The United States Air Force’s decision to divest the A-10C “Warthog” has larger ramifications for future wars than just an airframe. The service plans to drastically reduce its capability and capacity to provide Close Air Support (CAS) to ground forces, leaving the sons and daughters of America and her allies to fight without a dedicated CAS aircraft for the first time since Vietnam.
The venerable “Warthog” is viewed by some as a Cold War relic that only exists as a jobs program for congressional representatives. This is myopic.
With nearly four decades in service, the A-10C stems from the lessons (re)learned after Vietnam. From inception, the A-10C was a purpose-built CAS platform with demonstrated battlefield survivability. Because of its rugged design paired with heavy and diverse payloads of modern stand-off decoys and weapons, each A-10C delivers more firepower to support ground forces than its fighter counterparts. Further, its AAR-47 missile warning system is especially effective at defeating nearly all Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS).
I spent a 24-year career as a Marine Infantry Officer, later transitioning to Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC), commanding at the Team, Platoon, and Company levels in both Joint and Combined combat environments.
On September 26, 2007, my platoon was on the receiving end of a complex ambush against an entrenched enemy. We fought our way out, often engaging enemy fighters inside of 100 meters and sometimes at hand-grenade range. In a difficult and violent action, we broke the back of the enemy’s assault.
We used two A-10Cs to destroy the enemy element isolated in a trench line. The A-10C’s impressive firepower and danger-close delivery of bombs facilitated the extrication of my 35-member assault force without a single U.S. casualty. This simply would not have been possible without the A-10C working in close consonance with my Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC); a trained air support employment specialist.
I’m a living testament to the A-10C’s utility.
In its 2023 budget, the Air Force revealed a 5-year plan to eliminate its A-10C CAS aircraft without an adequate replacement and to cut Terminal Air Control Party Specialist/Joint Terminal Attack Controller (TACP/ JTAC) manning by 50%.
The USAF is a staunchly fighter-oriented culture where platforms like the F-35 and the NGAD fighter are touted as machines that will provide CAS and fight enemy aircraft with equal aplomb, but the Air Force’s plan will divest nearly all close support expertise, crippling America’s ability to employ airpower in close proximity to friendly forces on the ground. Ground troops would be supported by a small, expensive fleet of fragile aircraft that are far less effective at CAS than the A-10C. In low-intensity conflicts, it will cost lives. In Major Combat Operations, it risks losing battles.
The U.S. is terrible at predicting the next battlespace and future wars. Having a robust quiver of options is better than eliminating a proven platform like the A-10C. Paradoxically, if the USAF follows its own doctrine to justify getting rid of the A-10C this only bolsters the case for keeping it.
No aircraft engages the enemy alone. Much like ground forces use “combined arms” (tanks, artillery, infantry, and aviation) to prevail on land, the Air Force uses “Force Packaging” to win in the air. The four major threats to aircraft over a modern battlefield are:
- Air (enemy fighters);
- Radar-guided Surface-Air Missiles (SAMs)
- Air Defense Artillery (ADA), and;
- Man-portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS)
The Air Force spends a lot of taxpayer dollars to ensure its fighter team (F-16; F-15EX; F-22; and F-35) can kill or negate enemy aircraft and radar SAMs, but the sensitive skins, engines, and reduced capacity for flares make these aircraft extremely vulnerable to ADA and MANPADS. In contrast, the A-10C is by far the most survivable aircraft against ADA and MANPAD threats found directly above the battlefield and is the only CAS platform specifically designed to protect ground forces in battle.
In a firefight, I sought to dominate high ground, known as “key terrain,” to achieve tactical superiority. The airspace directly overhead the battlefield is the ultimate key terrain. An American ground commander fighting against a capable and determined adversary needs an aircraft with a massive amount of firepower and eyes on both friendly troops and the enemy. Without the A10C’s capability, the USAF cedes the most important position on the battlefield where CAS is a powerful surgical tool. I can’t imagine fighting without A-10Cs which provided me a critical advantage in a dynamic, highly-contested combat environment.
Further, the A-10C was designed to operate from expeditionary airstrips. This works to the A-10C’s advantage in peer conflicts. Advanced fighter aircraft require concrete or asphalt surfaces of at least 8,000 feet in length. Countries like China will use any weapon they can, like ballistic and cruise missiles, to negate aircraft carriers and airfields capable of supporting fighters. Alternatively, the A-10C can island hop around the Pacific with a small support package and operate from 5,000 to 6,000 feet of dirt, grass, or even a short stretch of highway.
