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The “flying tank” will live to fight another day. Many days in fact, because the Air Force is now moving forward with a clear future plan for its famous A-10 Warthog aircraft, credited for saving many lives while absorbing massive amounts of incoming enemy fire.
Following years of debate, Congressional directives, pilot and soldier testimonials and even a Pentagon-led “fly-off” or competition assessment between the F-35 and A-10 to determine which platform would be superior performing the Close Air Support mission. As is often the case in these kinds of nuanced and highly complex determination, the answer appears to be a mixture of both aircraft in the force for the CAS mission.
A-10s Still Fly: Fleet Size Reduced to 218
The Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, Lt. Gen. David Nahom, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies that it plans to keep and upgrade the A-10, yet reduce the operational fleet size from 281 A-10s down to 218. The move, Nahom explained, will “right size” the A-10 force to seven instead of nine operational squadrons.
“We will leave one A-10 squadron in the Koreas, give three to the Guard, two to active duty and offer one A-10 squadron to Commanders in theater,” Nahom said.
The complexity and emotions surrounding the A-10s capability, continued relevance and distinguished history have made it a pressing and high focus issue for many years now among pilots, ground troops, weapons developers and members of Congress. The aircraft’s titanium hull creates a protective capsule to protect pilots from small arms fire, something which enables continued attack amid incoming enemy attack. As part of this equation, the A-10 operates with built-in redundancy such that it can continue to fly in the event that major component are disabled, damaged or even fully destroyed.
A-10s Still Fly: Massively Upgraded
As for the remaining 218 A-10s, they will be massively upgraded with new avionics, electronics, computing and even new wings, as a way to ensure the decades old airplane remains viable and effective in even less contested environment such as providing ongoing support to small advancing ground units under enemy attack.
However, the A-10s performance and beloved reputation among ground forces does not make it an aircraft likely to survive modern air defenses and the most advanced air-defense weapons armed with long-range targeting technologies, greater precision against moving aircraft and more explosive bomb materials able to serious damage or destroy the aircraft.
“The A-10 has limited utility in the high end fight and we will use it in the low-end fight. The reduction will happened over the next few years,” Nahom said.
On this point, there has been and continues to be ongoing discussion that the F-35’s maneuverability, speed, 25mm cannon and sensor fidelity make it ideally suited to take over the Close Air Support mission. Certainly an F-35 could operate at speeds making it very tough for ground forces to target, and the range and accuracy of it sensors coupled with its computer processing make it likely to succeed in destroying ground forces from higher altitudes and greater distances.
At the same time, some may wonder just how much the fast, yet more lightly skinned F-35 fuselage would be able to withstand small arms, RPS or anti-aircraft fire and keep flying. Proponents of the F-35 for CAS often argue that an F-35 simply will not have to absorb small arms fire given its speed, sensor range and precision weapons, meaning it can be extremely impactful providing fire support and targeting to ground infantry without itself being fully vulnerable to enemy ground attack. Nahom was clear that, for example, the Marine Corps is now using its F-35B in a decisive and effective close air support role.
Nonetheless, despite the planned reduction in the total number of A-10, Nahom sent a very clear message that the famous “flying tank” is going nowhere anytime soon.
“When we phase it out it will not be in the near term,” Nahom said.
Kris Osborn is 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