Issue Date: September 01, 2003Slow and dumpy vs. fast and sleekThe A-10 has survived just about everything, but can it survive its critics — and the Joint Strike Fighter?
By Gordon Trowbridge
Times staff writers
It may be the unloveliest object of affection in military history. Stubby-winged, pug-nosed, slow as the line at the DMV, the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack jet is nobody’s idea of sexy. Yet those who fly it use “A-10” and “love” in the same sentence.
But the Hawg’s ardent admirers, suspicious of their fellow airmen, have been left to angrily defend the jet since its inception in the 1970s. The rest of the Air Force, meanwhile, wonders what it is that A-10 pilots see in a plane so … retro. It may be the ultimate clash of Air Force cultures.The latest episode in the long-running drama came this spring, as the air war over Iraq was drawing to a close. Working off e-mails leaked from Air Combat Command headquarters, author Robert Coram wrote a piece in the New York Times contending the Air Force once again wanted to do away with the A-10.
Military analysts sputtered with anger. Internet message boards sizzled with venom hurled at Air Force brass. ACC officials said it was all a misunderstanding. The A-10, they promised, would fly in some form until 2028.
Yet even with those promises, there is little doubt that the A-10’s days are numbered. Its intended replacement, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is nearing production. The “Hawg,” as it is affectionately called, is aging — about 23 years old.
And when the A-10 retires, it will bring to an end one of the longest-running debates in the history of air power, the central argument in a larger philosophical dispute about the best use of combat aircraft.
While the fight over the A-10 often has been described in aesthetic terms — the homely A-10 against the streamlined, white-scarf Air Force — it’s actually more about air-power ideology. Those for whom close-air support is a calling see an airplane immaculately designed for the task. Those who see CAS as a distraction from more important jobs — especially strategic bombing — see a slow, unstealthy dinosaur.
A special bond
In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, author William Smallwood wrote a pair of books about the air war in Operation Desert Storm, profiling the exploits of the lowly Hawg and the super-sleek F-15E Strike Eagle.
Without question, Smallwood said, there was something different about the A-10 pilots, especially noting the bond between Hawg drivers and their airplanes.
In part, he said, that was a function of the plane’s history: On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, the Air Force had announced plans to retire the A-10, replacing it with a ground-attack version of the F-16. Congress had gone so far as to pass legislation calling for the Air Force to transfer its A-10 fleet to the Army and Marine Corps.
The A-10 community felt decidedly second-class, Smallwood said — a feeling that inspired its own beleaguered brand of loyalty.
“There was a hierarchy among fighter jocks,” he said. “If you were an A-10 pilot, the pointy-nose guys didn’t want to drink with you at the bar.”
Yet, just months after the end of the war, Gen. Merrill McPeak, then Air Force chief of staff and a fighter pilot, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the Air Force had changed its mind. “I would rather do close-air support than any other thing we do,” he said — then added: “I’m different in that regard from some others in the Air Force.”
It’s not just the attacks of budget writers that have brought the A-10 community together, Smallwood said.
“I think an element of that is the survivability built into the A-10,” he said. “Look at the punishment that airplane can take and still bring those guys and gals back home.”
The Thunderbolt’s designers wanted a plane that could fly low over the battlefield and take a beating. Its dual engines are mounted high on the fuselage; it carries redundant flight control systems; its pilot is cradled in a tub of titanium, shielding him from shrapnel and small-arms fire.
It’s a design that inspires affection, and the A-10 earned it three times during the battle for Baghdad. Over a two-day period, three A-10s suffered severe battle damage; all three pilots survived, and only one jet crashed.
Maj. Jim Ewald, a pilot with the 110th Fighter Wing, a National Guard unit from Battle Creek, Mich., was flying one of those jets when a surface-to-air missile struck.
The missile had knocked out the flight controls, electrical systems, hydraulics and at least one engine, he said. Even with the multiple system failures, Ewald was able to maneuver the aircraft 40 miles away from Baghdad and eject over a spot held by friendly forces.
