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Future of A-10s uncertain

Cash woes make jet likely target

Sep. 23, 2013 - 06:10PM   |  
Putting on quite a show
An A-10 Thunderbolt II fires flares as part of a combat search and rescue scenario at Osan Air Base, South Korea. (A1C Chad Strohmeyer/Air Force)
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A-10

Primary function: Close-air support
Wingspan: 57 feet, 6 inches
Length: 53 feet, 4 inches
Weight: 29,000 pounds
Maximum takeoff weight: 51,000 pounds
Fuel capacity: 11,000 pounds
Payload: 16,000 pounds
Speed: 450 nautical miles per hour (Mach .75)
Range: 2,580 miles
Ceiling: 45,000 feet
Armament: One GAU-8 Avenger .30 mm seven-barrel Gatling gun; up to 16,000 pounds of mixed ordnance; infrared countermeasure flares; electronic countermeasure chaff; jammer pods; 2.75-inch rockets; illumination flares and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
Cost per flying hour: $17,564
F-35A
Primary function: Stealth multi-role fighter
Wing span: 35 feet
Length: 51.4 feet
Weight: 29,300 pounds
Maximum takeoff weight: 70,000-pounds
Fuel capacity: 18,250
Payload: 18,000 pounds
Speed: 1,200 nautical miles per hour (Mach 1.6) with full weapons load
Range: Greater than 1,200 nautical miles
Ceiling: Higher than 50,000 feet
Armament: 18,000 pounds in a non-stealth role; GAU-12 Equalizer internal gun, capable of firing up to 4,200 rounds per minute (carries 180 rounds).
Cost per flying hour: $35,200

For decades, the A-10 Thunderbolt II has been the favorite jet of children at airshows and grunts on the ground.

It’s slow. It’s ugly. But, it’s effective.

Air Force officials have confirmed the service is looking at complete cuts of entire fleets of aircraft because of tightening budgets. Single-mission planes are at the top of the list, putting the A-10 right in the crosshairs. The A-10 has almost exclusively been used for close-air support since it was introduced in 1977.

“A-10 was my first fighter. ... I love the airplane,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said. “It is the best airplane in the world at what it does. It is not the best at a lot of other things. It’s capable in many areas. If we’re going to look at what we must divest, not what we want to divest, but what we must divest, we have to be very honest with ourselves inside the Air Force about how much we can afford.”

A vertical cut

Several Air Force officials have confirmed the A-10 is a likely target for eliminating an aircraft fleet under continued budget pressure. Removing the entire fleet instead of continuing to retire squadrons, called a “vertical cut” is more likely to save money in the long term because it also removes the infrastructure behind the jet.

“You only gain major savings if you cut an entire fleet,” Welsh said. “You can cut an aircraft from a fleet, but you save a lot more money if you cut all the infrastructure that supports the fleet.”

Air Combat Command has planned for the possibility of divesting the entire A-10 fleet by 2015, according to an internal ACC slide outlining future fighter force structure. The ACC plan also calls for retirements of some, but not all, F-15s and F-16s as the service obtains more F-35s.

ACC Commander Gen. Mike Hostage said he talked to Army leaders about the prospect of cutting the entire Thunderbolt II fleet, a decision that isn’t likely to be popular with ground troops who rely on close-air support and hold the A-10 in high regard.

“In a perfect world, I would have 1,000 A-10s,” Hostage said. “But I can’t afford it. I can’t afford the fleet I have now.”

Even the A-10’s success at close-air support during more than a decade of war may not be enough to save it. It is slow, it is not stealthy and it cannot easily protect itself from surface-to-air missiles. With a smaller force, the Air Force needs planes that handle multiple roles and work in a non-permissive environment, Welsh said.

Targeting the Guard

Eliminating the A-10 fleet is likely to face a tough road in Congress. Lawmakers are speaking out against it, though it has not been officially proposed.

““It’s kind of a disarming of America that bothers me a great deal,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., at a Sept. 19 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

The Air National Guard flies 107 A-10s and will face the closure of several squadrons if it loses its A-10s. Congress has blocked cuts to protect flying missions in their home states in previous years, but Guard officials seem resigned to letting the A-10s go in exchange for a new mission, such as cyber warfare or remotely piloted aircraft.

“[Welsh] can’t maintain everything he has,” Army Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, said Sept. 17. “Our position is if he has to divest, at least mitigate the cuts in the states with something else.”

Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke, the director of the Air National Guard, spent seven years of his Air Force career flying the A-10, including as an instructor pilot at the Air Force’s weapons school. But despite his experience in the jet, it may be time for it to go because of the future threats the Air Force will face.

“It is highly effective,” Clarke said.” But you have to operate in a fairly permissive environment. We’ve been somewhat fortunate that the ground threats we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t the same than even what we faced in southeast Asia. ... It’s not important to get an aircraft to a target. It’s important to get the munitions to the target, to get the sensor to the target.”

The coming replacement

The F-35A is expected to be the next era of close-air support, along with the other roles the fighter is tasked with taking on. The Defense Department expects to field more than 1,700 of the jets with the planned initial operating capability in summer 2016.

Hostage said he can fill the close-air support role with the F-35A, and it will carry weapons to support ground troops. It will just be “more expensive and not as impressive” as the Warthog, he said.

