Views from the Ground on the A-10 Debate

March 16, 2016

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

It’s springtime in the beltway, which means it is time for the FY2017 DoD budget debates. The services are lining up to defend their pet platforms and none more avidly so than the Air Force. Not surprisingly, the FY17 budget proposal requests funds for the F-35 and the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) and also details Air Force plans to transition out the A-10 over the next two years. It has been the party line of the Air Force that in order to keep the budget under the requirements of the sequester, and to build a future Air Force capable of defeating a near-peer, the A-10 has to go. But just as consistent in this fight is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services, Sen. John McCain. His dogged support of the A-10 has frustrated the Air Force’s efforts to retire the close air support (CAS) platform.

This antipathy between the Air Force, led by Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, and Sen. McCain recently came to a head on March 3 at a Senate Armed Service Committee Hearing. In the hearing, Gen. Welsh reiterated that, with its hands tied by sequestration, the Air Force had no choice but to retire the A-10 in the near future. Sen. McCain, not to be deterred, accused Gen. Welsh of being “disingenuous” in retiring a platform with no foreseeable replacement. McCain asserted that “the A-10s are flying the most effective sorties in Iraq and Syria,” a statement he supported by citing conversations with those “who are doing the combat.” It was at this point that Welsh replied, “we all talk to them Chairman,” implying the view from the ground was not as decidedly in the A-10 camp as McCain would suggest. So what is the ground truth about platform preferences on the battlefield? Is the A-10 really the most beloved CAS platform or, as Welsh implied, are the F-16s and F-15s also valued as great CAS platforms by troops on the ground?

In 2014, we embarked on a study of air strike controller preferences for manned vs. unmanned aircraft (the results of which are forthcoming). We conducted approximately 500 surveys and interviews of Navy, Marine, Army, and Air Force joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) and joint fires observers (JFOs). JTACs are an elite group of individuals, trained and authorized to call in air strikes for the ground force commander. They are embedded on the front lines of combat and are experts both in ground maneuver and air capabilities, making them an ideal group of people to weigh in on the A-10 debate. In our research we traveled across the country — from Camp Pendleton to Nellis Air Force Base, Fort Stewart to Fort Bragg — talking to these special controllers. We contacted veterans groups and JTAC social media sites, talked with air-to-ground wing commanders, and surveyed members of the U.S. special operations community. While the study was originally intended and designed to understand preferences for manned vs. unmanned aircraft, we were surprised at how vociferous the desire was across all demographics to talk about the future of CAS.

The survey asked these CAS experts to choose between manned and unmanned aircraft in a series of experimental scenarios: risk to aircrew, risk to ground personnel, risk to mission, and risk to civilians. We included within the survey a space for respondents to write in any additional explanation they felt was required. In the survey we never specifically asked what platform the controllers preferred, nor did we provide a multiple-choice option for platforms. However, when we saw the results of the surveys, we were surprised to see that many controllers had written in specific platforms under the explanation column. Additionally, when we conducted interviews with a series of air-to-ground units, JTACs were eager to voice their preferences concerning current and future CAS platforms. This left us with a trove of data that may help replace the anecdotal evidence presented in the Welsh–McCain showdown.

First, we aggregated the write-in responses from all the surveys in order to see what platform the JTACs and JFOs were most likely to call out as preferred aircraft in a series of scenarios. Because we did not elicit these responses in the survey, and therefore did not provide a list of platforms from which the controllers would pick their favorite, all of these write-ins represent a strong preference for that particular aircraft. We found that, of the 100+ write-ins, 48 percent were for the A-10. The next closest platform, comprising 13 percent of responses, was another primary-CAS aircraft — the AC-130. This data suggests that, of the potential aircraft JTACs and JFOs could have identified as their favorites to support ground troops, their most preferred were primary-CAS aircraft.

That’s not to say that multi-mission aircraft were not also appreciated by the controllers (a finding that was supported in interviews). The inclusion of the F-16, F-15, and F-18 in some of the write-in responses demonstrates the trust that many of the JTACs and JFOs placed in these aircraft. However, in general, support for multi-mission aircraft was more limited than support for the A-10 or even the AC-130. The F-16 and F-15, which Gen. Welsh lauded in his recent testimony, received nine and one percent, respectively, of the write-in responses. So, while Gen. Welsh may have been right that those on the ground also support F-15s and F-16s, the controllers we talked to would generally prefer the A-10 over the F-15 and F-16. And, while Gen. Welsh didn’t speak specifically to the role of bombers in ground support, notably missing from this list of write-in preferences were some of the bombers increasingly being used as CAS replacements, to include the B-1, B-2, and B-52.

