How an ugly, brutally effective warplane won the battle for its future
U.S.-backed Syrian rebels launched an attack late last month on Islamic State militants near the town of Hawl in northern Syria. They regained control of roughly 100 square miles of territory, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
“It was a fairly straightforward, conventional offensive operation,” Army Colonel Steve Warren told reporters via video conference from Baghdad, “where we estimated … several hundred enemy [fighters] were located in that vicinity.”
Warren continued his description. “There was a substantial friendly force — well over 1,000 participated in the offensive part of this operation. And they were able to very deliberately execute the plan that they had made themselves.”
Two types of U.S. warplanes, both optimized for precision attacks in close coordination with ground troops, were critical to the Syrian rebels’ success, Warren revealed. “We were able to bring both A-10s and a Spectre gunship to bear,” he said, “… It can only be described as devastating …. it killed nearly 80 enemy fighters and wounded many more.”
Video shot by a correspondent from the Kurdish Hawar News Agency showed A-10s wheeling over the battlefield as rebel fighters advanced.
The lumbering Spectre gunship, basically a cargo plane with side-firing guns, is one of the Air Force’s favorite aircraft. It’s the beneficiary of billions of dollars in new funding to buy new models and upgrade older ones.
But the twin-jet A-10, an ungainly-looking, single-pilot plane with thick, straight wings and a massive, nose-mounted cannon, is out of favor with Air Force leaders — despite being vitally important to the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State. The flying branch’s top generals and civilian officials have fought for years to get rid of all 300 A-10s and divert their operators and budget to other initiatives. Meanwhile, a grass-roots effort led by current and former U.S. ground troops and bolstered by key lawmakers has protected the A-10, also known by its nickname “Warthog.”
Why the Warthog fell out of favor, and how the plane endures despite the Air Force’s eagerness to retire it, reveals deep schisms within the U.S. military as it continues its war against Islamic extremists while also retooling to deter high-tech Russian forces.
The A-10 is one plane that’s clearly helping Syrian fighters retake their homes from Islamic State. Yet it’s also a uniquely evocative symbol of strife inside the Pentagon.
World War II origins
The A-10 is a product of the 1940s. During World War II, the German and Soviet air force both fielded warplanes specifically designed for attacking enemy ground forces in close proximity to friendly troops.
The German Stuka and the Soviet Sturmovik airplanes were both highly maneuverable, heavily-armed, tough-built and easy to fly and maintain. They could take off from dirt airstrips near the frontlines, fight their way through enemy defenses and linger over the battlefield searching for targets, which they could attack with devastating barrages of gunfire and bombs.
In the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force decided it needed an airplane that could perform a similar role. In the years between the Korean War in the early 1950s and the conflict in Vietnam, the flying branch had reconfigured itself for waging nuclear war in Europe. It traded in its low- and slow-flying ground-attack planes in favor of fast but lightly built jets, whose main job was essentially to lob a single atomic bomb at the Soviet Union — as the world ended around it.
But the Vietnam War was fought with conventional weaponry. Nuclear bombers weren’t suited to the dirty work of blasting enemy ground forces during close gun battles. “Lacking a tested tactical doctrine to deal with such warfare, the Air Force had to hammer out one in combat,” Lieutenant Colonel Ralph A. Rowley wrote in a 1976 Air Force study.
“The Air Force modified old aircraft and equipment to meet close air support needs,” Rowley explained. “Attrition took its toll of these aged planes, with the communists in Vietnam countering their tactics and shooting quite a few down. The answer seemed to lie in the development of an aircraft expressly for close air support.”
In 1966, the Air Force began developing a new, purpose-built ground-attack plane. Pierre Sprey, then a young aerospace engineer working for the secretary of defense, helped shape the new plane’s design. For inspiration, he looked to the World War II Stuka and Sturmovik.
“The ability of the Stuka and Sturmovik,” Sprey said, “operating out of dirt fields up near the troops, to fly five sorties or more per day under combat crisis conditions proved to be an enormous force multiplier.”
The Air Force evaluated two prototypes and, in 1973, selected the A-10 from Fairchild Republic, a now-defunct airplane manufacturer. Today Northrop Grumman owns the A-10 design, which stands out among other warplane models for its thick construction, high-mounted engines (to protect them from ground fire) and huge, nose-mounted 30-millimeter cannon, which can spew one-pound, armor-piercing projectiles at a rate of roughly 60 per second.
The A-10 is perhaps most interesting for what it is not. It’s subsonic, meaning it can’t exceed the speed of sound like so many other warplanes can. Unlike the Air Force’s other fighters, it’s not suited for a combat pilot’s most prestigious role, battling other planes in the air. It’s blunt, blocky and, by Air Force standards, ugly. In many ways, the Warthog is the antithesis of a modern jet fighter. Hence its lowly nickname compared to the F-15 “Eagle,” F-16 “Viper,” F-22 “Raptor” and F-35 “Lightning.”
