A-10/OA-10 Thunderbolt II
The US Air Force has decided to not retire the A-10 Warthog jet, until at least 2021, pushing back the original cutoff date by three years. The platform's future is uncertain, as officials grapple with questions such as whether the aircraft should be replaced to begin with. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced the delay in February 2016, after complaints from officials that a "valuable and effective" CAS would be lost if the A-10 went out of service as planned.
In July 2016, the estimable Loren B. Thompson called tentative plans to replace the A-10 "incoherent" and "foolish," writing in National Interest, "With the Air Force already planning to buy a new bomber, tanker, fighter, trainer, radar plane and rescue helicopter at a time when federal deficits are surging back to over a trillion dollars per year, the A-X2 is unaffordable. And it is unneeded: the A-10 can do the close air support mission better than any low-cost replacement by relying on upgrades that are already in progress. It's an exceedingly tough plane, and the Air Force's contention that it costs more than a high-end fighter to operate simply isn't believable."
On 07 February 2017, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told reporters "We're going to keep them until 2021, and then as a discussion that we'll have with [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis and the department and the review over all of our budgets, that is what will determine the way ahead," according to Defense News. Goldfein said that, in the coming years the discussion around close-air support missions (CAS) should move from being "platform centric," focusing on how to sustain the Warthog, to how to develop a "family of systems," in which other aircraft can show their ability to support ground forces.
Goldfein said he intended to hold a demonstration for a light attack CAS plane dubbed the A-X2, though the Air Force had not decided whether it will consider the craft for future use. "Show me what you got that's off the shelf, that's shovel-ready, that can contribute right now without research-and-development dollars, that we can get into the fight right now," said Goldfein.
For the first time since the war against the Islamic State militant group began in 2014, US warplanes launched strategic strikes 16 Novemer 2015 on trucks carrying crude oil in Syria, cutting off an important source of income for the terror group. The airstrikes, which were carried out by two AC-130 gunships and four low-flying A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft, and hit an estimated 116 trucks in Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria. U.S. planes dropped leaflets warning the drivers to jump out of the trucks and run away, since it was unlikely the drivers belong to IS. Airstrikes on IS oil facilities were not too successful because the militants quickly repaired the damage.
On 24 February 2014 Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed cuts in military spending that include further reductions in troop strength and force structure. Within the Air Force, the defense budget calls for saving $3.5 billion by retiring the A-10 fleet and replacing it with the F-35 by the early 2020s. In addition, the service also will retire the 50 year-old U-2 surveillance plane in favor of the unmanned Global Hawk. The Army Guard’s Apache attack helicopters would be transferred to the active force, while Black Hawk helicopters would be transferred to the National Guard, part of a broader realignment of Army aviation designed to modernize the fleet and increase capability.
Defense Secretary Chucke Hagel said in a 24 February 2014 briefing: "The Warthog [A-10] is a venerable platform, and this was a tough decision. But the A-10 is a 40-year-old single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield; it cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses. And as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, the advent of precision munitions means that many more types of aircraft can now provide effective close air support, from B-1 bombers to remotely piloted aircraft, and these aircraft can execute more than one mission. The A-10's age is also making it much more difficult and costly to maintain. Significant savings are only possible through eliminating the entire fleet, because of the fixed cost of maintaining the support apparatus associated with that aircraft. Keeping a smaller number of A-10s would only delay the inevitable while forcing worse trade-offs elsewhere."
With the Pentagon facing billions of dollars in cuts because of the across-the-board and indiscriminate sequestration cuts, by 2013 the Air Force was considering getting rid of all A-10s in a money-saving move. The Air Force had cut or was cutting three squadrons of A-10s at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana; Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany; and Fort Smith, Arkansas. Moreover, based on reports related to the Air Force's FY 2015 proposals for the A-10 and an apparent Air Force document entitled "CAF Force Generation Model" (dated 19 Jul 2013), there were concerns that the Air Force's effort to divest the A-10 may be accelerating.
Such an Air Force divestment of the A-10 would run counter to a long-standing congressional belief that the A-10's past combat performance, low operating costs, and unique CAS capabilities warrant the allocation of finite resources to ensure the A-10 remains part of the fleet for years to come. That is why Congress blocked the Air Force's effort to cut A-10 force structure even deeper in FY 2013. In November 2013 a bipartisan, bicameral group of U.S. Senators and Members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, expressing concerns that a premature divestment of the A-10 Thunderbolt II by the Air Force would create a dangerous close air support capability gap that could unnecessarily endanger American service members in future conflicts.
