Leave the A-10, Take the Cannoli

To celebrate our relaunch, everybody’s favorite Unmanned Alcoholic Vehicle @drunkenpredator is back! On second thought, maybe we shouldn’t be so excited about that…

The A-10 Warthog: The Vito Corleone of CAS

I am going to do something for which I feel very bad; bang an additional nail into the coffin of the A-10 Warthog. I feel bad about this because I hold a deep affinity in my robotic heart for this unspeakably ugly aircraft, an aircraft which has put so many warheads on so many deserving foreheads over this last decade. But the A-10, the Vito Corleone of the manned-strike CAS family, is not long for this world. I’m not of the manned-strike CAS family, but I’m close to it, perhaps like Tom Hagen, and my duty as consigliere compels me to offer my thoughts.

As you may know, the Air Force recently announced it was eliminating or reorganizing a number of A-10 squadrons, cutting the operating A-10 fleet by 34%. This was met by a chorus of boos from across the American military and the aviation community in general. The Warthog (whose actual name, the Thunderbolt II, is so inconsistent with the A-10’s ugly-duckling persona that it’s hardly ever used) has served a vital close-air support (CAS) role in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Its primary selling points are its ability to haul truckloads of ordnance, deliver them accurately, absorb preposterous amounts of ground fire and return home more or less intact.

The Air Force plans to use the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to supplant the A-10, and probably the F-15E Strike Eagle, in the manned CAS role. The USAF seems convinced that the JSF is Sonny Corleone; powerful, versatile, groomed from birth to take over all aspects of the family business. But let’s be honest. The JSF’s cost overruns, troubled development history, political problems, and safety oopsies (who really needs an ejection seat ‘chute anyway?) are making it look a whole lot more like Fredo.

So why kill off the Godfather? We could conceivably keep the production line going. A durable, survivable ground-attack asset doesn’t need to be built from scratch to work. Witness, for example, the AC-130 Spectre gunship. Beyond switching from a C-47 airframe to a C-130, Ol’ Spooky pretty much hasn’t changed since the days of Vietnam. Load a cargo plane with artillery. Add targeting equipment. Fly in circles. Rain death. Rinse. Repeat. Couldn’t the A-10 just keep the party going, like a CAS version of the Grateful Dead on perpetual tour?

To answer this question, it is instructive examine the birth of the A-10. The aircraft was designed as part of an Army/Air Force turf war; the Air Force fielded a low-altitude, heavily-armored CAS/anti-armor bird to guard against losing funding and prestige to the Army’s competing Cheyenne attack helicopter program. The Cheyenne lost, the Warthog won, the rest is history. Badass, badass history: it can lug up to eight tons of weaponry, packs a 30mm cannon, and carries almost 1,200 pounds of armor.

But the A-10 was built to wreck Soviet tanks on the plains of Eastern Europe during the opening round of World War III. That beastly payload capacity, heavy armor, and BFG under the nose are helpful in our current low-intensity conflicts, but not exactly built for them. Witness the rise of the Scorpion small missile; we’re more interested in surgical strikes than in melting an armor column. And it takes a lot of fuel to keep this flying tank in the air, drastically limiting its time on station (though it depends on distance from home base, a loaded A-10 can rarely spend more than forty minutes over a target area without refueling). The A-10 is becoming increasingly incongruous in an operating environment where lighter footprints are an imperative.

Even if the JSF deploys as intended – please suppress your laughter – it’s going to have a tough time doing the kind of CAS job the Godfather did. The F-35 is a zoomie trying to do a grunt’s job. It carries less ammunition, less fuel, lacks the armored “bathtub” around its pilot, and needs to move a lot faster to stay in the air. As Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security sarcastically tweeted, “I’m sure an F-35 going 800mph with just 182 rounds of 25mm is going to be a super CAS platform.”

Vito is on the way out, and Sonny Corleone is looking a lot more like Fredo. So where is the Michael Corleone, the unexpected candidate who rises to power and solves the family’s problems? The drone, paesan. Drones are the future of CAS. You can keep an A-10 on-station for 30-40 minutes, but a loaded Reaper can hang out for up to 28 hours. Part of that long loiter time stems from the lack of armor around the pilot, or more accurately, the lack of any pilot whatsoever. Not to mention that most armed UAVs hang out at an altitude beyond the range of most small arms and are a lot better-protected from MANPADS by their size and distance than a big heat-generating ‘Hog cruising 700 feet off the deck.

