by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
A-10 Warthogs are attacking Islamic State targets in Syria. But even with this newest round of combat, the U.S. Air Force still asserts that the venerable attack plane isn’t worth keeping around.
In November 2014, the flying branch sent the blunt-nosed, straight-winged attack planes back to the Middle East for the first time since the American withdrawal from Iraq.
The Warthogs and crews from the Indiana Air National Guard swung into action to help Baghdad’s beleaguered forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
Now, “the A-10s recently have been used for a limited number of strikes in Syria,” a public affairs officer for the American task force in charge of operations told War Is Boring.
We received the same statement from officials with the Air Force’s headquarters for the region.
The U.S.-led air campaign has destroyed numerous Islamic State camps and killed dozens of the group’s fighters in both Iraq and Syria. American flyers have blown up tanks, other armored vehicles and artillery pieces—some of which the Sunni militants captured from Baghdad’s soldiers.
But unlike those high-flying and fast-moving aircraft, the A-10 was specifically designed to help out troops on the ground.
The slower Warthogs are heavily armored and can carry up to 16,000 pounds of bombs, missiles and rockets. Even fully loaded, the planes can loiter in the skies above a battlefield for hours at a time.
The aircraft can also rip through tanks and buildings with its massive 30-millimeter cannon. This huge, seven-barrel gun can spit out more than 200 exploding shells in a three-second burst.
As a result, the plane is ideal for close air support missions supporting infantry—and troops in danger of being overrun.
But in spite of the A-10’s impressive capabilities and this newest operation over Syria, Air Force officials still plan to ditch the entire fleet by the end of the decade. The service insists the A-10 is exceedingly vulnerable to modern anti-aircraft weapons.
“The A-10 is a great contributor, but so are the other aircraft,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James told reporters on Jan. 15. “It’s not about not liking or not wanting the A-10,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said at the same gathering.
Still, the Air Force clearly wants to spend its money on other projects, namely the F-35 Lightning II. In the face of serious design flaws, cost overruns and mounting delays, the flying branch continues to stand behind this troublesome stealth fighter.
To add weight to her comments, James pointed out that the Warthogs had flown only 11 percent of all Air Force missions over Iraq and Syria.
By comparison, the service’s ubiquitous F-16s—which the vexing F-35 will replace eventually—claimed more than 40 percent of the total flights.
However, James’ statistic might not tell the entire story. The A-10s have racked up all of their flight hours in less than three months. The Warthogs could easily become more prolific in the air war against Islamic State in the months ahead.
Over Iraq and Syria, both types of aircraft spend their time almost exclusively backing up friendly soldiers. The Pentagon describes these outings as “close air support” more than 80 percent of the time, according to the spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
But just what these flights actually entail is not entirely clear. For one, the planes only drop bombs or fire missiles at the enemy during a quarter of these missions, the same official explained.
In addition, American pilots do not talk directly with Iraqi or Kurdish commanders on the ground during these strikes—at least officially. Despite reports to the contrary, the Pentagon insists American advisers are not actively involved in the fighting.
And Islamic State forces only need to be “in proximity to or in contact with friendly indigenous forces” for a mission to count as close air support, the public affairs officer noted.
“It is sometimes the case that sorties tasked for [close air support] may wind up supporting strikes that look more like interdiction, or vice versa.”
Interdiction is supposed to describe attacking the enemy before they get near your troops. To confuse matters more, the Pentagon labels most of its remaining combat sorties as interdiction, too. So these strikes might not always be as “close” as the moniker otherwise suggests.
“The good news is last year … we were funded to continue operating the A-10,” Welsh noted. “And if we have a conflict that we can use it in appropriately, we should absolutely use it.”
In the meantime, members of Congress are pressuring the Air Force to change its mind about the durable planes. And relations between legislators and the flying branch have strained as a result.
“Anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason,” Maj. Gen. James Post said recently during a speech at the Air Force’s Weapons and Tactics Conference, according to a post by former airman Tony Carr on the blog John Q. Public.
Post is the number two officer at Air Combat Command, which oversees the bulk of the Air Force’s combat aircraft.
Sen. John McCain—an Arizona Republican and an outspoken defender of the Warthog—wants the flying branch to investigate whether Post may have violated Pentagon rules or broken the law with his statements. “No person may restrict a member of the armed forces in communicating with a Member of Congress,” Carr pointed out, quoting directly from a legal statute.
Regardless, Welsh remained steadfast on the 2019 date for pulling the A-10 out of action. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also using a modified Warthog to test out concepts for a large ground attack drone, but the final design could be radically different.
“For the Air Force, it’s not an emotional issue—it’s a sequestration-driven decision,” Welsh added, referring to congressional caps on defense spending. “It’s about some very tough decisions that we have to make to recapitalize an Air Force for the threat 10 years from now.”
But right now the Warthogs are just as capable as ever—and flying combat missions over Syria—while the F-35 might not be able to face America’s enemies for a decade.