An A-10 Thunderbolt preparing to take off from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan

An A-10 Thunderbolt preparing to take off from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II/Released

Future Threats Will Require Much More Than the A-10

Forget the A-10. The Air Force needs a mix of aircraft and capabilities for the 2023 fight. By Col. Robert Spalding

Those fighting to save the A-10 jet fighter are missing the point. The U.S. Air Force is the best in the world at close air support in a permissive environment like Afghanistan, even without the A-10. In the future, elite U.S. forces can do without it as the military continues to chase terrorists across the Middle East and Africa, and the A-10 has even less purpose in any future high-end combat in more contested areas, like China, with rapidly improving air defenses.

The truth is that even in Afghanistan the A-10 only accounts for about 20 percent of the close air support missions. A B-1 bomber can skitter across the battlefield in afterburner to answer a distress call from troops in minutes, and it has a tremendous payload and loiter capability. F-16 and F-15E fighter jets have the capability to strafe. And the Air Force has almost reached 65 Predator/Reaper combat air patrols, mostly in Afghanistan. Calls from troops in combat are answered faster than at any time in the history of air warfare. Today’s mix of capabilities and aircraft, even excluding the A-10, means troops get the level of support they need when and where they need it.

Sequestration has given the Air Force a jigsaw puzzle with not enough pieces. The Air Force has come up with a plan to put it together, and still maintain air superiority in 2023. Retiring the A-10 is one part of that plan. So the real question as the war in Afghanistan winds to a close is: How good are we in the 2023 contested environment? The answer is that we will still be the best in the world, but the gap is diminishing. We see this today in the Pacific with large Chinese defense expenditures on anti-access defenses, and elsewhere with the proliferation of sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missile systems. The U.S. needs to modernize its aircraft fleet to ensure it can attain air superiority in a future fight. Keeping $3.7 billion worth of A-10s that can’t survive in that environment is not the answer.

The other services are faced with similar issues. The Army is condensing combat brigades, the Marines are losing infantry battalions, and the Navy is losing ships, all creating risk for our service members. The A-10 is a single mission airplane, and fiscal limitations require that the Air Force buy new aircraft in order to maximize capability for the future fight.

The year 2023 is not that far away, and the Air Force has been on a procurement holiday for decades as F-35 delays continue and a modern bomber remains years away. Meanwhile, China has created the great wall of ballistic missiles. North Korea has advanced their ballistic missiles and nuclear technology. Both trends are pushing U.S. forces farther away from the fight. The problem is that bombers are a mix of old (B-2), older (B-1) and oldest (B-52); the B-52s having been built in 1960.

Around the rest of the globe, nations are building their air defenses. Russian surface-to-air missile systems are spreading. In South America, Venezuela has started installing S300V missiles as the first foreign buyer of the system. These are incredibly capable surface-to-air missile systems that can shoot down both aircraft and ballistic missiles. In the Middle East, Syria and Iran have been trying to get their own S300Vs.

The Air Force is good at killing terrorists, and has been doing so for more than 12 years in Afghanistan. The A-10 has been part of that equation. The truth is the mix of capabilities required for that environment will exist in the Air Force arsenal even after the A-10 goes to the boneyard. What the Air Force does not have is the mix of aircraft and capabilities required for the 2023 fight. The importance of air superiority dictates we either pay in dollars now, or pay in lives later.

Col. Robert S. Spalding, III, is a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he oversaw B-2 bombers as vice commander of the 509th Bomb Wing based at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.