Fairchild built more than 700 Warthogs for the Air Force through 1984, for the low price of just $21 million each in today’s dollars. By contrast, a new F-35 stealth fighter costs more than $100 million each today.
By 1984, the Vietnam War was long over, of course. Instead of flying into battle with Vietnamese insurgents, the A-10s deployed in Europe and South Korea and prepared to battle Soviet and North Korean tank armies in the event the Cold War turned hot.
When the Soviet Union began to collapse in 1989, so did the Air Force’s support for the A-10. The flying branch proposed to retire the Warthogs and replace them with F-16s. Then in August 1990, Iraq invaded oil-rich Kuwait and the United States and its allies rushed forces to first defend neighboring Saudi Arabia, and later liberate Kuwait.
When Operation Desert Storm against Iraq kicked off in January 1991, 144 Warthogs flew a third of all attack missions, accounting for half of all the Iraqi targets the Air Force destroyed. Warthogs even shot down two Iraqi helicopters with their 30-millimeter cannons. In light of the A-10’s success in Desert Storm, the Air Force quietly dropped plans to ground the planes — at least for the time being.
For the A-10, Desert Storm represented the start of a quarter-century of almost uninterrupted combat. Warthogs took part in U.S.-led air campaigns in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan starting in 2002, Iraq beginning in 2003, Libya in 2011 and Syria starting with the Oct. 31 battle near Hawl.
By all accounts, the pilots who fly the Warthogs and the soldiers and Marines on the ground that the A-10s support love the ungainly plane. Flying low, A-10 pilots can maintain constant visual contact with troops on the ground — an impossible feat for the crews of faster jets. The Warthog also carries enough ammunition to fire its gun for more than 20 seconds straight — five times longer than an F-35 stealth fighter can shoot. Doled out in quick bursts, 20 seconds-worth of ammo can keep an A-10 in the fight for hours.
One intense air-ground battle in Afghanistan on July 24, 2013 illustrated the Warthog’s strengths. Sixty soldiers were on patrol along an Afghan highway when one of their vehicles overturned, forcing the troops to circle up and encamp for the night.
“As the sun rose, the unit began to receive heavy fire from a nearby tree line,” Staff Sergeant Stephenie Wade, an Air Force journalist, reported in a story for the Armed Forces News Service. “The members were pinned behind their vehicles and three of the soldiers suffered injuries. The unit was under fire and the wounded members needed a casualty evacuation so they called for close-air support.”
Two A-10s based at Bagram air base near Kabul raced to assist. When a low-level pass failed to frighten off the attackers, the Warthog pilots took careful aim — and opened fire. “Even with all our [top-of-the-line] tools today, we still rely on visual references,” the lead pilot told Wade. “Once we received general location of the enemy’s position, I rolled in as lead aircraft and fired two rockets to mark the area with smoke. Then my wingman rolled in to shoot the enemy with his 30-millimeter rounds.”
“We train for this, but shooting danger-close is uncomfortable, because now the friendlies are at risk,” the second A-10 pilot said. “We came in for a low-angle strafe, 75 feet above the enemy’s position and used the 30-millimeter gun — 50 meters parallel to ground forces — ensuring our fire was accurate so we didn’t hurt the friendlies.”
After two hours of unrelenting aerial bombardment, the insurgents finally withdrew, leaving behind 18 dead. All the Americans survived and made it back to base. After the pilots landed, they went to the hospital to visit one of wounded soldiers they had helped save.
“He was laying there and next to him was a picture of his high-school girlfriend,” the lead pilot recalled. “We were glad knowing we helped get him home alive. He said, ‘Thank you for shooting those bad guys.'”
Out to pasture
But all the praise from ground troops didn’t seem to matter to Air Force leaders. With costs rising for the new F-35 and overall budgets flattening owing in part to the 2011 Budget Control Act, also known as “sequstration,” in late 2013 the flying branch proposed to begin retiring all 300 A-10s remaining in service. They plan to take the last off the flight line in 2019. This despite an continuing program to upgrade the Warthogs’ electronics and weaponry and replace their wings — theoretically extending their usefulness into the 2030s.
The Air Force claimed that grounding the A-10s would save $4 billion over five years that it could then spend on new planes, including F-35s and new bombers and aerial-refueling tankers. Shuttering the Warthog squadrons would also free up hundreds of airmen for other, higher-priority jobs maintaining and flying other aircraft, the flying branch claimed.
“The A-10 and the close-air support mission have always been seen as lower priorities that take money away from favored programs,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, part of the Project On Government Oversight in Washington. [“For the Air Force, it’s not an emotional issue: it’s a sequestration-driven decision,” explained General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff. “We don’t have enough money last year or this coming year to fund all of the things that we currently have in our force structure.” The Air Force said it would reassign F-15s and F-16s — and eventually F-35s — to support the ground troops.
The flying branch justified the plan to get rid of the A-10 on technological grounds. “Ten years from now, we must be a more modern Air Force,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told the Washington Post. “We have to buy new [aircraft], and we have to keep advancing the ball on technology so that we stay ahead of our potential adversaries around the world.”