The A-10 flew at an operational cost per flying hour of $17,564 in 2012, which is cheaper than each of the Air Force’s other fighters. The next cheapest is the F-16, at $22,500. The F-35A’s sustainment affordability target will be double that of the A-10, at $35,200, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The F-35A will carry 18,000 pounds of ordnance in a non-stealth role, along with a GAU-12 Equalizer internal gun, capable of firing up to 4,200 rounds per minute. But it will only be able to carry 180 rounds.

By comparison, the A-10 can carry up to 16,000 pounds of ordnance. But the A-10’s most impressive feature is its gun, the General Electric GAU-8 Avenger .30 mm cannon that can carry 1,170 rounds.

The legend goes that the A-10 isn’t a plane with a gun, it’s a gun with a plane built around it. The signature belching sound of it firing has been one of the most welcoming to U.S. and coalition ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Its place in the fight

For the guys on the ground, especially the joint terminal attack controllers who coordinate with aircraft for close air support, sending all A-10s to the boneyard seems “ridiculous” while U.S. troops are still on the ground in Afghanistan, said Charlie Keebaugh, a retired tactical air control party airman and president of the TACP Association.

“In my opinion the A-10 is the most important aircraft we have in the fight we have going on right now,” Keebaugh said.

It’s more than just the weaponry, Keebaugh said. A-10 pilots are well trained in providing air support.

“They just get it,” Keebaugh said. “They speak the same language as the JTAC.”

The jet is also much more capable at spending more time on the target and being able to spot the enemy, because of its slow speed.

In July, the A-10’s capabilities were evident when two pilots came to the rescue of 60 soldiers during a convoy ambush in Afghanistan.

The convoy came under attack while patrolling a highway. They became pinned behind their vehicles, facing heavy fire from a close tree line. The group didn’t have a JTAC, but a joint fire observer was able to communicate an estimated location to the A-10s.

“I flew over to provide a show of force while my wingman was looking for gunfire below,” the flight lead said, according to an Air Force release on the mission. “Our goal with the show of force was to break the contact and let the enemy know we were there, but they didn’t stop. I think that day the enemy knew what they were going to do, so they pushed even harder and began moving closer to our ground forces.”

One A-10 fired two rockets to mark the area with smoke. The wingman came in next and pulled the trigger on the Avenger cannon. The enemy moved closer to the friendly forces.

“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-mm gun — 50 meters parallel to ground forces — ensuring our fire was accurate so we didn’t hurt the friendlies.”

Over two hours, the two Warthogs flew 15 gun passes, fired nearly all of their 2,300 30 millimeter rounds, and dropped three-500 pound bombs on the enemy force.

Air Force officials are quick to point out, however, that while the A-10 is famous for its close-air support prowess, it isn’t the only jet that supports ground troops.

“People seem to assume that 100 percent of the close-air support being done in Afghanistan today is being done by the A-10,” Welsh said at a Sept. 18 House Armed Services Committee hearing. “That’s not even close to the truth. It’s actually a small percentage of the close-air support that’s being done by many, many other platforms.”

Mission capable

The Air Force currently flies 326 A-10Cs, with an average age of just over 32 years. In fiscal 2013, the jet flew at a 75 percent mission capable rate — the highest in the past five years. The rate at which the aircraft is fixed within 12 hours is 71 percent , the third highest in the Air Force behind the EC-130H Compass Call and MQ-1B Predator.

The A-10’s mission capable rate is higher than the fighter fleet, except for the F-15E Strike Eagle. No mission capable rates were released for the F-35A because the initial operating capability is still three years away.

Last year, the Air Force flew 348 of the A-10s, but the service this year closed the Reserve 917th Fighter Group at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and the active-duty 81st Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. The 188th Fighter Wing at Fort Smith, Ark., began retiring its A-10s this month.

The Air Force tried to shut down more A-10 squadrons in its fiscal 2013 budget proposal. The goal was to retire 102 jets. However, Congress worked to protect the A-10s assigned to the 122nd Fighter Wing at Fort Wayne, Ind., and the 127th Wing at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich. While the fiscal 2014 budget has not been released, Air Force officials have repeatedly said cuts are coming, and that more A-10s would likely be decommissioned even if some of the fleet is spared.

Taking on new missions

A-10s also have found another life in missions far away from the mountains of Afghanistan, and carrying payloads very different than bombs. At Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., crews this year have been converting an A-10 into a hurricane-hunting drone. The tough Warthog, tail number 174, will be outfitted with sensors to fly into adverse weather to track storms.

At Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., A-10 pilots have been using their jets for several tests. This year, the 40th Flight Test Squadron tested the Net-T software: a pod attached to a jet that can serve as a wireless router, allowing ground troops to connect devices through the network and chat, transfer videos or trade maps.

While Air Force leaders consider sending the rest of the A-10 fleet to the boneyard, millions are being spent to upgrade the fleet with a target, for now, to keep it mission-ready until about 2030.

The upgraded A-10C reached initial operating capability just six years ago, and more money is being spent to keep upgrading the Warthogs.

In 2010, Boeing Co. began assembling replacement wings for the A-10, with the total contract worth up to $2 billion. Work is expected to continue through 2018, with the most recent order of $212 million placed on Sept. 4. Boeing says the upgrade will help the A-10 improve its mission availability by 4 percent and save the service an estimated $1.3 billion in maintenance for the next 30 years.

And pilots assigned to the 74th Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., earlier this year became the first to fly with a new helmet, featuring a Helmet Mounted Cueing System. The system, the product of a $12.6 million contract with Raytheon, features a full-color display and includes optical motion tracking, head-steered weapons, day and night capability and can be attached to older helmets.

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