Sure, UAVs lack a big bad chain gun, and sure, we lack the ability to bring a Texas Wal-Mart’s worth of weaponry to the fight. But I submit to you that in current and near-future conflicts persistent surveillance paired with fewer, more precise munitions will be of the most help, to the most warfighters, most of the time. Anyone getting shot at will clearly want to have more bombs available, not less. But the advent of precision-guided munitions, the integration of the enemy into the civilian population, and an ever-shrinking tolerance for collateral damage put the current Godfather of CAS at a serious disadvantage. (And good luck getting much useful ISR from a Warthog, whose 120-knot stall speed is more than twice mine.)

It’s unlikely that we’ll find ourselves in the kind of contested airspace that’d require a fast-moving CAS asset like an A-10, although perhaps the “near-peer” competitor is an argument for retaining it. Yes, drones like me get shot quickly out of the sky by manned fighters (even the Iraqi Air Force pulled that off). But a recent Defense Technology International piece by Paul McLeary illustrated how UAV manufacturers are rapidly integrating low-observable technologies and increasing survivability. Note the recent successful test-flight of the second Avenger, my third-generation Predator cousin that boasts a zippy jet engine, a stealthy internal cargo bay, and – get this – pretty much the same targeting equipment carried by the JSF. (And I’ll add that carrying a human pilot has never done anything good for a plane’s radar cross section.)

And even if you don’t use drones for the manned anti-armor CAS mission, you’re crazy to think that we’re losing some unique capacity. The A-10 was developed years before the advent of the Hellfire missile; sometimes I think we forget that the Hellfire was first developed to bust tanks and not terrorists. But we’ve latched the Hellfire onto everything from Humvees to Apaches, to Predators and hell, even to C-130 Hercules variants (Harvest Hawk, anybody?). Tank-busting, if we have to do it again sometime, no longer requires a cannon firing bullets the size of milk cartons.

In conclusion, the world around us is changing, much like the world of Vito Corleone was changing. We don’t just need raw hitting power; we need accurate hitting power paired with effective ISR. In the first Gulf War, a single F-117A could take out a target that would have required a fleet of World War II bombers to eliminate. While our need for CAS hasn’t changed, our demand for ISR to go with it has skyrocketed. That is well worth trading some Cold War-era perks for vastly longer endurance, pinpoint surveillance, and a lighter logistical footprint.

Drones like me…we’ve got the ISR game sewn up. We’re taking over logistical missions for remote combat outposts. Congress just approved expanding our usage back in CONUS. And as I watch the A-10 fly into the sunset, and the JSF continue to flounder, I know it to be true- I’m the Michael Corleone here. I didn’t want to be the next Godfather of CAS, but I must. It’s strictly business.

Out of respect, I will close with a YouTube video of A-10s blowing shit up to AC/DC.

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12 Responses to Leave the A-10, Take the Cannoli

  1. Pingback: Close Air Support and Drones - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

  2. Jeff says:

    Like many other military choices we face this one too comes down to likelihood we place on facing organized military force backed by an industrialized society. Slow and high-flying drones work against an enemy who doesn’t posses sophisticated surface to air missiles, however, if we had to go against someone with, say S-300 PMU-2, drones wouldn’t be all that useful. Given the fact that A-10s are proving useful even in a small scale conflict like the one in Afghanistan, the optimal solution would probably be to keep 100+ A-10s…you know, just in case.

  3. Andrew says:

    Wait a minute… that drone doesn’t sound drunk at all!

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  5. Mihir says:

    In other news, Apple has claimed that the iPad will replace the laptop. :P

    Allow me to pitch in with a Godfather analogy of my own. The A-10 is the Luca Brasi of the Air Force (the fact that it saw the light of day because of a “mafia” in the USAF is mere co-incidence). Slow, brutish, pitiless, and the go-to guy when you find yourself in a spot. When he dies, you’re f**ked. If you’re lucky, you *may* stumble across the rare Albert Neri and get him to fill in Brasi’s shoes. But that happens only in the movies, no?

