If the Air Force wanted to be an honest broker, the Air Force would re-start manufacturing of the A-10 and replace the entire fleet.
by Stephen Bryen
The A-10 is a proven warrior, but it is getting old. Even worse, the Air Force hates it. They hate it because they don’t really favor the close support mission which is what the A-10 is all about. In reality, if the Army was allowed to provide its own air cover, there would be no controversy over the A-10. The Army would control the platform and would drive the requirements and improvements for the platform. But in the bizarre and intellectually unfathomable Pentagon, things are often Topsy Turvy.The Air Force, as most folks know, tried to dump off the A-10 in favor the of F-35, or so they claimed. If the idea was accepted it would mean using a $150 to $200 million airplane to do the job of an airplane that cost about $18 million when it was manufactured, and which costs a fraction to operate. The F-35 is believed to cost $42,200 per hour to operate (when it is functioning, which is around 60% of the time at best). The A-10 costs $17,716 per hour and has a decent availability rate. In addition, the A-10 has high portability meaning it can operate far from home on austere airfields. The F-35 will never be able to do this as it will need massive support because of its heavy technological baggage.
Originally the A-10 was designed to be used in Vietnam. But it was sold to Congress on the ground that it could bust Russian armor in any confrontation in Europe. But, as the Israelis learned in 1973 in the Yom Kippur war, a close support mission against missiles and sophisticated gun emplacements is very costly. The Israelis used A-4s to try and take out Egypt’s missile sites. The A-4s were badly shot up and Israeli losses were heavy, amounting to some 50 planes lost and a large number damaged. While the A-10 is more lethal than the A-4, and better protected, the overall picture is not conducive to using this sort of airplane in the early stages of a conflict against a well-equipped adversary. Thus the A-10 was built for the wrong type of war.
But, happily, the A-10 turned out to be pretty good against poorly equipped enemies like al-Qaeda, the Taliban or ISIS. That’s because it can pound them with bombs and its big 30 mm GAU-8 gun firing depleted uranium ammunition can destroy just about anything.
It turns out, thus, that the A-10 is ideally capable against terrorist type threats.
But it can be improved. Better engines would make it quieter and perhaps reduce fuel burn and extend its range. Better protection against ground fired missiles would make the plane more survivable. And improved electronics would make the platform easier to support. The A-10’s were produced between 1972 and 1984, so the fleet is quite old. But there is no reason why a modern version of the A-10 could not be produced, cutting R&D costs to the minimum and focusing on manufacturing.
Indeed, if the Air Force wanted to be an honest broker, the Air Force would re-start manufacturing of the A-10 and replace the entire fleet. With 3-D printing now available, producing the airplane, even with modifications, would be easy and the replacement rate can be relaxed, as the Air Force admits that the A-10 won’t be replaced until 2020 at the earliest.
The Air Force should re-start manufacturing now, and in parallel sponsor an improved engine for the new platforms that can also be interchangeable on the old A-10s. The Air Force should also consider putting laser-based infra-red protection on the A-10s because the MANPADS threat is growing as these weapons proliferate.
And the Air Force which is never happy except spending more money, could work out a UAV version of the A-10. This would allow them to remove a lot of weight needed for pilot protection (such as the titanium cocoon that is on current planes) and have fun remotely shooting up ISIS, the Taliban, or whatever threat is out there. Instead of blowing billions on an entirely new UAV killer platform, we already have one ready and waiting.
Building new A-10s ends the controversy and keeps these flying tanks on station and doing their job for the foreseeable future.
We don’t need an A-10 replacement. We need new A-10s.