Save the A–10 Warthog
Another year’s Defense Budget, another attempt by the Obama Administration and the USAF to kill the A–10 Warthog. The “plan” is to replace with the trouble plagued and over budget F–35. The F–35 is inferior as a ground support platform. Firepower; survivability; loiter time on the battlefield. The A–10 is superior in every important way. And the F–35 program will not be fully operational until 2019. This is a “reprint” of an editorial by Rep. Col. Martha McSally, Republican Member of Congress and former hog pilot.
John Mueller – Armored Column
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WASHINGTON — WHEN American troops find themselves fighting for their lives, there is no better sound than an A–10, a plane officially nicknamed the Thunderbolt II but known affectionately by the troops as the Warthog, firing its enormous 30-millimeter gun at the enemy. It might not be pretty, but the A–10 is our most capable close air-support aircraft, and its arrival on the battlefield signals survival for our troops and annihilation for our enemies.
Yet over the last two years, the Obama administration and the Air Force leadership have been working overtime to mothball our entire A–10 fleet, 13 years ahead of schedule. They claim that other, newer planes can do the same job, that it’s too slow and vulnerable and that it’s too expensive.
I appreciate the budget pressures that the Pentagon faces these days. But those arguments have serious flaws — and if we retire the A–10 before a replacement is developed, American troops will die.
Before running for office, I was an A–10 squadron commander with 325 combat hours. During my time in uniform and since coming to the House and taking up the fight to keep the plane, I have heard countless stories from American soldiers about how the A–10 saved their lives.
In 2008, Marine Master Sgt. Richard Wells and his team were on patrol in Afghanistan when they were ambushed. “It was the first time in my life that I thought to myself, ‘This is it, we’re going to die, we’re not going to make it out of this,’ ” he recalled in a recent interview.
The Marines were severely outnumbered, cornered, and in close combat with dozens of insurgents. Because of the poor weather, fast-moving fighters above the clouds were unable to identify the targets or get close enough to engage. Soon two Marines were seriously wounded, and the enemy was 50 feet away.
Suddenly two A–10s descended below a heavy layer of clouds. The planes are extremely maneuverable and designed to fly close to the ground. Coming within 400 feet of the mountains, they made nearly a dozen gun passes each, giving Sergeant Wells’s team cover to run to safety. Without the A–10 and the exceptional training and bravery of its pilots, six Marines would have died that day.
True, other planes and drones can do close air support. But every close-air-support scenario is different, and every platform brings strengths and weaknesses to the fight. The A–10 has unique strengths for the most complex and dangerous such missions.
It can loiter over the battlefield for long periods without refueling. It can maneuver in difficult terrain at low altitudes, fly slowly enough to visually identify enemy and friendly forces and survive direct hits. And it’s one of our most lethal aircraft, especially against moving targets, with its 1,174 rounds of ammunition, missiles, rockets and bombs. Not only is the A–10 best equipped for close air support, but it is crucial to leading combat search and rescue missions of downed pilots. After the barbaric murder of a captured Jordanian F–16 pilot by ISIS, these capabilities are more important than ever — indeed, A–10s are on round-the-clock alert during American missions against ISIS.
The A–10 was designed as a Cold War tank killer, and its cannon is the only one in the Air Force that can fire armor-piercing depleted-uranium 30-millimeter bullets. In a recent hearing, I asked the general in charge of our forces in South Korea what the loss of the A–10 would mean for our anti-armor capabilities. It would leave a major gap, he conceded.
Critics knock the age of our A–10 fleet; the last one was delivered in 1984. But with maintenance and upgrades — we just spent $1 billion on improvements to the A–10 fleet — age by itself isn’t a reason to retire the plane. And it’s far from the oldest plane in our fleet: Those same critics celebrate the B–52, the youngest of which is almost 53 years old and won’t be retired until 2040.
Those trying to retire the A–10 also claim it isn’t “survivable” — an amazing claim, given the long list of stories about the plane’s ability to take fire and still fly. In 2003, Capt. Kim Campbell was flying over Baghdad when her A–10 was hit by a surface-to-air missile, punching a large hole in the plane and knocking out its hydraulics. Most planes would have been destroyed; Captain Campbell switched into a mode only available in the A–10 — manual reversion, where you fly the aircraft by brute force, manually pulling on cables when you move the control stick — and flew home safely.
Last year the Air Force said it needed to close A–10 squadrons to free up maintenance personnel. Arguing to scrap a lifesaving workhorse like the A–10 to solve a staffing challenge, while maintaining 15 different musical bands, makes one question the Air Force’s priorities.
Despite all those changing arguments, Air Force leadership told me during a hearing in March that the A–10 decision is simply about money. And yet the A–10 has the lowest per-flight-hour cost of any aircraft.
The A–10 remains in high demand: Warthogs are deployed to the Middle East, where they have been inciting fear in the ranks of Islamist terrorists since their deployment in September, and Romania, where 12 A–10s from the squadron I commanded train with our allies in the face of increased Russian aggression.
Yet the administration and the Pentagon persist. Recently, Air Force leaders said the fight to save the A–10 was “emotional.” Of course it is. Just ask the families of Master Sergeant Wells and his men. The A–10 has supporters because we know it works — and that the American military can’t afford to retire it.