  6. In talking with a recently returned Marine Forward Air Controller who saw direct combat in Marjah during the offensive there in 2010, and who also happens to be a F/A-18 WSO (I fly the things myself), drones are only part of the answer. He loved their on-station time, but the one “other” they had was the delay (one second or so) in transmissions between his radios and the controllers in Nevada. This made prosecuting moving and time sensitive targets very difficult. It seems that a more suitable platform in a permissive air to air environment would be the AT-6 or Super Tucano (which the USAF has just bought for the Afghan AF as a COIN/CAS platform). Keeps the man in the loop, no delays in transmission time, 3-4 hour on station times, easily operable from austere airfields, pretty significant weapons loadout with lots of gun rounds.

    Interestingly, nearly all my fighter buddies (myself included) would rather be flying the likes of the A-10, AT-6 or even OV-10, if only because we’ve seen how important a good CAS platform is. The F-18 is a good ship based plane — but its literally last on the list of what a JTAC on the ground wants to have checking in overhead. We hate to admit it, but we pilots really are just support for the ground forces. Might as well give those folks taking bullets what they want.

    • Dave Pooser says:

      The problem with the delay isn’t a drone problem, it’s a “keep the pilots in Nevada so the control signal has to go to orbit and back” problem. Move the drone pilots into the same continent as the drones and that lag problem goes away.

      My preferred option is using multiple robot blimps at about 30 klicks above the battlefield to relay transmissions from a bunker in Kabul to the loitering drones, but that might be because I have ambitions to be a supervillain. Still, that would knock the delay from thousands of milliseconds to tens of milliseconds, and still be a lot cheaper than a single F-35.

  7. Berkut says:

    Isn’t mothballing A-10s (if so ?) the best way to keep them LONGER in inventory ? What’s Fairchild Republic’s e-mail ? I guess none would actually re-launch an A-10 production unless the “Greater Korean Republic” is on the brink of an invasion of the US.

    For the rest, I perfectly agre with Mr Kohlmann statements on the good use of light aircraft fitted with sensors and precisions ammunitions (and .50 caliber internal machine guns just in case). They may also contribute to spare the formidable asset that the Warthog is, and for the uses it’s been more or less designed for.

    A handfull of them did a superb job in the opening days of the recent Libyan War : smoking out a few MBTs and military assets in a difficult context were AAA, Manpads and even Short-to Medium Range SAMs hidden in the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli were a deadly threat to current UAVs and even Attack Choppers, but slow speed was needed with a sharp mind onboard to understand the ground situation.

    For the rest, I fully agree with the terrible footprint of the GROUND segment UAVs carries along with them – that is not compared to fast jets, but to Light COIN turboprops and Light ISR turboprops. Intensive SATCOM Bandwith Eater like MALE/HALE or even Predator-C UCAV hybrids are rich man’s toys. Only the US has the Satcom Network Backbone to support a decent fleet of UAV (operating only a handful has no meaning)….

  8. Scott C. Farquhar says:

    These arguments are good, but way too late. After 12 years of fighting and on the verge of withdrawal, the US military should have adjusted its force structure much more quickly. The continued all-or-nothing, pure-fleet mentality in regard to designs and communities has to stop. There are a couple hundred A-37 Dragonflys at Davis-Monthan that should have been refurbished and deployed around 2003. A squadron for training and others stationed at Bagram and Balad. The A-7 fleet could have been utilized, as well. Super-Tucanos or the like could have been procured and issued to the nascent Afghan and re-built Iraqi air forces, respectively. Love the drones, but DPD keeps betting the farm on a benign air defense and EW environment. The manned/unmanned combined arms concept is the way to go.

  9. Ken says:

    There is nothing wrong in a hostile terrain with having a few drones circling around doing their drone thing while also having a half dozen nearby A-10s as a CAS option.

    • Drunken Predator Drone says:

      True. Problem being, DoD’s not exactly chomping at the bit to fund such lavish, grunt-friendly CAS approaches.

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