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The US Air Force is moving on a plan to divest as many as 260 A-10 Warthog aircraft to pursue alternative platforms for Close Air Support given what leaders say is an inability of the famous “flying tank” to maintain effectiveness in new high-threat environments.
However, the A-10 is not disappearing quickly, and debate about its utility to the Air Force continues to surge among lawmakers and other advocates for the combat-tested, highly survivable aircraft known for saving lives in combat.
The future of the aircraft has long-been debated, as many have argued that high-speed fighter jet aircraft such as the F-16, F-22 and F-35 are well suited to absorb the CAS mission. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the House Appropriations Committee - Defense that the service does indeed intend to remove the aircraft over time.
“We do intend to divest the A-10 and replace it with F-16s. The problem is it is an old aircraft not designed for an environment we face now and survivable against modern threats,” Kendall told the Subcommittee.
Years ago the Pentagon conducted a specific fly off between the A-10 and F-35 to assess each platform's ability to perform the CAS mission. Each platform has different and highly significant attributes.
The A-10s titanium hull enables the aircraft to absorb massive amounts of small arms fire and its built-in redundancy allows the aircraft to continue operating after being damaged in war. The A-10 also has an ability to “hover” above ground combat and deliver impactful air fire upon dismounted enemy forces in close proximity to advancing soldiers.
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The aircraft also has an aligned 30mm cannon right below its nose to exact a lethal impact with direct fire upon enemy ground forces. These are merely a few of the reasons why the A-10 has been revered by ground forces for decades and credited with saving countless lives.
F-16 and F-35
At the same time, an F-35 has a set of unique attributes of potential impact to CAS operations, such as its long-range sensors and high-speed maneuverability. For instance, an F-35 may be able to deliver devastating ground attacks on enemy forces using its weapons and long-range sensors, without having to descend within range of small arms fire.
The F-35 could use speed and maneuverability to elude enemy fire as well, certainly to a greater extent than an A-10 could. However, even though an F-35 may not “have” to face as much small arms fire, could the aircraft withstand it? Nonetheless, fighter jets such as the F-16 and even the F-22 against ISIS in 2014, have demonstrated an ability to be successful with CAS.
One thing that is surprising, however, is that Kendall mentioned replacing the A-10s CAS mission with F-16, and did not mention the F-35 despite its known ability to perform CAS missions. In the past, service leaders have emphasized the possibility of using the F-35 for CAS. Perhaps that is still the case, as even upgraded F-16 are still a 4th-generation, non-stealthy, older platform.
Some members of Congress were skeptical and concerned about the Air Force’s decision to phase-out the A-10 and decrease the number or aircraft receiving wing replacements. Several members of the Subcommittee argued that the current war in Ukraine underscores the critical need for platforms such as the A-10 and even suggested that there would still be a crucial and much needed role for the A-10 in major high-threat, great-power war engagements.
“The A-10 gun system is capable of defeating modern armor and is well suited for agile combat employment roles. It can continue to deliver massive rapid firepower on enemy vehicles in a contested environment. There remains a mission for the A-10 beyond counterinsurgency,” Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz, said to Kendall and Brown.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.