t be its own service branch. An independent Air Force means unnecessary corruption and inefficiency in military research and procurement, and it means creating a niche for military members who see Air Power as a blunt instrument around which to form grand strategies rather than as a scalpel acting primarily or exclusively in a support role. Without an independent Air Force there would be a lot fewer people calling for such stupid things as bombing Iran, because without an independent Air Force there would be far less incentive for the military to produce a culture in which bombing things was seen as a solution in and of itself.

      • Alan Tomlinson says:


        That said, it’s asinine that the Army, Navy and Marine Corps exist in relative autonomy. I would argue that it would be immensely more efficient to have a combined military as there is a great deal of duplication of infrastructures and of course the competition for funding is profoundly counter-productive.

        I know, it will never happen. Pity.


        Alan Tomlinson

        • Murc says:

          Actually, there really isn’t competition for funding. Defense dollars are split evenly between all the service branches. Competition for funding, UK style (the RAF, Royal Navy, and British Army often get into knife fights over who gets to feed at the trough) would actually, in my opinion, be SUPERIOR to what we have now, where all the services are unified in support of funding increases to any of them and unified in opposition to funding cuts to same.

          I would argue that it would be immensely more efficient to have a combined military

          Funny story; the Chinese do this, and its looked on with polite horror by most other militaries in the world for… well, they have their reasons, dammit!

          The Chinese Navy is actually called the “People Liberation’s Army Navy” (PLAN). I’ve actually seen people refer to the “People Liberation’s Navy” (which doesn’t exist) because folding the Navy into a unified armed forced command structure so offends their sensibilities.

      • Too far!

        I’d turn it into the Space Force. Satellites and ASAT, ICBMs, some air missions (like strategic bombing) – it would still make sense to have a separate service.

        But a lot of its current missions should be taken away – anything that requires close coordination with other branches. The Air Force just doesn’t play well with others.

      • Randy Paul says:

        IIRC Rob wrote about that very issue before. This only underscores that argument. As for the air support question, if marines need air support, they’ll go to the marines, not the air force; SEALS will go to the USN.

        The USAF has always been a vacuum cleaner for defense dollars. My dad was a civilian employee of the US Army and in the 1970’s we lived for a good chunk of time in Kaiserslautern, Germany when the area was still predominantly army facilities, except for Ramstein AFB. All of the facilities at Vogelweh, the major facility that included the 32nd Army Air Defense Command, 15th MP Brigade, and the 94th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, were rundown and shabby compared to those at Ramstein, especially once USAF Europe Headquarters moved to Ramstein from Wiesbaden: libraries, clinics, movie theaters, officers’ and NCO clubs all were much better.

        It got to the point where my parents would drive far out their way to go to the commissary and BX in Ramstein as the PX and commissary were so poorly stocked.

      • Anderson says:

        The Air Force simply shouldn’t be its own service branch.

        Shhhhh! You’re giving away the plan!

      • Anonymous says:

        Spoken perfectly from the standpoint of someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about.

    • Jaime says:

      Absolutely – the USAF since 1948 has thrown its weight around for long enough over way too many issues.

  7. latinist says:

    I don’t know anything at all about the subject of this post, but I think “Warthog Contretemps” might be my favorite headline ever. In fact, it’s too good to use only once: I think the LGM bloggers should, in the future, challenge themselves to create as many posts as possible with that title. Awesome National Geographic videos and spats between ugly politicians would be the obvious subjects, but I’ll bet the meaning could be extended in more inventive ways.

  8. scott says:

    It’s always been this way. The Air Force from WW2 onwards has been much more in favor of a strategic role that justifies its independent existence instead of a tactical close air support role. So, yes, their opposition or lack of enthusiam for CAS, FAC, etc. is honest. Whether you find this honesty refreshing or blinkered depends on your reaction to the Air Force’s overinflated claims for its strategic effectiveness.

  9. NBarnes says:

    Paywall for the full article. I say thee neigh!

  10. NBarnes says:

    Also, I have very little to add to this that hasn’t been said already and that I haven’t said before in other threads.

    The USAF is in love with heavy bombers and air superiority fighters and the focus on these assets detracts from the USAF’s ability to perform the missions that best support our national interests.

    The USAF is why we still have SAC, which is a money sink that produces precisely zero benefit for the country.

    Kill the USAF and bring back the Army Air Corp.

    The proper role of air power in any reasonable military campaign is close air support, reconnaissance, and air superiority to maintain control over these assets. The USAF likes the last part, but then ignores the rest. See point #3, about killing the USAF and bringing back the Army Air Corp.

    The A-10 is awesome and the F-35 is meh at best and lousy at worst.

    • rea says:

      close air support, reconnaissance, and air superiority to maintain control over these assets. The USAF likes the last part, but then ignores the rest

      And sadly, there really isn’t anyone around to play air superiority games with.

      • NBarnes says:

        Oh, certainly. I skipped the part where the USAF overprepares for the air superiority mission by a factor of five or more, and then ignores what can be accomplished with a context of air superiority.

