Now the U.S. Air Force Wants to Replace A-10s With F-16s
An old idea—and a terrible one
Eventually, the U.S. Air Force wants to replace the low and slow-flying A-10 Warthog with the fast-moving F-35 stealth fighter. But it’ll take years before the troubled jet fighters are ready for duty.
In the meantime, the Air Force still needs a plane for dedicated close air support missions — something the A-10 excels at. So what does the flying branch propose? Not keeping the Warthog.
Instead, the Air Force wants to replace the Warthog with a modified F-16 fighter jet — an old concept that failed to live up to expectations decades ago. The F-16s would fill in temporarily until the F-35s can take over.
We have a hard time believing it — but yes, this is a serious proposal.
Air Force leaders pitched the plan during a March summit focused on how close air support missions—the complex and often dangerous air strikes that help out troops on the ground—would work in a world without the A-10.
The conclusion? With the Joint Strike Fighter not yet ready, and saving the Warthogs completely off the table, the only option is to have existing fighter jets do the A-10’s job.
“We want to take those [A-10] aviators, and have designated, predominantly close air support squadrons in F-15s and F-16s,” Gen. Herbert Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, told reporters after the gathering. “We will always do close air support.”
Carlisle oversees most of the Air Force’s active-duty combat jets and spy planes. But beyond taking advantage of the Warthog crews’ experience, the general offered very few specifics.
“The findings of the summit … can be summed up by the phrase ‘we have a plan,’” retired Air Force officer Tony Carr wrote. Carr has diligently followed the A-10 debate on his blog John Q. Public.
The meetings were “a PR briefing, not how to fix close air support,” former Pentagon analyst and A-10 designer Pierre Sprey told War Is Boring.
Before the Air Force creates or converts any of these new squadrons, the flying branch will first build an organization tentatively called the “CAS integration group” to make sure everything works. CAS is the common abbreviation for close air support operations.
The new group could get up to a dozen F-16s to run its experiments. Tactical air controllers—troops who coordinate bombing and strafing runs from the ground—would also take part in the tests.
“We need resources to build up the organization [and] build exercises,” Carlisle said. “It’ll evolve over time.”
But in 1985, the service proposed essentially the same plan as an alternative to the A-10 … and for many of the same reasons.
It didn’t work out.
At the time, the flying branch concluded that the Warthogs would soon be too vulnerable to survive above the battlefield without major improvements. Modern radars and powerful anti-aircraft missiles were emerging as a growing threat to the slow-moving A-10s.
The Air Force told the Pentagon and Congress that former A-10 pilots flying modified F-16s—also known as F/A-16s or simply A-16s—would be the most sensible option.
With a GPU-5 gun pod strapped on, Air Force officials believed the fast-moving F-16s could attack enemy troops just as well as A-10s — while avoiding enemy missiles. The GPU-5 contained a 30-millimeter Gatling gun derived from the Warthog’s monstrous main cannon. Both guns fired the same massive shells.
The Air Force had already tested A-10s against A-7 strike planes armed with the GPU-5. But during the flight tests, the Warthog proved to be the more effective aircraft.
Aviation firm Piper Aircraft also expected its PA-48 Enforcer — an unlikely challenger derived from the World War II P-51 Mustang — would carry these weapons, as well.
Three years later, the Government Accountability Office examined the Air Force’s plan. The federal watchdog was … skeptical.
“The GAO observed that the tactical aircraft development priority is the Advanced Tactical Fighter,” the report noted, referring to what would become the F-22 stealth fighter. “The Air Force cannot afford to fund two development projects concurrently.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon was worried they would be on the hook for three different aircraft. Since the Air Force hadn’t yet converted any F-16s, the Warthogs would still have to keep flying — for at least some amount of time.
“The [Defense] Department was concerned that the Air Force may not have sufficiently considered all viable aircraft alternatives or adequately emphasized the close air support mission,” the GAO reported.
But by the time Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Air Force had prevailed and begun implementing its plan. When the American-led coalition unleashed its aerial blitzkrieg against Iraq, the flying branch had F-16s with GPU-5s ready to go.
The results were a mess.
“The F-16 … did not live up to the expectations,” the RAND Corporation concluded in a study ordered by the Air Force afterwards. “The GPU-5, 30-millimeter gun pod, was tried for one day.”
The biggest problem for the add-on guns was recoil. Attached to the centerline pylon under the F-16’s fuselage by two relatively small hoops, the pods wobbled around violently as they fired the huge shells.
Shooting straight was practically impossible. The F-16’s “weapon releases were so inaccurate they couldn’t hit a dinner plate with a spoon,” Sprey said, relating an anecdote he’d heard from a veteran of the conflict.
The abortive GPU-5s are now long gone. The Air Force has no current plans to buy any other similar weapons.
Over Iraq and Kuwait, the aircraft’s only saving grace had been the sheer amount of them. “The F-16 force provided the numbers to keep constant pressure on the Iraqi army,” RAND noted.
To be fair, the Air Force didn’t give many smart bombs to units flying the Falcons — which would have improved their accuracy. The flying branch believed the F-16’s computer gear was sophisticated enough for pilots to lob unguided bombs onto enemy formations.
“Although this accuracy is satisfactory for buildings and large targets, it is not an effective way to engage hard point targets such as tanks, unless the weapon has a large lethal radius,” RAND’s researchers stated.
