Even if the U.S. Air Force decides to retire its entire fleet of 343 A-10 Warthog close air support aircraft, the service is not backing away from the vital mission of supporting ground troops. At least that’s what the service’s top uniformed official insists.
For months the Air Force has been positioning itself to retire the low- and slow-flying A-10, which has used its missiles, bombs and gun to protect soldiers and Marines in three wars. Congress has objected to the retirement plan.
“Close air support will always be a key critical mission for the United States Air Force,” says Gen. Mark Welsh, the service’s chief of staff and a former A-10 pilot himself. “Close air support is not close to my heart, it’s in my heart.”
Welsh says that beyond his own experiences as an A-10 pilot, he has a personal stake in the CAS mission, as one of his sons is a Marine Corps infantry officer.
The Air Force has not made any final decision about the fate of the A-10 in the administration’s 2015 budget proposal, Welsh says. But service admits it is studying options on how to cut $12 billion per year from its more than $100-billion annual budget in order to meet the requirements of the sequestration law.
The Air Force is required to support military forces around the globe with airlift, surveillance, helicopter rescue, space communications and other capabilities. Close air support is just one of its missions.
“To pay our $12 billion a year bill toward sequestration, we have got to find savings in big chunks,” Welsh says. “That’s the problem. And that’s what all these discussions are based on. It’s not about a specific platform. It’s about balancing the mission sets.”
In the end, the Air Force could have to cut a lot of planes in addition to the Warthogs in order to meet the budgetary reductions mandated by the Congress. “It won’t be just about the A-10,” Welsh says. “It’ll be about a number of things that we are going to have to take out of our budget in order to meet the requirements of the law.”
Welsh says that a lot of aircraft can perform the close air support role including the F-16, F-15E B-1B and even the venerable B-52. Welsh says that 75 percent of close air support missions over Afghanistan are actually flown those aircraft—not by the A-10.
“Is the A-10 the best at close-air support? Absolutely. I’m an A-10 guy. Are there other airplanes that do it? Absolutely, and they do it pretty darn well,” Welsh says. “I’ve flown close-air support missions in the A-10 and the F-16. We can do it with other aircraft.”
However, whichever aircraft the Air Force ends up using for the CAS mission, the service will adjust its tactics to meet the challenge. As the Marine Corps demonstrates on a daily basis, CAS is more about the training of the pilots, forward air controllers and integrating air power into the ground forces’ plans from the outset, rather than any particular aircraft type.
“We’ll adjust. We’ll develop new tactics. We’ll develop ways of using other platforms to do it. If the A-10 is not available, we’ll have to [adjust],” Welsh says. “We’ll continue to do close air support if the A-10's not here. The mission’s not going anywhere.”
But beyond the CAS mission, during a major conventional war, one of air power’s roles is to destroy the enemy’s operational reserves, Welsh points out. In fact, U.S. strategy has emphasized that since World War II. It appears that the doctrine will continue to be applied to large-scale conflicts going into the future.
“An air component commander’s job on a big fight is to eliminate the operational reserve,” Welsh says. “Get rid of the enemy’s second echelon forces so they can’t affect the ground fight. Eliminate the enemy’s will to continue to fight by taking out his strategic infrastructure and affecting his leadership and centers of gravity.”
The A-10 was never meant for this deeper strike role, instead being optimized for attack runs on the enemy’s front lines.