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Widely revered as an unstoppable, resilient “flying tank,” the famous A-10 Warthog can absorb small arms fire, fly slowly at low altitudes to support ground troops under enemy fire and literally decimate groups of aggregated, advancing enemy fire with its extremely lethal 30mm nose cannon.
The success stories related to the A-10, and quite simply the number of lives it has saved and battles it has won, has earned it a distinct and timeless place in history. One of the key attributes of the A-10 is built-in redundancy, meaning the aircraft is built to keep flying even if key parts are destroyed by enemy fire. The A-10 can lose an engine, certain electronics or even part of a wing and continue to fight. I once talked to a Gulf War pilot who survived a battle during the Gulf War by flying his damaged A-10 with one wing. The aircraft’s lethality is yet another unique attribute, as the 30mm cannon is aligned in a linear way beneath the fuselage, giving pilots a straight ahead view of targets below.
All of these reasons are why some members of Congress and Pentagon advocates have pushed back in recent years on Air Force plans to divest the aircraft. However, is the aircraft now finally reaching close to its ultimate sunset? The Air Force plans to divest as many as 21 A-10s in 2023, according to the service’s budget request. This would make sense, given the rapid arrival of newly built F-35s.
Could the advent of new air-attack technologies render it less impactful? More vulnerable and eventually obsolete? For years many have insisted the answer is no, as the aircraft is arguably unparalleled when it comes to providing combat crucial, time-sensitive close-air-support. For several years now the Air Force has largely maintained that many aircraft, especially the F-35 are extremely well suited to perform the CAS mission.
The discussion of the importance of CAS is so vital to the military services that the Pentagon at one point conducted a specific Close Air Support “fly off” or competition between the F-35 and the A-10 to determine which platform might best be suited for the future of Close Air Support. Interestingly, while thought of as a 5th-generation multirole stealth fighter, the F-35 is tactically very well positioned for close air support.
The aircraft not only has a fuselage-wing-mounted 20mm cannon for ground fire but also has speed and maneuverability advantages such that it could elude ground fire. Would an F-35 be survivable enough to withstand incoming small arms fire like an A-10? Perhaps it would never need to be in range of enemy small arms fire given the range and fidelity of its sensors and precision-guidance of its air-ground weapons? Perhaps the navigational sophistication and sheer speed would mitigate any risk of incoming ground fire.
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Perhaps even yet, the fuselage or F-35 coating is built with survivable composite materials able to withstand some small arms fire in the event that the aircraft needs to fly close enough to the ground? An answer to this question is likely unavailable for understandable and important security issues, but the overall equation in many respects does seem to indicate that an F-35 would be well positioned for the CAS mission.
Is the Air Force finally going to sunset the A-10? The idea has been developing for years, and it seems the arrival of larger numbers of F-35s and the advent of new enemy weapons means it may indeed finally be time for the A-10 to sign off from its distinguished history of service.
Senior Air Force leaders announced that the service plans to divest 21 A-10s in 2023, according to its budget proposal, indicating among other things that the aircraft may not be optimal for conflict in the IndoPacific and perhaps no longer ideally suited for the kinds of missions it has performed for years.
“We look forward to working with Congress to make sure that, again, we've got the right mix of aircrafts that are survivable, effective, and can provide our airmen, our guardians, the best chance of winning in INDOPACOM. The A-10 is just limited in its ability to contribute to that fight,” Deputy Assistant Secretary For Budget Major General James D. Peccia III told reporters according to a Pentagon transcript.
The vast geographical expanse of the Pacific does not necessarily present combat conditions favorable to an A-10 but would likely be well served by long-range armed drones and 5th-generation aircraft with the range and speed to attack targets spread across wide swaths of ocean. In the Pacific, a land war on mainland China would seem much less likely, and an A-10 might have trouble reaching dispersed areas across the region from Southern Japan to Taiwan and the South China Sea.
However, there certainly seems to be no reason why an A-10 based in Japan or Taiwan could not be useful in repelling an amphibious assault or ground incursion. However, new enemy precision weapons, air defenses and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft guns may make the A-10 far more vulnerable than it has historically been. While the aircraft is well built to withstand enemy small arms fire, the global proliferation of shoulder-fired weapons such as MANPADS and other forms of ground-fired precision anti-aircraft missions might make it much harder for an A-10 to operate in close proximity with ground forces in the way that it has previously.
The transition away from the A-10 will not be an easy process, however, service leaders said, as maintainers, trainers and other personnel will need to transition from the A-10 to other aircraft.
“We look forward to making -- working with Congress to make sure that that, again, we've got the right profile and can make sure that we transition those personnel because it's not just the aircraft, it's the investment and the personnel as well as we transition to some of these higher -- more capable aircraft and the personnel needed to meet those requirements,” Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Many of the retiring A-10s will be backfilled with F-16s, service leaders said. However, the A-10s Close Air Support mission will likely be replaced by the growing number of F-35s.