CAS-1

We disaggregated the data further to help us understand in what situations the controllers preferred different platforms. We separated the responses by experimental scenario: danger close scenarios, scenarios with enemy surface-to-air missiles, scenarios with high mission complexity and risk, and finally scenarios with high potential for civilian collateral damage. Once again we noted a large preference for the A-10, especially in danger close situations that inherently involve high risk to ground personnel. The bottom line is that when ground troops were told that their lives were in danger, they strongly preferred the A-10 — so much so that they felt it was necessary to write it into the survey.

CAS-2

What do these air strike controllers really want in a CAS platform? Is it A-10 or bust? Some of the sentiment about CAS platforms is about munitions and capabilities — time and time again the JTACs voiced their admiration for the A-10 gun over the smaller-caliber guns on the F-15, F-16, and ultimately the F-35. Additionally, JTACs were concerned that fast flyers like the F-15, 16, and 35 were not able to be as responsive or loiter for as long a time as the low, slow A-10.

But the vast majority of the conversations were not about the characteristics of the weapons. What the JTACs wanted was a “warm fuzzy.” They wanted to interact with a pilot that had skin in the game because they were flying close enough to the ground to put them in danger. They wanted someone whose primary purpose was to conduct CAS — not to shoot down stray enemy aircraft or act as a data-targeting “cloud” in the sky. As our surveys show, even though the A-10 was the preferred platform, many on the ground also support multi-mission platforms like the F-16 and the F-18. The real concern was not necessarily the aircraft, but the increasingly diverse set of missions these pilots were being called to conduct. Gen. Welsh warned in his congressional testimony that the Air Force was being ordered to conduct a diverse array of missions against many different types of adversaries, a phenomenon that was spreading overall Air Force capability thin. His proposed solution is to retire the single-mission A-10 in favor of multi-mission aircraft. But our findings indicate that this is not just a problem with replacing the A-10 with a platform ill-suited for CAS, it is also a problem of pilots that are perceived by some on the ground as not being sufficiently primed to conduct ground support missions.

The perception by JTACs is that outside the A-10, CAS is not consistently trained to or favored by multi-mission fighter aircraft. As one JTAC explained to us, I want the “A-10 guy that has the brains to support troops/trained just for CAS. The guy in the seat is more important than the platform.” Another JTAC complained that, “pilots don’t have enough time on the gun.” These JTACs wanted more pilots that were forward air controller–airborne qualified — a distinction that is increasingly difficult to achieve when squadrons are required to also maintain combat readiness on counter-air, suppression of enemy air defenses, strategic attack, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

In the end, our results show that neither McCain nor Welsh has it completely right. The JTACs and JFOs that we spoke to and surveyed preferred the A-10 over the other platforms, but they caveated that they would also support F-15s, 16s or 18s with experienced CAS pilots. The bigger concern about the future of CAS is perhaps not whether the F-35 is as capable a platform as the A-10 (see, for example efforts to replace the A-10 with low-end CAS alternatives). Instead, it is whether the Air Force’s move towards multi-mission platforms in general is a deliberate shift away from supporting ground troops with an exclusive platform, meaning CAS as we know it could retire with the A-10.

 

Jacquelyn Schneider is a PhD candidate-in-residence at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University. Her work on national security, technology, and political psychology has appeared in Journal of Conflict Resolution, Strategic Studies Quarterly, International Relations and Security Network, and War on the Rocks, and was recently featured on Global Dispatches Podcast.

Julia Macdonald is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a PhD candidate at the George Washington University. Her work on coercive diplomacy, foreign policy decision-making, and U.S. military strategy and effectiveness has been published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Foreign Policy Analysis, Armed Forces and Society, and online at Foreign Affairs.

 

Photo credit: Senior Airman Natasha Standard, U.S. Air Force

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!

17 thoughts on “Views from the Ground on the A-10 Debate

  1. This is a very good article — it gets to the heart of the problem, which is to provide precision support on demand, delivered by a guy who’s not trying to remember the last time he saw a 9-line. That’s a solvable problem ACC can sink its teeth into, and it moves the argument past the ridiculous conspiracy theories claiming the Air Force wants to abandon the CAS mission.

  2. These surveys provide good numbers to support what everyone outside the USAF fast-mover communities already knew: the airplane is nice, but pilots who care about the mission are the important part.