Not bad for waves of F-16s bombing entrenched Iraqi positions. But this sort of “accuracy” would have been wholly insufficient, if not downright dangerous, if the Iraqis came especially close to friendly troops.
As a result, “most of their sorties were flown against Iraqi forces … in the kill boxes centered in the northern half of Kuwait, and in southern Iraq,” well away from coalition forces, RAND’s report stated.
F-16s now regularly lob all sorts of guided missiles and bombs at hostile targets. But today’s much improved version—lovingly referred to as Vipers—still don’t have anything that can match the Warthog’s devastating gun.
And after a series of upgrades, A-10s now carry the exact same precision weapons as the Vipers.
Make way for the F-35
Of course, the Air Force wouldn’t have to worry about finding a quick fix at all if the F-35 performed as expected. But with mounting delays and cost overruns, the flying branch is desperate to keep the way open for its new stealth jet.
Unfortunately, the Air Force only expects the first combat units to start getting the F-35—which the Air Force hopes will eventually replace both the F-16 and the A-10—next year. In the meantime, something has to be in the skies to support American ground forces.
And while the Air Force called its recent summit the “Future of CAS Focus Week,” the flying branch only seemed to have a good idea of what it didn’t want.
Participants went in understanding that there is no future for the Warthog, according to Sprey. “One other huge lie was that this was a joint enterprise,” the A-10 designer added.
Air Force officials effectively briefed members of the other services and U.S. Special Operations Command on a decision they had already made, rather than truly soliciting their advice, Sprey explained.
The gathering came right as the Air Force and members of Congress find themselves locked in an increasingly public battle over the branch’s rigid timeline for retiring the Warthog. For one, the Air Force is dead set on getting rid of the aircraft before the F-35s even arrive.
Lawmakers are especially concerned about the fact that the F-35 won’t be ready to take on close air support missions for at least another seven years. That’s how long it will take to write the software the F-35 needs for the Small Diameter Bomb II, according to the Pentagon.
The Air Force expects this new guided bomb to become its main tool for hitting enemy troops on the ground. For Lockheed’s part, the company still has to figure out how to fit the weapon inside the F-35B’s internal bomb bay.
The B model — which is the Marine Corps version of the F-35 — has less space to play with because of a large and complex lift fan, which allows the aircraft to land and take off like a helicopter. The Marines expect the SDB II to be an important weapon in their future aerial arsenal.
On top of that, the Air Force’s A variant will have a 25-millimeter Gatling gun and only 180 rounds of ammunition. The pilot will be able to fire one three-second burst, or three one-second bursts.
By comparison, the Warthog carries a normal load of almost 1,200 30-millimeter rounds, each one about the size of a milk bottle. The A-10 can make at least five three-second strafing runs on enemy positions. The blunt-nosed attackers can carry up to eight tons of missiles and bombs, too.
Not that these comparisons matter much. The F-35A’s internal gun also needs a new software package—currently slated to arrive in 2019—to work effectively, according to The Daily Beast.
All of this has raised question about whether the F-35 is really an adequate replacement for the A-10. If the Air Force succeeds in retiring the Warthogs, there will be no reason to hold any actual competition between the two types.
“Platforms like the A-10 amplify the deficiencies in the F-35 program, and the Air Force doesn’t want the A-10 there to serve as a direct competitor,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information—part of the Project On Government Oversight.
“Keeping the A-10 around makes the [F-35’s] CAS shortfalls particularly pronounced, and creates an opportunity for fly offs.”
Still, Air Force officials have left the door open for a new purpose-built, ground attack plane. But just how serious the service is about finding a true successor to the A-10 isn’t clear.
When talking to reporters, Carlisle suggested that an aircraft like the Textron Airland Scorpion might fit the bill. First revealed to the public two years ago, this significantly smaller plane is cheap and nimble, but can’t carry nearly as many weapons as the upgraded Warthog.
“It could,” Carlisle responded when quizzed about whether the Scorpion had what it took to join the Air Force’s inventory. “That’s not something that’s outside the realm.”
“We have gone out and looked at other platforms to see if they could meet the low-end CAS capacity at a reasonable cost-per-flying-hour,” Carlisle stressed. “We’re keeping our eyes open.”
But the idea that the flying branch has been looking at “A-X” contenders—a common term for any potential new attack plane—is “another big fat lie,” Sprey said.
Because with the steadily increasing costs of the F-35, the Air Force doesn’t have enough money for a new plane. The flying branch has likewise insisted that it must retire the A-10 to free up funds for the Joint Strike Fighter program.
As was the case 30 years ago, the Pentagon probably isn’t interested in shelling out more cash for yet another new airplane.
The F/A-16 idea definitely hasn’t aged any better. Under the current proposal, the Air Force doesn’t appear to be suggesting any modifications to the Vipers to make them more suitable for close air support strikes.
Plus, if the flying branch had actually been looking for a dedicated A-10 replacement, the service would probably have held their summit before drawing up its newest budget proposal, Smithberger noted.
The Air Force’s most recent budget request didn’t ask for any funds for a new plane designed specifically to hit targets on the ground.
If nothing else, Gen. Carlisle’s comments could be “hugely demoralizing” to the Warthog’s pilots, Sprey said.
Smithberger agreed. With this attitude from the highest levels of the Air Force, “How do you keep a good close air support culture?” she asked.
Not with F-16s that didn’t make the cut … decades ago. The Air Force brass will hopefully be honest with themselves—and everyone else—before they have to learn this lesson all over again.