An A-10 Pilot Could Hope to Last Two Weeks Against the Soviets
Cold War planners expected to lose up to 60 A-10s a day
The U.S. Air Force is planning to retire all 350 of its A-10 attack planes, blaming budget cuts and the slow-flying jet's trouble surviving against the most sophisticated enemy air defenses.
That problem is not new. The A-10 force has performed well in Afghanistan, devastating lightly-armed insurgents and saving scores of American and allied lives—and losing no jets to sporadic enemy fire. (One A-10 was shot down in Iraq.) But even 30 years ago, Air Force planners expected A-10s to suffer heavy casualties in any serious fight.
In the 1980s the Air Force planned to deploy 68 A-10s to each of six Forward Operating Locations in West Germany in the event of war with the Soviets. The twin-engine A-10s, with their 30-millimeter guns and Maverick missiles, were NATO’s main tank-killing weapon.
According to Combat Aircraft magazine, the flying branch predicted that, if the A-10s went into action, seven percent of the jets would be lost per 100 sorties. Since each pilot was expected to fly at most four missions per day, each base would in theory generate more than 250 sorties daily. At this pace, a seven-percent loss rate per 100 flights equaled at least 10 A-10s shot down at each FOL every 24 hours — and that’s being conservative.
At that rate, in less than two weeks the entire A-10 force at the time — around 700 jets — would have been destroyed and the pilots killed, injured, captured or, at the least, very shook up.
In the brutal calculation of Cold War planning, it was perhaps worth it to expend an entire warplane fleet and all its pilots “in pursuit of the destruction of several hard-charging Soviet armored divisions,” in the words of University of Kentucky professor Rob Farley.
If the Air Force were to face a high-tech foe today, the math would probably be different. It’s unlikely the Pentagon could justify sacrificing hundreds of pilots against anything short of a truly existential threat. And for that reason Farley says he’s ambivalent about the A-10's future.
But in putting the A-10 on the chopping block, the Air Force is assuming it won’t ever fight anything short of a full-scale war against a peer enemy. Do we really believe the era of low-intensity wars has ended?