    Also, asking JTACs is a good start–they are the CAS experts–but also consider what platform you want if there isn’t a JTAC available. A good JTAC can plan an entire attack and the only thing an F-15/F-16/B-1 pilot has to do is fly the points and punch coordinates in, but if the pilot needs to be an active member of the attack planning, you want an A-10 pilot or another FAC-A-qualified aviator, and you want them in a community that practices.

    The beauty of the A-10’s design is not the cannon (which hasn’t been a great antitank weapon since the 1980s) or the armor (although that comes in handy at times), but the fact that A-10s only do one thing, so the crews make sure they do it very, very, well.

  3. I agree with Warlock, and am impressed with the methodology of the study. I wish, however, the authors had included two of the main stakeholders in the utilization of close air support in their survey: I refer to rifle company commanders and the guys flying the airplanes. The way the world looks today we might be involved in high-intensity combat at the regimental and division or perhaps even corps or army level at sometime in the near future. Should that be the case it is the rifle company commander who will be including CAS in a scheme of maneuver, or in a desperate attempt at an effective defense. And it will be a Fighter/Attack section or division leader that will be responsible for putting ordinance on the target and not on the people calling for help.

    Having been both a rifle company commander and an A-4 pilot I fully understand the reasons that the A-10 is much beloved. I’ve seen this act from both sides. Perhaps the defining factors should be twofold, accomplishing the mission, ground and air, and then…ensuring all the good guys survive to do the same the next day. In requesting CAS there are a myriad of factors involved, but the two that top my list are: what kind of ordinance is available, and how close am I going to have to bring it in to hit the target (bullets, blast and fragmentation do not discriminate). As far as ordnance, the A-10 has a great mixed bag: that big gun, precision guided and unguided rockets, and my personal favorite ( now that they have outlawed napalm) Mk-82 bombs/guided or dumb. For any other fixed wing airplane, it’s going to be precision guided bombs from medium altitude because low and in close any fast mover will have a problem with target acquisition and identification, and that will be true regardless of the expertise of the controller, the skill of the driver, or the level of computer targeting capability in the platform. The accuracy of the weapon/pilot/delivery platform will allow me as the end-user (read company commander) to decide the tactics I will use, and control the strike more effectively.

    Now how’s the best way to ensure the best chance for all involved to be around tomorrow to continue the attack? For the guys on the ground it’s pretty simple, It’s the job of the requester, the company commander or battalion commander, to ensure (through a controller if one is available) safe weapons delivery. It’s his job to ensure the pilot has the target, and is lined up properly before he clears hot (there’s the thing about getting everybody dug in and head down also). For the guy leading the flight it’s a little more complicated. First, he’s got to safely arrive overhead. If we are talking about high-intensity combat with a peer or near peer enemy (read Russia or China) we may or may not have air supremacy. It’s entirely possible if not probable that the flight leader will have to fight his way into the target, be in a position to defend himself over the target, and fight his way home after hitting the target (read World War II and Korea air ops). Additionally, over the target the flight leader must understand the antiaircraft environment, and the enemy manpad capability. For example, operating in the near vicinity of a Russian armored division will almost ensure a plethora of both antiaircraft artillery and SAM’s, additional to the manpad threat. The F-15/16/18 can do the fighting necessary to get to and from the target. They also carry a slightly better RWR and counter measures suite, and a better speed/altitude combination to defeat the threat over the target. The F-35 Is a fifth generation fighter/attack aircraft that has all that, and much much more.

    So using the the two primary parameters noted, can the A-10 continue to dominate the CAS arena? Or should the Air Force move CAS to another platform as they phase out the A-10? Looking at it from a strictly mission accomplishment and survivability context, personally I have to go with phasing out the A-10. I too love that beast, but future capabilities in future conflicts mitigate against keeping it beyond 2017. The use of precise targeting technology now available to the ground commander, and the ability to pass that precise targeting directly to the aircraft commander and his flight makes close air support much more accurate, and hence more tactically agile and safer. The threat posed by large formations of enemy divisions and higher propagate a capability in both AAA and SAM’s that would make the A-10 almost unsurvivable in the target area, additionally, enemy fourth and fifth-generation fighters would make it almost impossible for the A-10 survive the trip let alone enjoy the success it has today. My respect and admiration for Sen. McCain could not be higher, but in this case I must disagree with his assessment. Perhaps the Senator could help ensure that the Air Force has the necessary funding to complete effective CAS training and make CAS a truly primary mission for the United States Air Force.

