Fighter Aircraft and 21st Century Threats

Chris Wiley is a Veteran and Contributing Fellow for the NCPA:

“Simply put:  the A-10 Warthog’s lethality and simplicity have ensured its longevity.

I will get to the specific merits of the A-10 Warthog in a bit, but we must first revisit history to reinforce my premise.  When I entered the Air Force Academy in 1993, the post-Cold War era was in full swing.  And the ensuing “peace dividend” defense budgets ushered in a period of downsizing for the U.S. Air Force.

The prospect for a “near peer” or force-on-force air war had greatly diminished with the collapse of the Soviet Union, resulting in Fighter Wing de-activations, aircraft retirements, mandatory Reductions in Force (RIF) and drastic contractions in forward deployed assets.  These factors compelled the Air Force to embrace an “Expeditionary” model; a smaller, modular concept used by the Marine Corps for decades.  The Marines’ dependent relationship on their Navy “big brother” had molded them into a lean, nimble Combined Arms weapon, at the ready for our nation.

Initially, the Air Force invented the Composite Wing, which clustered Air Mobility, Tactical Aviation and the requisite logistical support together organizationally, and stationed the Wing at a common base to provide Major Command leadership “chess pieces” for rapid deployment.  The Composite Wing then evolved into the Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) which packaged existing, but often geographically separated, units into packages available for deployment.  As flare-ups emerged in the Middle East, the Air Force supported U.S. Central Command by developing a rotation schedule that balanced deployments across combat units and offered the ability to tailor capabilities to mission requirements.  This model continues to the present.

Under this strategy, my A-10 unit, the 355th Fighter Squadron then stationed near Fairbanks, Alaska, and with a primary mission to defend South Korea from North Korea, still held a spot in the Central Command’s expeditionary rotation.  Our unit deployed in support of Operations NORTHERN and SOUTHERN WATCH in Iraq.  We also deployed several times to Kuwait and Afghanistan.  And the post-9/11 world has not permitted a slowing of this “Ops Tempo,” or the frequency at which units deploy.  The Air Force has essentially maintained this robust expeditionary posture for over 20 years.

Why then is the A-10 often considered for “mothballing” when it remains the best fit for this intense and longstanding expeditionary model?  After all, ongoing engagements make the current system incredibly expensive.  As I mentioned, ops tempo remains high and, therefore, transit costs or those monies used to pay for units to rotate in and out of theaters 3 to 4 times annually remain incredibly high.  Until planners use basing arrangements like those used for the Korean Peninsula –‒ a model in which personnel serve one or two year “remote” tours, but the airframes and the logistical support stay in country ‒‒ the A-10 will remain the most appropriate aircraft for this model.

Indeed, we have Warthogs presently headlining the Air Force’s new expeditionary package in reaction to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.  The A-10 is adaptable and has proven capable of immediately allying with host-nation air forces to demonstrate NATO’s cooperative power.  Additionally, more than one stateside A-10 squadron has deployed to Europe and showcased its unique ability to land at bare-base situations.  The risk of damage to the A-10 from foreign objects is far lower than other Air Force fighters, which allows Warthogs, for instance, to operate from un-maintained runways and even dry lake beds.

Moreover, the United States’ engagements at the center of this expeditionary model remains ill-suited to the new 5th Generation weapons platforms currently being pursued by the Pentagon.  The Air Force has focused its acquisitions process on replacing 4th Generation tactical aircraft, like the A-10, with technologically advanced and exorbitantly expensive aircraft designed primarily for massive, full-spectrum wars –‒ the types of conflict that waned with the Cold War’s conclusion.

Instead, the Air Force’s lowest technology tactical airframe, the A-10 Warthog, has proven itself the optimal Close Air Support (CAS) platform for current engagements, namely global terrorism.  Rugged, simple, survivable – the physical attributes of the A-10 Warthog are not “Expeditionary” by chance.  During conceptual development, the Air Force envisioned the A-10 deploying to Forward Air Refueling Points (FARP) in West Germany to support NATO ground forces against a Warsaw Pact invasion.

The takeaway for our citizens, Congress, and the Air Force is to embrace the Warthog for a few more years.  No plane flies forever, but the Air Force cannot retire a capability so appropriate for the current expeditionary engagements without a viable successor.  The proposed successor may be a quantum technological leap beyond the A-10, but is it expeditionary and ready to supply close air support today, or ever?  The Air Force needs to be honest with their sister services, Congress and the taxpayers.”

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Comments (2)

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  1. John R Tannehill says:

    For a number of years, the defense of the country has been driven by budget dollars allocated from the congress. Other national programs have competed for those same dollars. Not wanting to fight the last war, as is so often commented by people who believe themselves to be experts, the Air Force has had to make choices. Robert Gates and Gordon England made the choice that the F-22 was not the way of the future and that the F-35 was. We cannot be certain that our future will be desert wars and we also cannot be certain that A-10s would survive in different environments (such as the South China Sea). So while the A-10 is a superb ground attack plane, it may not be right for future theaters. And if the Air Force is constantly mandated to make the lesser-of-evil choices, it would be wise to best prepare for the future.

  2. Joanna says:

    I agree with you, and the simple expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.” The A-10 Warthog sounds perfect for the needs of today. Thank you for not supporting spending money just for the sake of spending money.