The Air Force's Argument for Retiring the A-10 Makes No Sense
Service leaders claim the decision is based on cost and effectiveness. A close analysis of the data says otherwise.
The U.S. Air Force and the rest of the military desperately need to cut billions of dollars while minimizing the loss to combat capabilities. Eliminating platforms provides the greatest cost savings due to the fixed costs associated with each platform. The Air Force plan: retire the A-10 Warthog. As an Army officer relying on anecdotal experience and public evidence, I find this decision perplexing, as do Air Force ground controllers, Senator Kelly Ayote (R-NH), and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. I cannot find systemic evidence articulating the impact of losing the A-10 on the Air Force’s close air support (CAS) capability because the Air Force has failed to articulate this information. Instead the Air Force provides irrelevant or misleading information.
CAS protects troops and influences adversaries—often by killing—and these measures of effectiveness should drive Air Force equipping decisions. Troops who have seen combat strongly advocate for air power that changes the enemy behavior. However, frequently used Air Force statistics such as the number of missions flown and tons of ordnance dropped have no relevance because they measure activity not impact. These measures equate to a business making decisions based on gross revenues instead of profits. Recently released fratricide statistics have more value but the Air Force appears to have used them in a manipulating and misleading manner. The Air Force could convince me and a skeptical Congress to retire the A-10 by using systematic measures of effectiveness if the evidence supports A-10 retirement. However, if the evidence suggests the A-10 is more effective and less expensive, then the Air Force should retire one of its six active fighters (F-15, F-16, F-22) and bombers (B-1, B-2, B-52) or end F-35 procurement.
Many, myself included, believe the Air Force decisions lack systemic analysis because the Air Force justifies its decision with flawed cost comparisons, loaded language, and irrelevant measures of performance. Important questions addressing effectiveness and marginal cost include: What is the operational and structural cost difference for a legacy F- or B-series aircraft instead of the A-10? What are the rates of fratricide, responsiveness, and collateral damage for all Air Force CAS platforms? Like other platforms, the A-10 has committed fratricide, but under what conditions and at what rate compared to the others? The Air Force fails to answer these questions and makes arguments that appear disingenuous, fail to address important factors to ground troops (fratricide, enemy impact, etc.), and increase perceptions of the Air Force’s reluctance to make CAS a priority.
Savings of $3.5 billion over five years remains the Air Force’s primary justification for retiring the A-10, which they allegedly want to keep but cannot afford. However, the Air Force budget argument fails to address total defense expenditures. The A-10 is, by far, the cheapest CAS platform to operate. In Afghanistan, the military can fly five Afghan-based A-10s for the cost of one Qatar-based B-1B bomber and two A-10s for the cost of an Afghan-based F-15 (full cost comparison chart below). In 2012, a B1-B squadron kept at least one B-1B aircraft over Afghanistan for their entire six-month deployment, which conservatively cost $258 million more than flying two A-10s from Afghanistan or $334 million more than flying one A-10, ignoring tanker costs. If forced to choose, I prefer coverage by 1 A-10 over one bomber because by the time a bomber’s greater capacity matters, I’m dead or the enemy is so close I need strafing, not bombing, runs. Over five years, flying one A-10 instead of one B-1B for Afghan missions saves an estimated $3.4 billion. Unfortunately, these savings may not resonate with Air Force decision makers because overseas contingency operations funding, not the Air Force budget, generally funds operational costs and future operational requirements remain unknown.
While the cost argument appears disingenuous, the effectiveness issue generates great resistance from CAS customers – Air Force ground controllers (not pilots), Army Soldiers, Marines, and Navy SEALs. While the Air Force Chief of Staff agrees the A-10 remains the best CAS platform, the Air Force uses the frequency of CAS coverage by non-A-10s and the amount of ordinance dropped to demonstrate their ability to provide CAS without the A-10. However, these statistics mean little to ground troops who prefer a well-placed—and low weight—strafing run over “smart” 500-pound bombs. Bombs, regardless of accuracy, provide less utility against a very close enemy due to a bomb’s blast radius. Additionally, an A-10 loitering over the battlefield adds a more significant psychological impact on the enemy than unobservable bombers. Anecdotally, ground forces have cancelled missions and operated differently based on the availability of A-10s because CAS provided by other aircraft changes a ground unit’s risk calculus. CAS is a mission, not a platform, but different platforms provide different CAS capabilities.
Fratricide remains a key concern to ground troops and the A-10 appears better equipped to avoid fratricide even in danger close situations—when the enemy moves so close to friendly forces that a bomb hitting the enemy could also injure friendly forces. The A-10’s ability to fly low and slow combined with its strafing capacity make the A-10 ideal for danger close support. Despite Air Force Statements, recently released Air Force fratricide statistics support this argument – the A-10 caused 1.4 civilian casualties per 100 sorties from 2010 to 2014, less than any other fighter or bomber. These numbers likely understate the A-10’s superiority because the A-10 tends to provide CAS in more difficult circumstances than other planes, excepting the AC-130.