    1. S.E.
      As a flyer (EA-6Bs), I slightly disagree with you.
      1. First, much of our CAS support for the near future is going to be in COIN like events. Why fly an expensive aircraft that cost 4 times what the A10 costs to fly to provide CAS in areas that don’t have SA10,20s”
      2. Tactics, in a heavy SAM area (where we have lost all types of aircraft including AV8s, A-6, F16s during Desert Storm) low alt work combined with terrain masking works. It was the common drill before the expectation the Prowlers and EW would provide a high altitude sanctuary. There is not enough EW to protect everyone. Also aircraft designed for hi-altitude operations generally preform less effectively at low alt. My aircraft sucked about 25K but we enjoyed numerous tactical advantages at low level (thus that was were we would run to if chased by a fighter)
      3. Multi-role aircraft are by design less efficient in all mission areas. My aircraft while a great EW platform would be clubbed like a baby seal by any fighter. However we were experts in SAMS, IADs and EWs. We programed the F18’s HARM for them and infact we pretty much told them what to do with HARM to include deliver tactics. The value of a dedicated CAS asset is almost all of his/her flight time is spent trying to get better at CAS vice spending 20% on CAS, 60% on Fighter ops and maybe 20% more on Strike/interdiction operations.

      1. pts…

        Terrain Masking is a viable tactic for a number of missions and scenarios, and in my experience fast movers are extremely good at low altitude maneuvering. You just can’t get low – and slow. In a Marine Fighter/Attack squadron blasting along a Low Level Route at 420 kts at 500 ft (You know I HAD to use that altitude in print) is almost the most fun you can have with your pants on. But my thought process was that our days of supporting large, long COIN ops are pretty much over. Hitting ISIS with interdiction ops will go on, but our body politic has pretty much had it with nation building. The F-16/15Es are pretty good interdiction platforms, and if the Air Force would man up a couple of F-15E squadrons or 2 seat F-16’s designated as what the Marine Corps called the Playboy mission (airborne Taca/Faca), a dedicated CAS capability in survivable fast movers could start training up. Perhaps the Air Force could designate a platform and stand up “Attack” squadrons (F/A-16s or F/A-15Es? he said deeply tongue in cheek).

        Desert Storm was my last hurrah, and I agree the AV-8B proved to be a spherical target with a bright heat source visible from any angle, low or high altitude. We lost some aircraft but way less that we thought we would. By the time the A-10s started tank busting it was a fairly permissive environment. In Marine squadrons the ratio of flight training hours was pretty much as you depicted, But Marine Air literally lives for CAS and everybody trains for it. As far as SEAD, the Iron Hand missions and trips into Route Pack 6 pretty much put an end to the A-4 fighting in a SAM / enemy fighter rich environment and that history also informs my recommendation. Even the greatest a/c runs out of time, and the next conflict is almost surely going to be in a very high intensity environment. I hate to say it, but like the Stuka, and the A-4 after it, the A-10 has finally run out of time.

  4. Cut the number of JSFs and the USAF can afford the LRSB, upgrades to older planes,and replacements for the F-15s/F22s. We need bombers more then we need new fighters.
    It is long pass time to drop the sunk cost fallacy and push forward even if it’s a failure delusions of the Pentagon.

    The USAF has proven to be untrustworthy to carry out two missions their assigned. The brass retired the C-27 the moment they got them from the Army. CAS is a job better done by the Navy(still no real A-6 or A-7 replacement), the Marines and US-SOCOM.

  5. It’s interesting that so few respondents listed the Apache as their desired CAS platform, given it has low and slow, plus multiple-weapon systems, and a flyer with skin in the game. Any idea why that would be?

    1. Corin,
      Easy answer
      1. For years the Army viewed the Apache as more a maneuver element and not as a CAS platform. Linked is just one example
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2003_attack_on_Karbala

      2. The USMC uses helos (AH1s) differently and more like CAS assets. Many of the FACs in Marine ground community come from helo ranks. I am pretty sure the Army does not have FACs come out of their helo communities but instead uses JFOs or AF JTACs.

  6. The ability to provide rapid, effective and sustained CAS to forces in contact should remain the key factors in deciding whether to retire the A-10. Given those factors, in addition to a cadre of pilots experienced and committed to CAS, it is not hard to understand why the A-10 and the AC-130, score high among those polled. Both aircraft, in varying ways, provide long loiter time, high and varied weapons loads, and targeting accuracy as dedicated CAS platforms. F-15s, F-16’s, F-18’s, F-22’s (if anyone is willing to commit them to CAS), and F-35’s lack of loiter time will require more tanker support, or more mission sorties by additional aircraft, to provide the amount of CAS for a given mission.

