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.