When storm clouds gathered over a battlefield in eastern Afghanistan, a coalition commando on the ground began say his goodbyes. His unit was outnumbered, many of his comrades were wounded and the enemy’s gunfire was intensifying.
Thunderclouds loomed as low as 1,000 feet. The U.S. Air Force AC-130, B-1 and MC-12 warplanes flying overhead had to return to base, depriving the 90-man team of potentially life-saving close air support.
Or maybe not. Two A-10C Warthog attack jets were threading their way between the mountains and lightning strikes to reach the battle.
Shrugging off heavy enemy fire, the twin-engine A-10s maneuvered so low below the storm clouds their pilots could look down and see the allied soldiers under attack on the ridge line.
Flying close enough to distinguish friend from foe—and with radio help from the commando—the heavily-armored jets laid down 30-millimeter cannon fire within meters of the friendly forces over the course of what would be a 13-hour engagement.
“You saved a lot of lives,” one of men on the ground told the A-10 pilots the next day. No other Air Force aircraft—fighter, bomber or drone—could have done what the A-10 did. Get below the weather, distinguish good guys from bad … and save American lives.
For their actions in June of 2012, the Air Force awarded the Warthog pilots Distinguished Flying Crosses with Valor, one of the flying branch’s highest awards. The Air Force, however, has a much different plan for the A-10s.
The air service recently announced it will “divest” the A-10—this despite the Army’s chief of staff calling the ungainly plane America’s “best close air support aircraft.”
This is a mistake that will cost lives. It’s now incumbent on Congress to save the A-10.
The Air Force argues that the A-10 will be irrelevant in future conflicts because of its lack of stealth and inability to operate in a “contested” environment. The Air Force also maintains it cannot afford a “single-mission” aircraft—even one it admits has performed superbly.
The military, however, has been abysmal at predicting what the next conflict will look like. Eliminating the A-10, particularly given its low operating cost, is a dangerous value statement regarding its support for troops on the ground.
Notably, since the Air Force first advanced these exact arguments to eliminate the A-10 nearly 30 years ago, the unwanted plane has subsequently fought in four wars and proven that it is actually more survivable and lethal than other jets.
Even in a “contested” environment, the military will still employ non-stealth fighters and bombers. The A-10 is equipped with the same countermeasures systems as other Air Force fighters. It was designed to withstand significant amounts of battle damage.
It is arguably the most survivable aircraft on the battlefield, with redundant flight controls and armor surrounding the pilot. Finally, in a truly contested environment, electronic targeting systems—like GPS—may well be jammed and unavailable, making the A-10’s visual attack capability even more critical.
Nevertheless, the Air Force claims that by divesting the A-10, it could save $4 billion over five years. But this would be cutting its most capable close air support asset to save less than one percent of its yearly budget. Why?
“The difficulty in getting the Pentagon to focus on the wars we were in and to support the commanders and the troops in the fight left a very bad taste in my mouth,” former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently wrote.
According to Gates, far too often the military focuses on funding expensive programs for future wars at the expense of providing resources to fight current conflicts. In the midst of the war in Afghanistan, Gates remarked that nearly every time the Air Force secretary and chief of staff met with him, it was about the F-22 and new bomber capability, not the equipment commanders in the current fight were begging for.
The Air Force’s repeated efforts to cut the A-10 to fund these future systems is an unfortunate representation of these sometimes misaligned priorities.
Air Force leadership has made its decision. However, if Congress can continue to demonstrate it is capable of responsible oversight to protect our troops, the A-10 will remain in the inventory to save lives on the ground.
Arizona senator John McCain, himself a former attack pilot, along with New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte, Rep. Ron Barber of Arizona and Vicki Hartzler of Missouri have vowed to save the Warthog. “If we did away with the A-10, it would reduce dramatically the ability of the United States Army and Marine Corps from receiving what is a critical element of the battlefield equation,” they wrote.
Even top Air Force officials have said that “getting rid of the A-10 could lead to higher deaths, longer battles and even defeat on the battlefield.”
When, in the history of this nation, has this ever been an acceptable concept?
William E. Smith, Jr., is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He spent 26 years in the Air Force, Army and Air National Guard and has flown more than 3,000 hours in the A-10, including 128 combat sorties in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.