    Assuming, for the sake of argument, that USAF’s claim that the A-10 fleet is kept in service at the expense of adequate F-35 fielding and sustainment, I suggest that there may be other places to look for the funds to keep the A-10, or a very similar A-10 replacement, in operation.

    At the risk of expanded arm-wrestling among DOD services and DOE, early retirement of a very small number of strategic nuclear warheads or delivery platforms (ICBMs, SLBMs, SSBNs) could free funds for the A-10 or new production-A-10s. The likelihood that those warheads will be missed is far lower than the likelihood that US combatant lives will be saved by the A-10 or a capable A-10 successor.

    1. It’s not the funding, it’s the billets and the personnel they are allotted and the groups/wings/squadrons that needed to be deactivated on the A-10 side so the F-35 units can be activated.

      A-10 maintainers, crew chiefs, etc. are the ones who are going to be sent to training and then off to the new F-35 squadrons that are going to be activated, same as some of the pilots will have the opportunity to transition.

      It’s not simply a matter of moving funding around on the active duty side.

  7. I’m curious if the Marine respondents created any outliers in the data considering the USMC’s focus on the MAGTF concept, where the focus of anything flying is supporting boots on the ground; be it shooting down enemy planes, or busting tanks; the mindset is always ‘support the boots’, vs clearing the skies.

  8. Well you cant have CAS using the A10 with an enemy with modern air defenses, thats the problem, funding. It would be wise, if we had the funds to keep/ support a few sqdrns for low intensity fights like we have been involved in for the past 15 years.

    1. Why not? Do you not remember the old Soviet Warsaw pact doctrine, of layered air defense, from every platoon carrying manpads to mobile systems traveling with mechanized forces.

      That was the environment the A-10 was designed to fly in, in order to take our enemy tanks/armored vehicles.

      So yes, while some strategic level SAM systems have improved including the associated radars/tracking systems. Our near peers China/Russia and regional threats North Korea, Iran to name a few are still using cold war era systems.

      The A-10s are not going to be flying without EW support, so what exactly is new?

      1. That was the environment the A-10 was designed to fly in circa 1980. Tactical air defenses have gotten better and more prolific since then…better IR seekers, better low-altitude radar, faster and more maneuverable missiles, heavier guns. AirLand Battle doctrine also relied on cooperation with artillery to suppress or disrupt some of those defenses so aircraft could slip in and kill tanks…but there’s not nearly as much artillery as there used to be. And of course, that wasn’t ever tested against Group Soviet Forces Germany…keep in mind that *Iraqi* air defenses in 1990 drove most attack aircraft up to medium altitude.

        Even discounting newer AD systems, the old ones still have teeth. Airplanes, even armored ones, aren’t tanks — they can’t take hits and keep fighting. Take a hit, go home. The armor, redundant flight controls, and extra engine is just good to get a damaged airplane back to someone who can fix it. 1990 aircraft battle damage repair data says that was about 1-3 days for A-10s…that’s a couple of days the airplane isn’t dropping bombs on bad guys.

        What EW support? If it’s not on-board the jet these days, it’s not there!

        All-in-all, we need to stop thinking about CAS in 1945 (or 1975) terms, and get more clever about it.

  9. The statistics dont state the elephant in the room. The A10 only kicks it when up against lebanese taxi drivers, Iraqi womens institute stone throwers and Afghan goat herders.
    It cannot function in an environment where the U.S does not have total air superiority.
    Had the Russians sought to they could have swatted them out of Syria without batting an eyelid.

  10. PRAGMATIC SUGGESTION THAT ALL THE A10 AIRCRAFT BE TRANSFERRED TO THE US ARMY

    The US Air Force has declared it no longer wishes to support – finance and maintain – the A10 aircraft.

    More significantly, the US Air Force has declared that it regards “Close Air Support” (CAS), as a distraction from what it now perceives to be its “main roles”.

    The US Air Force no longer wishes to “get-down-and-dirty”, and support ground forces with “Close Air Support” (CAS) . . . the specific role for which the A10 was so successfully designed, manufactured, and employed.

    However, it is understood, that the US Army DOES continue to value and appreciate the “Close Air Support” (CAS), it receives from the A10.

    A little “blue sky”, “out-of-the-box”, thinking that “stretches-the-envelope”, would be the PRAGMATIC SUGGESTION THAT ALL THE A10 AIRCRAFT – with the Squadrons and (most of the) personnel that fly and maintain the A10 – BE TRANSFERRED TO THE US ARMY . . . together with the finances that are currently budgeted for the US Air Force to fly and maintain the A10.