Section 133 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 included a provision for GAO to conduct an independent study of the platforms used to conduct the CAS mission in light of the recommendation of the Air Force to retire the A-10 fleet. GAO reported on its findings on June 25, 2015. GAO found that the Air Force A-10 divestment decision came out of a strategy-based, portfolio-wide review of alternatives used to develop the budget at lower than previously anticipated levels. DOD and Air Force strategic guidance prioritized, among other things, fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-35, readiness, and multirole aircraft, while placing a lower priority on single-role aircraft like the A-10. In developing its fiscal year 2015 budget request, the Air Force examined its entire portfolio in light of this guidance and concluded that the benefits of divesting the A-10 outweighed the cost of retaining it.
GAO found that the Air Force has not fully assessed the cost savings associated with A-10 divestment or its alternatives. However, in its fiscal year 2015 budget request, the Air Force estimated that divesting the A-10 would allow it to save $4.2 billion over its 5-year budget plan. Our analysis found that the Air Force’s estimated savings are incomplete and may overstate or understate the actual figure. Without a reliable cost estimate, the Air Force does not have a complete picture of the savings it would generate by divesting the A-10 and does not have a reliable basis from which to develop and consider alternatives to achieve budget targets or assess the impact on other missions such as air superiority or global strike.
Maj. Gen. James Post, then the Air Combat Command [ACC] vice commander, made statements on 10 January 2015 to some 300 airmen at a Weapons and Tactics Review Board meeting at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The board was discussing the controversial retirement of the A-10.
Post was asked a question about the A-10 and discussed the tight budget leading to the Air Force decision to retire the aircraft. The general talked about the importance of loyalty to the decisions by senior leadership and used the word “treason" to describe airmen who discuss dissenting opinions with lawmakers, the ACC said.
The Air Force inspector general found that comments by Post had a “chilling effect" and caused airmen to feel constrained about their right to speak to lawmakers about important issues, according to the command. Post was issued a letter of reprimand and moved from his position.
“General Post understands the impact of his actions and has expressed his sincere regret to me, a regret he extends to all airmen," Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, said in a release. "It was sincerely never my intention to discourage anyone’s access to their elected officials," Post said in a released statement. “I now understand how my poor choice of words may have led a few attendees to draw this conclusion and I offer my humble apology for causing any undue strain on the command and its mission."
Boeing talked to the Air Force about potentially selling the "Warthog" to US allies, according to Chris Raymond, a vice president at the Chicago-based aerospace giant. "There's been talk about what the international opportunities might be," he was quoted 16 June 2015 as saying by DoD Buzz while at the Paris Air Show. To date, the United States is the only country to have ever operated the plane.
"We're going to stay close to the US Air Force in this case. They have to make some decisions about what they actually have that they're willing to declare as excess defense articles and so it's really not our place to speculate on that." Any deal with foreign governments will only happen if the Air Force gets approval for its proposal to retire the fleet of nearly 300 Warthogs over the next several years.
The A-10 and OA-10 Thunderbolt IIs are the first Air Force aircraft specially designed for close air support of ground forces. They are simple, effective and survivable twin-engine jet aircraft that can be used against all ground targets, including tanks and other armored vehicles. The primary mission of the A-10 is to provide day and night close air combat support for friendly land forces and to act as forward air controller (FAC) to coordinate and direct friendly air forces in support of land forces. The A-10 has a secondary mission of supporting search and rescue and Special Forces operations. It also possesses a limited capability to perform certain types of interdiction. All of these missions may take place in a high or low threat environment.
The A/OA-10 aircraft was specifically developed as a close air support aircraft with reliability and maintainability as major design considerations. The Air Force requirements documents emphasized payload, low altitude flying capability, range and loiter capability, low speed maneuverability and weapons delivery accuracy. The A-10 is slow enough to be an observation plane. This greatly increases the A-10's effectiveness at protecting ground troops.
The A/OA-10 is a single place, pressurized, low wing and tail aircraft with two General Electric TF-34-100/A turbo-fan engines, each with a sea level static thrust rating of approximately 9000 pounds. The engines are installed in nacelles mounted on pylons extending from the fuselage just aft of and above the wing. Two vertical stabilizers are located at the outboard tips of the horizontal stabilizers. The forward retracting tricycle landing gear incorporates short struts and a wide tread. The nose wheel retracts fully into the fuselage nose. The main gear retracts into streamlined fairing on the wing with the lower portion of the wheel protruding to facilitate emergency gear-up landings.