The A-10C thrives using a combination of Force Packaging and intelligent tactics, as evidenced in the 2016 deployment of the A-10C to support U.S. forces in Syria. Although Air Force leadership and Beltway pundits would prefer Congress forget about the A-10C operating within multiple surface-to-air missile engagement zones and merging with Russian fighters during Operation Inherent Resolve, the A-10C proved itself on the modern battlefield.
Dollars and Sense
The decision to divest the A-10C is not new; the platform is always considered for retirement when the USAF talks of modernization. The Air Force’s voracious spending habits force an ever-smaller fleet of overpriced aircraft; a single F-35 costs nearly $145 million, which doesn’t account for the billions of dollars spent researching and developing emerging design technologies. Once procured, F-35 operating costs are more than double that of the A-10C, with sustainment costs three times budget expectations.
The A-10C needs a tech refresh, but the aircraft is paid for, and there is little to suggest that the A-10C can’t maintain its relevance with ~$3 million each in modernization and upgrades. That is pennies on the dollar compared to the F-35; the 10-year cost to replace A-10Cs with F-35s is $68 billion. The USAF, just ten years after the initial fielding of the F-35, spent $4 billion dollars on the research and development of an engine it no longer plans to procure. For comparison, it cost less than $1 billion to build and install new wings on the entire A-10C fleet, and another $1 billion could create an all-new, digitally-enhanced A-10EX, capable of employing next-generation weapons, locating threat systems, and acting as an over-the-horizon communications node.
Money aside, the Key West Agreement of 1948 charged the USAF to provide Close Air Support to the U.S. Army. The A-10Cs real benefit combines specialists (pilots) with a purpose-built airplane, and the funds used to field the A-10C were pulled from the Army’s own Close Air Support programs. Divesting the only CAS-designed aircraft in the USAF without a replacement is akin to dereliction of duty.
As a mission planner requesting CAS assets for ground operations, I was told to ask for aircraft capabilities to support my mission, rather than specific types of aircraft. Since many aircraft share capabilities (ex. ability to employ GPS-guided munitions) and there are always limited assets to meet multiple demands for CAS, focusing on capabilities creates the flexibility to draw from a variety of platforms to fulfill the requirement.
But this created an argument that U.S. ground forces don’t care what platform delivers ordnance so long as those forces receive it. Advocates of this argument fail to realize that the A-10C is the best CAS platform because of its capabilities. In fact, many JTACs cleverly requested Close Air Support assets capable of “employing forward-firing ordnance, below low weather decks, including 30-millimeter rounds.” This ensured A-10Cs; it provided capabilities no other asset could.
To that point, in June 2018 the A-10C conducted a CAS flyoff against the F-35. The results demonstrated the most effective platform to perform CAS against a peer adversary is the A-10C. The test also highlighted the force multiplication achievable by allowing A-10s to focus on supporting ground forces while fighter assets like the F-35, F-16, and F-18 act in their primary roles to counter air threats and suppress enemy air defenses.
After the fly-off, the A-10C bested the F-35 in CAS, Airborne Forward Air Control, and Combat Search and Rescue mission performance–both in low-threat and high-threat environments. An F-35 pilot was quoted as saying “I need F-35s on the leading edge to detect systems and provide a screen against advanced enemy fighters. I need Warthogs in-depth with the magazine firepower to smite our enemies from the face of the earth.” As a former Ground Force Commander (GFC), I agree. There are two salient reasons for this:
The A-10C has integrated modern technology. First, with four radios and four data-link options that talk to ground troops, its communications package is more compatible with ground maneuver elements than any other fighter. And second, although some A-10Cs are equipped with the newest jam-resistant GPS, its direct-fire weapons and its pilots’ eyes-on tactics negate the effects of GPS jamming. In GPS-denied environments where communications will be severely degraded, other fighters will struggle to accurately deliver GPS-dependent weapons. This is crucial for a GFC in a close fight where seconds feel like hours.
The A-10C also provides an asymmetric advantage by providing CAS from 75 feet above ground level up to 35,000 feet MSL. With moderate speeds and an extremely tight turning radius, which reduces re-attack timelines, the A-10C is responsive, can remain close to friendly forces for long periods of time, and has flexible, forward-firing weapons. These weapons provide more options to quickly engage targets. No other aircraft provides effective CAS in the low-altitude arena, which the war in Ukraine has shown to be one of the few places CAS can be employed in contested airspace.
