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Sunday Book Review: The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate

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The A-10 Thunderbolt II is a curiously popular aircraft. It doesn’t look like a modern warplane, doesn’t fly at supersonic speed, and has never been exported to any other country.  Yet in popular culture the A-10 is ubiquitous, from Terminator to GI Joe to Transformers to dozens of  book covers.  Douglas Campbell’s  The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate attempts to frame the history of the A-10 within the larger story of conflict between the Army and the Air Force.  For obvious reasons, I find this subject fascinating.

The contours of the myth of the A-10 are relatively well known.  Concerned that the Army would take control of the close air support mission with the AH-56 Cheyenne helicopter, the Air Force developed an alternative that could beat the Cheyenne on reliability and technical capacity.  The presence of the A-10 proposal gave Congress the excuse to cancel the troubled Cheyenne, after which the Air Force attempted to discard the murder weapon.  However, pressure from the Army and from Congress forced the Air Force to keep the A-10, and has kept the A-10 in service despite repeated USAF attempts to kill it over the years.

This story isn’t entirely wrong, but isn’t entirely right.

The problems, and consequently the story, begins well before the paper hits pencil on the earliest A-10 designs.  The USAAF was not well-prepared for the close air support mission before World War II, preferring behind-the-lines interdiction in cases where strategic bombing wasn’t warranted.  Disastrous experiences in North Africa led to institutional and organizational changes, forcing the ground and air forces to work together in a team that became very effective by 1944.

However, with the end of the war and the independence of the Air Force, attention to the close air support mission waned.  Campbell capably illustrates the difference between an official commitment to CAS (which the USAF has always maintained), and a genuine organizational commitment to CAS (which has varied widely over the history of the air-ground team).  The immediate post-war period, in which the USAF was dominated by the strategic bombing mission, was not a high point.  Tactical Air Command, responsible for close air support, interdiction, and other tactical missions, decided to fight for resources by emphasizing its ability to deliver nuclear weapons, a decision which had dreadful consequences for procurement (many fighters developed in the 1950s sacrificed air superiority capabilities for nuclear weapons delivery), training, and doctrine. Fighting in Korea was a struggle, even as the USAF managed to achieve complete air superiority over U.S. troops.

With the Kennedy Administration came Flexible Response, and a new emphasis on the joint air-ground team.  The Army began working hard on attack helicopters to fill the gap in USAF tactical capabilities, and McNamara even proposed assigning light tactical fixed wing attack jets to the Army, a prospect that the Air Force viewed with a great deal of hostility.  Intervention in Vietnam strained the capabilities of both services, with the Army ill-prepared to fight a counter-insurgency conflict and the Air Force not well suited to either the conventional bombing campaign over North Vietnam or the close air support mission in the South.  Nevertheless, the A-1 Skyraider performed well in the CAS mission, but as an aging propeller aircraft wasn’t particularly popular in the USAF.  Under significant duress the Air Force adopted the A-7, a development of the Navy’s F-8 Crusader which the Air Force regarded as old and inferior.

The A-7 was an inconvenience, but the  AH-56 Cheyenne was a problem.  The high performance Cheyenne could fly at speeds that challenged the A-1, yet had a helicopter’s flexibility.  It could threaten to take the CAS mission away from the Air Force.  While the USAF didn’t particularly dig CAS, it feared that a shift in responsibilities would also lead to a shift in resources.  Consequently, the Air Force responded by laying the framework for its own successor CAS aircraft, the A-X.

Turns out the Cheyenne was too advanced for its time, and could never quite be made to work.  The development of the A-X program reassured both Congress and the Army that the Air Force was sufficiently committed to providing close air support, which made the Cheyenne superfluous. The USAF didn’t love the A-X program, but the growing strength of TACAIR, combined with the belief that the USAF would have to adopt one attack aircraft or another, incurred grudging acceptance on the part of the Air Force. There’s no question that the rise of TACAIR led to considerably more attention for close air support; squadrons of A-10s practiced the mission at various Red Flag exercises.

The first serious Air Force effort to ditch the A-10 came in the mid-1980s, when a proposal to replace the A-10 with the F-16 garnered significant support.  The Air Force argued that A-10s were not survivable in a modern war environment, and that the “A-16” had dual use potential.  Congress and the Army were not particularly amused, although the proposal did find some support in both places. The Air Force was slow to deploy the A-10 to Saudi Arabia in 1990, but internal pressure (largely emanating from the A-10 pilot corps itself) helped ensure that the Warthog would have a role.  The A-10 performed very effectively during the war, although its loss rate was significant.  There’s little question that the USAF, still interested in the F-16 option, downplayed the success of the A-10, but the image of the Warthog destroying Iraqi tanks in the desert became sufficiently popular in Congress that plans to retire it were shelved.  The A-10 survived the post-Cold War drawdown, and survived (with Congressional support) another retirement effort in the early 2000s.

I’m ambivalent about the future of the A-10. Armor notwithstanding, the Warthog isn’t particularly appropriate for a contested airspace, unless you can sacrifice hundreds of aircraft in pursuit of the destruction of several hard-charging Soviet armored divisions. The A-10 does very well in situations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the opponent lacks the capacity to hit even a low and slow aircraft with anything more than small arms fire. It’s not an ideal aircraft for such a situation; something like a Super Tucano or an AT-6 is a better, cheaper counter-insurgency aircraft. But then, the chance that the Air Force will replace the A-10 with something like the Texan or the Super Tucano is regarded as virtually nil, which is why so many communities committed to maintaining the close air support mission are willing to go to the wall for the Warthog. In some ways, the continued sentimental attachment to the A-10 obscures the real issues associated with inter-service conflict and the close air support mission, and muddles the conversation about the appropriate level of prioritization for CAS against other missions.

But then, many old planes can prove very useful at new jobs (hello, B-52!), and you can do a lot with an airframe like the A-10.  Wing replacements can keep existing planes flying until 2040, and fuel tank upgrades can increase range and loiter capacity. Additional weapon system upgrades can make the plane considerably more lethal, and it will always be better at some aspects of the job than the F-16 or F-35, although it may not perform much better than the system of drone-driven CAS that’s emerging in Afghanistan.

This book doesn’t answer every question about either the A-10 or the history of close air support, but it’s a pretty good introduction to both subjects. Campbell has obvious affection for the A-10, which is an odd thing to say were it not for the fact that nearly everyone seems to have a great deal of affection for the A-10. An update which covered the contributions of the A-10 to both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the most recent bureaucratic conflicts associated with the aircraft, would be more than welcome.

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