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On the A-10…

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This story has received a fair amount of play:

“Can we save the A-10?” was the question from the audience Wednesday at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference here.

Clarke, director of the Air National Guard, came at the question in roundabout fashion. He loved flying the A-10 Thunderbolt, better known as the “Warthog,” Clarke said. He noted that the plane was “near and dear to land warriors” for its GAU-8 Avenger, a 30mm rotary cannon that is the heaviest such weapon mounted on an aircraft.

But the Air Force was “looking at reducing single mission aircraft,” Clarke said, and under the sequestration process “we’re not getting any more money – that option is out.”

The first problem is that Air Force leadership doesn’t have a lot of credibility with respect to the A-10; the USAF’s desire to kill the Warthog has occasionally been overstated, but it’s fair to say that the relationship has been troubled. For a more comprehensive history of the A-10 and its relationship with the Air Force, see Douglass Campbell’s The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate. Put briefly, the A-10 performs a mission that, for cultural and bureaucratic reasons, the Air Force is not particularly interested in. For reasons sensible and not so sensible, the Air Force prefers aircraft that can perform the close air support (CAS) mission and also other missions, even if that means that means short-changing CAS. The USAF is willing to short-change CAS because a) it tends to believe that CAS missions put Air Force assets at the mercy of Army whims, and b) it tends to believe that CAS is a waste of effort compared to other missions that airpower can accomplish.

That said, I think that A-10 advocates have a tendency to overstate their case. It’s a wonderful plane, but the mission it was designed to perform (killing Soviet tanks) no longer exists, and in current technological and geopolitical conditions is unlikely to come back during the projected lifespan of the aircraft. The A-10 currently performs CAS in permissive environments (blowing up people who can’t hope to shoot it down), and it’s good at that mission, but it’s not difficult to imagine aircraft that are cheaper and that can perform that mission more effectively. However, because of the aforementioned reasons, no one believes that the USAF will develop of acquire such aircraft. Consequently, it’s the A-10 or nothing, and people seem to love the A-10.

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