The Air Force wants to kill off the A-10 Thunderbolt II. You can see why: The plane was designed to fight Russians in the Cold War. It’s old. It’s slow. It’s expensive to maintain. It’s about as sophisticated as a hammer, and it’s the weapon we’ve sent to battle ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Pentagon top brass think it’s time for younger, swankier aircraft to take its place providing close air support (attacking enemy ground forces who are close to and engaged with friendly ground forces). Sexier swept-wing fighters like the F-35 and the F-16 and F15-E.
Not everyone’s onboard, however. See, the A-10, aka the Warthog (so called because it’s really ugly), is heavily armored and the plane is literally built around a gigantic 30mm cannon. It can fly low and slow, making it perfect for picking apart ground infantry and armor. It’s incredibly accurate, so it can engage hostile targets even when they’re in very close proximity to friendly soldiers.
It is ruthlessly effective, and the grunts on the ground absolutely love it because it keeps them safe. If you need to hit a nail, a hammer is exactly what you want.
Rory Bisby, an aircraft mechanic, watches over new mechanic David Montano while he works inside an A-10 Thunderbolt II outer wing at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, or AMARG, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Az. Dec. 17. The Thunderbolt II is undergoing a wing upgrade which will make the wings of the tank killer, thicker and stronger while doubling the service life to 8,000 miles in the air. Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III/U.S. Air Force
That’s why a bunch of senators, including former Navy pilot John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire (whose husband flew the A-10 in Iraq), both powerful members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, are determined to keep the A-10 flying. And now they’ve got extra ammo.
The Air Force claims shutting down the A-10 program would save $ 4.2 billion over five years, but a new report from the Government Accountability Office shoots that down, finding USAF analysis incomplete.
More worrying (and unsurprising, to anyone who’s been paying attention), the GAO report says dropping the A-10 would “create potential gaps” in close air support. Even though every A-10 flying is more than thirty years old, it remains “the only or the best Air Force platform to conduct certain missions” like escorting helicopters (the Warthog can fly really slowly, making it effective at protecting the pokey choppers) or engaging small boats that could threaten US ships (See: USS Cole).
Close air support is a vital job that, when properly executed, can mean the difference between life and death for soldiers. It’s highly dangerous, because it requires flying at altitudes low enough to discern friend from foe, leaving the plane particularly vulnerable to ground-based anti-aircraft fire.
But the Warthog was specifically designed for close air support: the cockpit sits in a 1,200 pound titanium tub, specifically designed to withstand fire from anti-aircraft shells at close range. Every system is double or triple redundant, and it can take a ridiculous amount of abuse. It can continue flying if it’s lost an entire engine, part of its tail, or even half a wing.
And, because the A-10’s role is so important, it’s designed for easy repairs to keep it in the air. Entire engines can be quickly and easily replaced. Most repairs can even be made in the field. Many parts are interchangeable between the left and right sides of the plane, and the A-10 can take off from rough and unpaved runways. Because it has huge wings, a high wing aspect ratio and huge ailerons (almost 50 percent of its wingspan), it’s incredibly maneuverable.
The Warthog is basically a flying gatling gun, and it’s terrifying if you’re on the angry end.
Simply put, the A-10 is a SkyTank, beloved by pilots and troops alike. We wrote about the A-10 last year and the article attracted more than 1,700 comments, many from service members sharing stories about the A-10 and more than a few claiming they would have been killed if not for the aircraft and its pilots.
“The GAO findings reinforce what soldiers, special operators, and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers have said from the beginning: the premature divestment of the A-10 will create a close air support capability gap, increase the risk to our ground troops, and result in unnecessary American casualties,” Ayotte says. “If the Air Force decides to ignore the clear and consistent will of the overwhelming majority of soldiers, special operators, and JTACs, I will continue to stand with them in opposition to the Air Force’s plans to prematurely divest the A-10.”
Senator McCain concurs: “This report underscores the concerns I have been raising for years about the Air Force’s misguided attempts to prematurely retire this vital aircraft … As the GAO confirms, any premature divestment of the A-10 would not only fail to achieve the Air Force’s purported cost savings, but also leave us with a serious capability gap that could put the lives of American soldiers in danger.”
What makes the plane’s continued relevance so impressive is the fact it was designed more than 40 years ago, and a new one hasn’t been built since 1984.
That durability and effectiveness is especially striking given the rolling debacle that is the F-35 program. The development project has stumbled time and again, and according to one report this week, the trillion dollar superplane gets its ass kicked in dogfights with much older aircraft. Is it any surprise the Senators want to keep the A-10 around at least a while longer?