For example, on 6 August 2013, A-10s rescued 60 soldiers who could not confirm the enemy’s position by finding the enemy and providing “danger close” fire support. The A-10s used virtually all their 30mm ammunition but few bombs – F-series planes would have run out of ammunition and bombers lack a strafing capability. Additionally, F- and B- series pilots would have had more difficulty identifying enemy and friendly forces due to their speed and aircraft design. Finally, F- and B- series pilots must spend significant time training for their primary, non-CAS missions that provide the U.S. with air superiority. Unfortunately, this prioritization, correct though it may be, hinders a pilot’s ability to excel at difficult CAS missions though they can complete simple missions adequately.
Less capable equipment and lower levels of training cause F- and B- series aircraft to require greater direction from the ground and limit a pilot’s ability to correct mistakes or changes occurring on the ground. These factors led to disastrous results in June 2014 when a B1-B mission killed five U.S. Special Forces soldiers. B-1Bs fly wide circles around a ground location preventing them from identifying friendly force markings. In this case, neither the ground controller nor pilots realized the B-1B could not see friendly force markings and the ground controller failed to realize a ground element split from the main body. Mistakes and limited equipment capabilities led to the disaster and the grounding of the B-1B crew. In this case, greater focus on CAS-training and the A-10’s CAS-relevant capabilities would likely have provided an A-10 pilot with opportunities to correct mistakes made by ground forces. Anecdotes like these explain the broad resistance to retiring the A-10 from Air Force ground controllers, who are enlisted and lack robust representation in the Air Force’s senior ranks.
Many ground troops and some NGOs believe Air Force senior leaders are misleading the public, based on recently released fratricide data and continued claims that the A-10 is a “single-role” aircraft unable to survive on the modern battlefield. The recently released data uses mismatched time periods that appear to intentionally increase the A-10 casualty incidents relative to other platforms. The Air Force could have minimized this perception by using rates of fratricide and civilian casualties per engagement—a better measure of effectiveness.
“Single-role” provides pejorative connotations when compared to “multi-role” and this characterization provides particular annoyance to A-10 supporters who believe the A-10 serves at least as many roles as the three B-series bombers. A-10s destroy helicopters exceptionally well and have the ability to conduct combat search and rescue, battlefield search, and limited suppression of enemy air defenses, as they did in Desert Storm. A-10s also demonstrated a strong maritime capability during Pacific Command exercises and combat operations near Libya. While A-10s cannot conduct strategic bombing missions, B-series bombers cannot effectively destroy helicopters, serve as forward air controllers, or provide combat search and rescue. The A-10 is effective at these missions because it flies low and slow with greater survivability than any helicopter.
The A-10 has the ability to operate in more environments due to its ability to fly from rough, unpaved landing strips and operate under 1,000 feet—below cloud cover. The A-10’s ability to fly below cloud cover in hostile conditions and identify enemy forces saved the lives of six Marines in 2008 after two sections of F/A-18 fighters could not reach the Marines. The A-10’s ability to use rough runways made it the primary CAS platform early in the Afghan fight before the Air Force could bring runways to F-series standards. This rough runway capability offers great potential for combat operations globally to include the Asian Pacific where islands could relatively quickly become forward bases. Furthermore, the A-10 lacks the hanger and weather restrictions required to maintain sensitive stealth aircraft and does not require special fuel trucks like the F-35. Unlike other aircraft, the A-10 can provide more sorties with its “hot load” capability—refueling and rearming with the engines running.
Air Force leaders quickly point out the A-10 will take casualties in a high threat environment; however, “more advanced” aircraft will also take casualties as demonstrated in the Balkans when the relatively primitive Yugoslavian military shot down an F-117 stealth fighter. Stealth technology and speed make aircraft harder to target and more fragile; an A-10 may have been similarly hit but would have flown home. Furthermore, claims the A-10 cannot operate in a high-threat environment ring hollow because the Army and Marine Corps expect to fly less survivable helicopters. The A-10, like the Apache helicopter, was designed to fight the Soviets under questionable air superiority circumstances and its upgrades have improved that capability.
The Air Force needs to retire an aircraft platform for budgetary reasons. However, the Air Force opens itself to skepticism by using statistics that appear misleading and measures of performance to justify retiring the upgraded A-10 instead of legacy fighters (F-15 or F-16) or long-range bombers (stealth B1-B, stealth B-2, or non-stealth B-52). The other fighters and bombers have replacement programs and are often older—the last B-52 was produced a decade before the first A-10 test flight. The anecdotal evidence above undermines Air Force justifications using measures of performance and suggests the Air Force’s actual justification remains assigning a low priority to the CAS mission. However, these anecdotes also lack the validity of systemic analysis based on measures of effectiveness.
Air Force spokesmen correctly articulate aircraft retirement decisions are “about the budget.” But these “tough decisions” require systematic analysis comparing how well different platforms perform the CAS mission by cost and measures of effectiveness—from the customers’ perspective. The Air Force, Government Accountability Office, or a joint entity could carry out a systemic analysis. Systemically analyzing measures of effectiveness offers the best chance of influencing key Congressional members. Senator Kelly Ayotte has led the Senate fight and appears focused on CAS effectiveness, which potentially contradicts her political interests—her state has no A-10s but is the fourth largest U.S. recipient of F-35 funding. If, as I suspect, measures of effectiveness show the A-10 to be more effective and less costly, then the Air Force should change its decision and retire one of the six operational F- or B- series platforms.
For more information, please see the below chart on comparative CAS costs per aircraft. Unfortunately, comparative F-35 information is unavailable using Air Force data.