Friday, 27 June 2014

The A-10 retirement

So when it comes to blogs, generally keeping them up to date is quite important, World Cup and other distractions being quite a problem!

One thing that caught my eye the other day when looking at something else was an article about the A-10 being retired by the USAF, a move which I believe has now been blocked. The article was quite rabid in its defence of the old Thunderbolt II, but ultimately I think misguided. Link here.

The A-10 has taken on almost mythical properties in the minds of some since it entered service, but it really doesn't seem to have delivered on the hype in practice. Much of the support thrown behind the A-10 appears to be misplaced and ultimately the aircraft has probably served more than anything to be the greatest advertisement for why the Key West agreement was a good idea and the US army should be kept well away from the fixed wing aircraft business.

The primary rationale for the A-10 was to design an aircraft exclusively for the role of ground attack in close support of army units. It was supposed to learn the lessons of Vietnam and represent the pinnacle of design for such a type.

Pierre Sprey was one of the men brought in to help create the plane. He interviewed scores of A-1 Skyraider pilots who had served in the close support role in Vietnam and - so the story goes - made the reading of Hans-Ulrich Rudel's biography mandatory for people working on the program (Rudel had been a famous Luftwaffe ground attack pilot during World War II).

And herein lies the immediate problem with the program. The vision that came out of all this study was to create an aircraft that embodied the best qualities of aircraft such as the JU-87, the Skyraider, and the Russian IL-2 "Sturmovik" which was another well known ground attack aircraft from World War II.

At no point it seems did anybody bother to stop and ask British or American pilots with war service over North Africa, France, or Italy for their opinions. This seems especially odd considering that a) these people effectively pioneered the system of close air support for ground forces that is used even today, and b) because they had a massive amount of experience at doing it.

People like Sir Arthur Coningham for example, who had initially organised the air forces in North Africa to prepare them for the battles ahead. Coningham, an Australian (another feather in their superb military cap), was the first to lay out the comprehensive plan needed for providing close air support. 

He started by emphasising the need for air superiority to permit freedom of operation and to protect friendly forces. The next challenge was to keep the air force centrally organised and given sufficient appreciation by the ground commander, understanding that one of the main advantages of the air force was its ability to rapidly concentrate firepower at a given point. Finally, Coningham realised his forces needed to develop a procedure for close cooperation with the army.

This led to the development of the so-called "cab rank" system, where aircraft were rotated back and forth to the frontline to try and provide a permanent on-call presence for ground forces. At the same time the RAF pioneered the first system of dedicated forward air controllers to guide aircraft in on to targets.

This system was carried over into Italy and then Northern France, where Coningham became commander of the RAF's Second Tactical Air Force. This force, along with the Americans, were primarily responsible for providing air support to allied ground forces against the Germans.

Such ground attack missions were provided by a combination of aircraft, everything from Hurricanes and Spitfires, to Typhoons and Tempests, and for the Americans it was mainly Mustangs and the original Thunderbolt. Using cannons, rockets and small bombs, these aircraft did a very good job of providing air support to the mobile formations on the ground. 

The idea then that fighter aircraft are incapable of providing close air support appears to have absolutely no basis in reality. There are reels upon reels of gun camera footage that show allied pilots doing precisely that, whether in direct support of land forces or simply strafing targets that were spotted on the fly while conducting interdiction or escort missions over Germany. 

Since then conventional fighter aircraft have demonstrated time and again the ability to conduct attacks against ground targets. They continue to do so in Afghanistan even today. 

The idolisation of the Skyraider in Vietnam also belies the fact that even they suffered considerable casualties in combat, despite rarely being sent on operations over North Vietnam where the anti-aircraft defences were heaviest. Simply put, close air support is dangerous, regardless of how much armour you stick on the plane in question.

The ultimate test of the A-10 concept came during 1991 and Operation Desert Storm. It was the theatre in which the A-10 would finally have the chance to do what it was primarily designed for; to attack tanks and provide close air support to US ground forces.

And the concept failed, miserably.

Two A-10's were shot down and many more were heavily damaged by ground fire as they attempted to swoop down on Iraqi units. Although the armour and careful design of the A-10 prevented more outright losses than might otherwise have been the case, it still left scores of A-10s grounded on the tarmac unable to fly due to battle damage.

Partly as a result of this, and partly due to casualties suffered by British Tornadoes, the order was given to restrict future air operations to medium altitudes. From this point onwards the A-10 was to play second fiddle to another aircraft in the close support role, the F-111.

The main advantage that the F-111 possessed was the ability to cruise at higher altitudes than any of the Iraqi AAA could reach, while still being able to detect and engage the enemy ground forces accurately using laser targeting pods and 500lb laser guided bombs. The process, known as "tank plinking", effectively made the A-10 concept redundant.

The A-10 was still able to play a part in the action but now had to switch to using the Maverick anti-tank missile. This missile was also capable of being used by the F-16, but training for its use had been neglected by F-16 pilots because it was presumed that the A-10 would be the primary ground support aircraft. 

So far from the A-10 being a unique and coveted design as presented in the Foxtrot Alpha article, it really has become an anachronism, a relic of a bygone era. It's roles are extremely limited. Despite the ridiculous claim that A-10s can be used for low level air-to-air combat, the reality is that they are exclusively attack aircraft.

And in that role they have been surpassed by father time. F-16s, F-18s, F-15Es. All have the ability to engage tanks from safe(er) altitudes using missiles or small guided munitions. With the arrival of Brimstone missiles and small diameter bombs the ability of modern fighters to engage point targets on the ground will be enhanced even further.

Even the F-35 will be able to carry to carry 8 weapons internally, and more externally, for engaging tanks in future scenarios. In Afghanistan, despite the claims about the A-10, most ground troops interviewed have listed aircraft like the B-52 and B-1 as being their favoured choice for air support due to the immense persistence and payload carrying capability of such aircraft, both in terms of total ordnance and variety of ordnance carried.

The A-10 has run out tricks. It can't do the same missions that a modern Typhoon or Raptor can, yet they can do the A-10s. It's an old aircraft at the end of its life, becoming increasingly costly to keep flying and up to date, and should be allowed to retire with grace.


  1. There's also a selection bias problem.

    A-10 fanbois express their outrage at every non-A-10 friendly fire accident and assert that this wouldn't have happened with A-10s.

    But there's the case of an A-10 over Iraq attacking a convoy of USMC AAV-7s (the most unique APC of all) under clear skies daylight conditions.

    It's also curious how the A-10 is supposedly necessary, but no other air force appears to agree and buy it. The Soviet/Russian Su-25 is different in concept (unguided rockets instead of overwheight gatling), and made the transition to dive attacks with release at above autocannon altitude immediately once it faced thin Igla/Redeye/Stinger defences over Afghanistan (Stinger didn't stand out as much as the common myth about it). The A-10 was faced to make the same transition long ago.

    1. Indeed, the list of A-10 friendly fire incidents is quite remarkably long considering it's supposed to be all the all seeing dealer of CAS and the lengths that coalition forces have gone to in the past to mark their vehicles in an obvious manner.