“I’m very fortunate I was flying the mission in the A-10,” he said.
By its nature as a CAS platform, the A-10’s pilots enjoy the rush of satisfaction from supporting troops on the ground.
Lt. Col. Dave Kennedy, another Battle Creek pilot, said it’s difficult to describe that feeling. In one of his four combat missions over Iraq, his flight was directed to downtown Baghdad to provide close-air support for several Marines pinned down by Iraqi troops.
The Marine unit was in bad shape, Kennedy said. Thirteen of their 15 vehicles had been hit by enemy fire. Forty-two Marines had been wounded, eight critically. Medical evacuation units could not get in to get the wounded out because of heavy ground fire.
It was difficult to distinguish friendly from enemy forces. So Kennedy, who goes by the call sign “Baja,” and another pilot dropped down to just a few hundred feet and took several passes over the city to determine who they should shoot at. Once that was sorted out, they unleashed the A-10s 30mm gun on the Iraqi forces.
“The Marines took the time to track us down and thank us later,” Kennedy said. “It’s hard to say what the highlight of your career is going to be. But I don’t think anything will be as meaningful to me.”
There were many such stories during Operation Iraqi Freedom; by all accounts, the A-10 was the CAS weapon of choice, especially during the battle for Baghdad, when urban terrain and bad weather limited the effectiveness of higher-flying aircraft.
Kennedy, the 110th’s operations group commander, said that after the first week of the war, more than 80 percent of requests for close-air support asked specifically for the Thunderbolt.
That’s a testament, Kennedy said, to the A-10’s strengths as a CAS platform: Long loiter-time over the battlefield, an immense weapons load and munitions designed for the role.
“You like to be the best at what you do,” Kennedy said. “And in the CAS arena, there’s nothing that can do the job like the A-10.”
That, of course, is where the argument starts. Even outside the Air Force, among military analysts, there are two camps when it comes to the A-10 and its role.
Thunderbolt defenders may be too wedded to traditional definitions of close-air support, said Doug Berenson of DFI International, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm.
In operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, the F-15Es and B-52s supported ground troops from high altitudes with precision munitions and laser-guided bombs, Berenson said. Precision weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition will be integrated onto the JSF, allowing it to perform the close-air support mission from high in the sky.
“It’s a bit of a departure from how CAS is traditionally perceived,” Berenson said. “Before 2001, no one would have regarded the B-52 as a CAS system. But it has come into that role given the command, control and communications upgrades that can link precise targeting data with precision weapons.”
That argument strikes other analysts as misguided or worse.
“Supersonic planes providing close-air support are only in the minds of the Air Force,” said Richard Aboulafia, the vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, a consulting firm also based in Washington. “They’ve been playing the game for years of trying to replace the A-10 with something that’s a fighter.”Aboulafia said the Air Force isn’t wild about spending money on a dedicated CAS aircraft — money that could go to big-ticket items such as the F/A-22 Raptor and JSF.
When the Air Force replaces the A-10, it will take a big step back in terms of the capability it has to support ground troops, he said.“The A-10 is being sacrificed at the altar of the supersonic multirole fighter,”
he said. With upgrades to the engines, the A-10 could remain an effective airframe until 2040
That back-and-forth is as common within the Air Force as without — though current pilots and planners rarely are willing to make their arguments on the record.
It’s an argument Smallwood, the author, wishes would cool down.
“It’s always bothered me that the pilots are bothered,” he said. “That they think the Air Force isn’t comfortable with the close-air-support role — I’ve often wondered if that’s actually true.”
And yet, even he can’t resist making a plea to preserve the jet.
“Never in the history of military aviation has there been an airplane so superbly engineered for the purpose it serves,” he said.
“I don’t want to second-guess the Air Force leadership. … I’m not saying it should stay. I just wish it would.”
Laura M. Colarusso can be reached at (703) 750-8655 or lcolarusso
airforcetimes.com. Gordon Trowbridge can be reached at (703) 750-8641 or gtrowbridge