    • Chet Manly says:

      SAC hasn’t existed for 20 years. Its mission passed to STRATCOM, which is a joint command. In addition to the nuclear mission STRATCOM is in charge of WMD deterrence, all military space activity, and all military cyber activity (CYBERCOM is subordinate to STRATCOM).

  11. Fighting Words says:

    I just want to say that my brother had a Cobra Rattler. It was awesome!

  12. Matt_L says:

    Abolish the Air Force already. Delegate the ICBMS to the Navy, the air assets to the army and national guard.

  13. Tracy Lightcap says:

    It’s easy. Give the Army the CAS mission and re-open the production lines for the A-1H.

    The Spad was quite easy to maintain and service, probably the best CAS aircraft ever, and cheap as dirt. Of course, you’d have to convince the USAF to actually fly some suppression missions first, but that shouldn’t be too hard.

    I’ve never understood why we got rid of the thing in the first place.

  14. povertyrich says:

    I was 12ish and on the Amtrak somewhere between D.C. and the Florida border when I saw an A-10 pop up above the treetops, bank hard away from the train, then dip back below the trees. A second later, it popped up again, banked toward the train, then disappeared below the trees. Still my favorite military aircraft sighting while traveling.

    Way better than watching the B-1s approach Ellsworth AFB from I-94. Which is still pretty damn cool.

  15. wengler says:

    Tank tactics are somewhat like naval tactics. Rear admiral of the sand and all that.

  16. a noter of such things says:

    Hey Rob, I wonder if you knew of any recent work covering air power in ODS? I read the GWAS summary, but it basically punted the question of regime and C&C effects. One might assume that post-OIF, we have a better view of that period. Or maybe not, but you might know either way.

  17. Mojo says:

    The A-10 was built specifically to battle large concentrations of Soviet armor coming through the Fulda Gap. You may have noticed that the Soviet Union is gone and both sides of the Fulda Gap are on our side. That mission is gone and will never return and the A-10, which I dearly love, is simply not good at modern CAS. What is needed today really requires a combination of two different types of airframes. You need something with a very long loiter time and great vision that can hit what targets pop up to provide sustained topcover and you need something that can get to a trouble spot quickly to deal with emergencies. That means a combo of some sort of armed drone like the Reaper and a fast fighter with smart weapons, preferably with good loiter time as well (so it can start from a position closer to where the trouble appears) like F-16s, F-18s and/or F-35s. A Predator or Reaper at 25,000 feet can see what’s happening on the ground much, much better than an A-10 can even at treetop height and is much cheaper and less vulnerable while having vastly more loiter time. An F-16 or F-18 can get to a trouble spot three times as quickly as an A-10 so the chance of it getting there on time are much better and, once they arrive, all three aircraft are likely to use the same weapon since smart weapons are much more accurate than an A-10’s gun and more effective against a wide variety of targets. Drop the Air Force vendetta for a minute and ask yourself, if the Army had operated the A-10 for the past 35 years and decided to retire it since it no longer met their needs, would you be talking about competing grand visions or simply discussing operational capabilities?

    • Robert Farley says:


      I make this point in the article. A Super Tucano or similar aircraft would also be helpful in similar situations, having some of the upsides of a drone while retaining the benefits of the manned aircraft. The problem is that the Army (correctly) appreciates the disinterest of the Air Force in taking CAS capabilities very seriously, and the (limited) utility that the extant A-10s actually provide.

    • NBarnes says:

      Drop the Air Force vendetta for a minute and ask yourself, if the Army had operated the A-10 for the past 35 years and decided to retire it since it no longer met their needs, would you be talking about competing grand visions or simply discussing operational capabilities?

      That’d be a sufficiently divergent world that I’m not really sure how to respond. Is the Army making a reasonable case for their proposed replacement? Have they been taking CAS seriously for the last 35 years? If the answer to those questions is, in both cases, yes, then they are light-years ahead of where the USAF is right now.

    • a noter of such things says:

      Sort of agree with you re: UAVs being useful for the CAS mission, but I don’t a Predator has such a target detection advantage over a podded A-10C. If you’re doing CAS, you’re probably talking to someone on the ground anyway.

  18. JR in WVa says:

    I’m building a winter home in SE Arizona at 5500 ft elevation. The local A-10 squadron roars across the valley below the level of the building project almost every day.

    Then they pop up to cross over the lower mountains into the real valley floor.

    Awesome sight to see those birds. At the same time I was at the Tucson airport one day, and an Air Guard fighter was headed out to the end of the runway for a training mission, until it broke down. Eventually they took a jeep out to tow it back to the shop.

    Some planes are too complex to be supported by the staff available to support them, and that’s a fail no matter what mission they are designed to support.

  19. […] the AC-130, which fly lower, slower, and have more time over the target.  However, a A-10 pilot still has less information about the course of a firefight than virtually any drone operator; drone pilots fly slower and can […]

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