The Government Accountability Office questioned the Air Force’s assertion that retiring the A-10s would save billions of dollars. “The Air Force has not fully assessed the cost savings associated with A-10 divestment or its alternatives,” the agency reported. “Our analysis found that the Air Force’s estimated savings are incomplete.”
Indeed, the brute-simple Warthog costs just $17,000 per flight hour for fuel and maintenance. An F-16 costs $22,000 per hour. An F-35 costs almost double the Warthog — $32,000 per hour. And an F-15 costs even more, roughly $42,000 for every hour it’s in the air. The A-10 is cheap.
And the best at what it does — even if it is old. The F-15 and F-16 lack the A-10’s powerful cannon, capacious ammunition storage, toughness and ability to loiter low over the battlefield. Fast and lightly built, the F-15 and F-16 are best suited for penetrating deep behind enemy lines to quickly drop bombs then escape. They’re also good at engaging enemy aircraft, something a Warthog pilot in his slow-flying plane should seek to avoid.
To make sense of the Air Force’s vendetta against its own warplane, you have to understand the “dominant theory of warfare” inside the service. The Air Force, which is regarded as the most intellectual of the U.S. armed forces, tends to endorse seemingly logical conceptions of war. During World War II, the Air Force believed it could force Germany to surrender by bombing key nodes in its oil, transportation and manufacturing infrastructure. But the German economy proved resilient and, in fact, it took a massive Allied ground assault to defeat the Nazis.
For much of the Cold War, the Air Force’s main job was to plan for, and be prepared to bring about, the end of the human race through nuclear holocaust — an undertaking that, fortunately, has so far proved entirely academic. By contrast, close air support is all about supporting ground forces as they — and not the Air Force — do the decisive work of defeating the enemy, one bloody and chaotic engagement at a time.
Viewed this way, close air support is antithetical to the deepest Air Force traditions. “They don’t understand the nature of the mission,” said Lieutenant Colonel Robert Brown, a retired Warthog pilot. So it’s no wonder service leaders are so eager to dispose of their best warplane for the job.
“Air Force divestment of the A-10 will create potential gaps in close air support,” the Government Accountability Office warned. Worried that the Air Force would take away their key means of solid air cover, soldiers, Marines and frontline Air Force air controllers got organized. They talked to their friends and family members, their government representatives and the media.
A grass-roots community sprang up around the A-10 on social media. The Facebook page for the “Save the A-10″ group quickly got 33,000 likes. Its administrators urged fans to contact lawmakers on key congressional committees.
The public pressure worked. Congress barred the Air Force from retiring A-10s in 2015 and 2016. When the Air Force tried to circumvent the law and cancel $22 million in software upgrades necessary to keep the A-10s flying, a strongly-worded letter from Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), compelled service officials to continue the software work. Air Force leaders responded by fighting a rear-guard action against A-10 proponents. In January 2015, Major General James Post, the deputy chief of Air Combat Command, which oversees most of the Air Force’s A-10s, told airmen that talking to Congress about the Warthog was an act of “treason” as long as the flying branch was trying to retire the plane. Lawmakers were mortified. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), demanded an investigation. Three months later, the Air Force fired Post from his leadership position. At the same time, the Air Force tried to suppress an official documentary video about the A-10 that frontline pilots and controllers had shot in Afghanistan, and which showed Warthogs coming to the aid of troops under heavy enemy fire. Someone leaked the documentary to blogger Tony Carr, a retired 22-year-Air Force veteran, and it quickly racked up tens of thousands of views.
“The service likely strangled this production” Carr wrote, “because the powerful message it conveys would have been inconvenient to narratives insisting the A-10 should be retired.”
The Air Force’s efforts came to naught in any case. Congress refused to budge. And the harder the Air Force pushed against the A-10, the more attention the media lavished on the ugly plane — and the more public support for the Warthog swelled.
In early November, the Air Force appeared to back down. General Herbert Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, told reporters that the service was considering moving the Warthog’s retirement date back two or three years. “Keeping around the airplane a bit longer is something that’s being considered based on things as they are today and what we see in the future,” Carlisle said.
It’s not hard to see why the Air Force changed its mind. Besides facing intensive public and congressional opposition, the world is far different — some might say more dangerous — than it was in 2013.
Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine. Islamic State has advanced across Iraq and Syria. Even while it was plotting to decommission the Warthogs, the Air Force was sending the heavily-armed planes all over the world in response to new crises.
In 2014, A-10s deployed to Kuwait to support U.S.-backed Iraqi troops battling Islamic State in northwestern Syria. Twice in 2015, A-10s toured Eastern Europe as part of the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative — in essence, a U.S. military surge into Europe to bolster resident North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces. And in October, Warthogs deployed to Turkey to cover rebel forces fighting Islamic State in Syria — and proved crucial to the rebels’ victory near Hawl.
Not only do Congress and the American public stand by the unglamorous, venerable attack plane — it’s as if the world, with all its messy, grinding ground wars, conspired to demand the A-10’s continued service.