The A-10's survivability in the close air support arena greatly exceeds that of previous Air Force aircraft. The A-10 is designed to survive even the most disastrous damage and finish the mission by landing on an unimproved airfield. Specific survivability features include titanium armor plated cockpit, redundant flight control system separated by fuel tanks, manual reversion mode for flight controls, foam filled fuel tanks, ballistic foam void fillers, and a redundant primary structure providing "get home" capability after being hit.
All of the A-10's glass is bulletproof and the cockpit itself is surrounded by a heavy tub of titanium. Titanium armor protects both the pilot and critical areas of the flight control system. This titanium "bathtub" can survive direct hits from armor-piercing and high explosive projectiles up to 37mm in size. The front windscreen can withstand up to a 23mm projectile. Fire retardant foam protects the fuel cells which are also self sealing in the event of puncture.
The redundant primary structural sections allow the aircraft to enjoy better survivability during close air support than did previous aircraft. Designers separated all of the crucial battle and flight systems. The wheels can roll in their pods, which lets the plane perform belly landings without significant damage to the aircraft. Dual engines are mounted away from the Warthog's fuselage; if one is destroyed, the other can propel the craft to safety. Dual vertical stabilizers shield the hot exhaust from Russian-designed heat seeking missiles. The A-10 has two hydraulic flight control systems, backed up by a manual flight control system. This redundancy allows the pilot to control a battle damaged aircraft, even after losing all hydraulic power. Furthermore, redundant primary structural and control surfaces enhance survivability. Lastly, the long low-set wings are designed to allow flight, even if half a wing is completely blown off. No other modern aircraft -- including the F-16 -- can survive such punishment. The wings themselves are set low to allow for more weaponry to fit beneath the aircraft.
The General Electric Aircraft Armament Subsystem A/A49E-6 (30 millimeter Gun System) is located in the forward nose section of the fuselage. The gun system consists of the 30mm Gatling gun mechanism, double-ended linkless ammunition feed, storage assembly and hydraulic drive system. The General Electric GAU-8/A 30mm seven barrel cannon, specifically designed for the A-10, provides unmatched tank killing capability. The gun fires armor-piercing projectiles capable of penetrating heavy armor. It also fires a high explosive incendiary round, which is extremely effective against soft skinned targets like trucks. The cannon fires at a rate of 4,200 rounds per minute. The A-10's maneuverability, teamed with the gun's accuracy, allows the pilot quick reaction with lethal effects. Other weapons include the AGM-65 Maverick and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
Thunderbolt IIs have Night Vision Imaging Systems (NVIS), compatible single-seat cockpits forward of their wings and a large bubble canopy which provides pilots all-around vision. The ACES-II ejection seat safely operates from 518 miles per hour down to zero speed and zero altitudes.
Avionics equipment includes communications, inertial navigation systems, computer-aided fire control and weapons delivery systems, electronic countermeasures, target penetration aids and self-protection systems. The A-10 employs both electronic and infrared countermeasures against enemy weapons systems. The weapons delivery system incorporates a heads-up display that provides the pilot with references for flight control and weapons employment. The weapons delivery systems include head-up displays that indicate airspeed, altitude and dive angle on the windscreen, a low altitude safety and targeting enhancement system (LASTE) which provides constantly computing impact point freefall ordnance delivery; and Pave Penny laser-tracking pods under the fuselage.
The A-10/OA-10 have excellent maneuverability at low air speeds and altitude, and are highly accurate weapons-delivery platforms. The A-10 has half the turning radius of the Air Force's other primary CAS aircraft, the F-16. After initially leaving a target, the A-10 can turn around and hit the same target again, all in around 7 seconds. Due to its large combat radius, the Thunderbolt II can loiter for extended periods of time, allowing for the coordination required to employ within yards of friendly forces. They can operate under 1,000-foot ceilings (300 meters) with 1.5-mile (2.4 kilometers) visibility. Using night vision goggles, A-10/ OA-10 pilots can conduct their missions during darkness. The A-10s highly accurate weapons delivery system makes it effective against all ground targets including tanks and other armored vehicles.
The aircraft is capable of worldwide deployment and operation from austere bases with minimal support equipment. Their short takeoff and landing capability permit operations in and out of locations near front lines. In addition to its survivability, the A-10 has the ability to land on unimproved airfields and be flown and maintained near Army ground troops. Highly effective and efficient in combat, the A-10 is capable of sustaining operations on unimproved airfields near ground troops -- keys to success in conducting small operations against hostile forces. The A-10's rapid re-fueling and re-arming capability allows it to operate from forward bases close to the front lines. It is also capable of refueling in the air.
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