The A-10 is the only US plane ever developed specifically to attack ground targets. It has a distinguished history and is probably the most beloved fixed wing aircraft among the last several decades worth of grunts. I was privileged to watch it do CAS firsthand two decades ago in Iraq. MUCH has been written of its lethality, exploits and ability to withstand punishment. What isn’t as well known are the US Air Forces numerous efforts to kill the plane. No other successful plane can boast among its enemies the air force it flies for.
The A10 program came into being after the Air Force was forced to procure the A-7 Crusader during Vietnam to conduct Close Air Support (CAS). It had borrowed all the A-1 Skyraiders it could from the Navy and while stifling Army efforts to arm the O-1 Birddog and OV-10. The Army convinced it needed to develop an organic means to provide its own CAS was forbidden to pursue armed fixed wing under the 1948 Key West Agreement and successfully obstructed from arming light reconnaissance aircraft it did possess attempted to push helicopter capability with the AH-56 compound helicopter that featured a pusher prop in addition to the main and tail rotor of conventional helicopters. The Air Force response was a push to have the AH56 classified as an Air Force program because of its stubby wings and pusher prop. It failed so instead started the program that would eventually result in the A-10.
The Army killed the AH -56 Cheyenne helicopter in 1972 frustrated by accidents, technical challenges and rising cost. The Air Force promptly tried to kill the A-10 but by that time had created enough congressional interest to ensure the program continued and would bear the A-10. Even after the A-10 was fielded the Air Force had almost yearly attempts to cut procurement numbers. The A-10’s most serious threat came in the late 80’s and even after Desert Storm as the Air Force made the case for replacing the A-10 with the F/A-16. The plan was to put different radar/electronics on the F-16, add armor and even a 30mm minigun pod. It didn’t work too well and Congress continued to thwart efforts to cash in the A-10.
The current effort springs from the Air Force’s need to budget for the trillion dollar F-35 program. The Air Force has proposed mothballing the whole A-10 fleet to subsidize the funding and fielding of the F-35. Much of the argument rests on other aircraft like the F-16 to execute the CAS mission. Often stated is the F-16’s ability to deploy precision munitions from beyond the range of enemy air defenses avoiding the damage A-10’s have suffered when employed in range of enemy air defenses.
The problem with this argument is the same task, conditions and standards are not applied to other aircraft. The modern A-10 can employ the same precision munitions the F-16 can from the same ranges and the A-10 has demonstrated the ability to sustain battle damage that would down and possibly kill F-16 pilots attempting the same level of support. Further the A-10 carries almost three times the bomb load of the F-16 (16k vs. 6k lbs) and double the 30mm cannon rounds compared to the 20mm on the F-16.
Those that make the F-16 over A-10 argument won’t tell you they are offering a solution that provides a third less bombs and potentially no gun support except in the most permissive environments and then only half of a much smaller round. Finally, “danger close” (the minimum distance one can employ the bomb from friendly troops) for the 500lb Mk82 bomb is 500m. The truth is troops in NEED of CAS often can’t withdraw to a safe distance because of enemy fire or are surrounded by an enemy who are much closer than 500m. This leads to the clear superiority of guns in that situation which can be fired as close as 50m to friendly troops. The A-10’s carries double the basic load of 30mm rounds than the F-16’s 20mm rounds.
Well seems the Congressional cavalry has again been saved the A-10 from the Air Force. Defense Tech reported Fri, “The bipartisan defense budget that passed through the House Thursday includes strict language mandating the Air Force not execute any plans to retire the A-10 Warthog. The legislation specifically blocks the Air Force from spending any money to divest A-10s through calendar year 2014.” Chances look good that the A10 will be with us at least a year before the Air Force tries to kill it again.