Unlike the F-35, which requires a prepared airfield to support GFCs from altitudes miles above the battlespace, the A-10C pilot can remain eyes-on friendly forces; enemy forces; utilize targeting pods to generate coordinates for artillery missions; and dominate an adversary in close proximity from tree-top level using 30-mm armor-piercing incendiary rounds, or from 30,000 feet and dozens of miles away using small-diameter bombs.
Humans Before Hardware
The A-10C program is important because it trains pilots to become experts in Joint Fires integration. Their training is directly focused on Close Air Support, Forward Air Control, and Combat Search and Rescue, all of which are complementary missions requiring detailed knowledge of Joint Fires. On June 22, 2016, Joel Bier wrote in The National Interest, “The oncoming challenge is clear: The Air Force must collectively preserve the A-10C pilot manning pool as a force-in-being to save CAS expertise from the dilution of current training and personnel bureaucracy, regardless of its fiscally based hardware decisions.”
Further, Dan Grazier highlighted the inadequacy of CAS training in the F-35 community, showing through official USAF documents that “…no F-35 pilot of any experience level in any component of the Air Force is required to fly a single close air support training mission in 2023 or 2024.” When an aircraft is primarily responsible for destroying enemy aircraft and surface-to-air missile sites, pilots who exclusively train for those missions do not have the time to focus on supporting ground forces. Advocacy for the A-10C is based upon its capability to provide CAS better than any other Mission Design Series. A-10C pilots and the Tactical Air Control Party community maintain that legacy.
There is also a looming 50% reduction of air-ground combat integration specialists. Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) represents the largest proportion of Joint Terminal Attack Control qualified personnel in the USAF. They are experts in Joint Fires integration and the employment of surface and air-based fires essential to successful large-scale combat operations and work directly with GFCs to employ air power. For the U.S. Army, this reduction will eliminate TACP support below the Brigade level in a large conflict. These mission-focused teams of CAS professionals habitually train with A-10C pilots to ensure the safe, proper, and expeditious employment of CAS.
I worked closely with these impressive Airmen during my time in Special Operations where we have a saying that “humans are more important than hardware.” In this case, it proves particularly true, and hobbling the USAF’s TACP manning defies logic since it directly affects the Army’s ability to fight our enemies, particularly peer adversaries.
Ground combat is difficult and at times confusing. As a GFC and qualified JTAC, I could control my own air support in combat. My background and training provided a distinct advantage. I understood ground force fire and maneuver, and I could utilize air support assets to maximize my Marines’ abilities to succeed. However, as a JTAC-qualified GFC, I was the exception; trying to manage CAS while maintaining control of my unit was not optimal.
Having CAS-trained professionals in the air above me and a TACP next to me on the ground is the ideal partnership. A TACP at my side, focused on using air to achieve my intent for CAS, significantly improved my unit’s effectiveness. This is especially important in dynamic, asymmetric environments where high-altitude aircraft dropping bombs on coordinates without eyes on the battlefield will be worthless at best, and cause fratricide or civilian casualties at worst.
Loss of the A-10C and a preponderance of TACPs will create a huge gap wherein a dedicated CAS team doesn’t exist for use in combat like the ongoing war in Ukraine; tailor-made for the A-10C as I wrote about here.
The True Cost
One of the SOF truths is “competent [forces] cannot be created after the emergency occurs.” Getting rid of the A-10C; its qualified CAS-trained pilots; and the air-ground integration expert TACPs is a recipe for disaster.
Vietnam demonstrated that America doesn’t like to wage wars with overwhelming pain to its people. I don’t know what future war holds, but I do know that the largest risk is assumed by ground forces who will go to war without adequate platforms and the flexible engagement options required to fight effectively. That Congress and the DoD are ignoring this is a mistake of epic proportions.
The American public deserves an explanation of why the Air Force is putting American sons and daughters at risk and should have an opportunity to weigh in on this incredibly important and costly decision. For more information and to contact your congressional representatives, please visit https://www.troops-in-contact.org/
Ivan F. Ingraham is a freelance writer and veteran. He served for 24 years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Special Operations Officer. This is his first submission to The Havok Journal.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.