Time to Retire the A-10

It is long past time for the A-10 to retire.  There are many reasons to get rid of the aircraft and only one to keep it.  It is an outstanding Close Air Support (CAS) platform, but it lacks in every other mission a fighter aircraft is expected to perform.  This is especially important if the US is confronted by near peer adversaries employing 4th and 4.5th generation fighters and double digit Surface to Air Missiles (SAM). It is not the fighter of choice for strategic attack (SA), air interdiction (AI), defensive counter air (DCA), or suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD).  All missions which are performed by the multi-role aircraft.

A-10 excels at unopposed CAS, which means that the air superiority or supremacy has been established by other air platforms.  The A-10 aircraft was originally designed to engage Soviet armor with the precision weapon of the day, the Maverick missile, supplemented by the 30mm Gatling gun. While an outstanding design for the time when most of the US Air Force fighters carried only non-guided bombs, the airplane has outlived its usefulness in the current day and age.  For today’s wars, the USAF has a whole family of GBU (Guided Bomb Units) precision weapons available to engage the enemy.  They can be used and are employed by a variety of platforms.

The idea that you need to fly slow and low for CAS is also false. It is actually about 30 years out of date.  Today, all of the fixed wing fighters carry some variant of a targeting pod which allows them to provide precision air support while remaining outside of visual range of the adversary troops on the ground.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan the vast majority of CAS missions are flown by other aircraft such as the F-16, F-15E, B-1B, and even the B-52.  These aircraft provide the same amount of firepower and precision, while also being much faster than the A-10, which actually makes them better platforms to perform the CAS mission in a time sensitive situation.  Given a hypothetical troops in contact situation where there is an immediate danger to the US or allied personnel on the ground, do the troops under enemy fire want to wait for an hour for the slow flying A-10 to get there or do they want an F-16 which can be overhead in 15 minutes, ready to employ weapons?  I know which I would choose, the F-16.

Other fighters are also capable of conducting other diverse missions such as SEAD or DCA, while the A-10 is incapable of doing so.  It is a slow aircraft and lacks radar to track and engage other aircraft.  The A-10’s armor also means nothing if it gets engaged by double digit SAM systems or enemy aircraft, the adversary systems which can only be suppressed or destroyed by the multi-role fighter such as the F-16CJ.   Armor is only a good investment if you are planning to fly close to the ground, in full view of ground troops, a course of action which is not necessary if the aircraft is equipped with a targeting pod.  It is no coincidence that over the past 15 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq not a single fighter has been shot down by the insurgents, this despite the fact that none of the fighters except for the A-10 are armored.

Even while executing the CAS mission, the A-10 has limitations.  It would be hard pressed to conduct CAS if the adversary is capable of conducting air sorties to oppose it, since the aircraft is not designed to engage in air combat.  While on the other hand, a pair of F-16s can provide CAS in contested environment, detect enemy aircraft that are threatening them, eliminate them via air combat and go back to providing CAS to the troops on the ground.  A flexibility the A-10 is incapable of.  The A-10 is really good at a few missions only, such as unopposed CAS, while other aircraft such as F-16, F-15E, or F-35 are multi-role and provide the best mix of capabilities for the money spent.

Lastly, the best reason to get rid of the A-10 is to free up the fighter pilots for other aircraft.  This is especially important, given the current fighter pilot shortage in the US Air Force.  While the F-35 is not the best way forward for the Air Force, it is vastly better and provides a lot more capabilities than the A-10 ever did.  At the end of the day the specific aircraft platform is not that important, what is important are the capabilities that platform provides.  The troops supported by CAS aircraft don’t care what specific aircraft provides them that support.  If they had a choice I’m sure they would opt for something that is above them 24-7 every day of the week, stocked with unlimited weapons.  I’m exaggerating slightly, but at the end, the effects by the multi-role aircraft operating as CAS platforms are essentially the same as the A-10.  While at the same time the multi-role aircraft are capable of conducting the wide variety of mission A-10 is incapable of.  Missions such as SEAD and AI which are essential to establishing air superiority/supremacy, an outcome upon which the rest of the US military power rests on in every conflict.