The Air Force’s Awesome Attack Plane Has a Pretty Sad Replacement

The A-10 is the best warplane for saving lives—too bad its days are numbered

The Air Force’s Awesome Attack Plane Has a Pretty Sad Replacement The Air Force’s Awesome Attack Plane Has a Pretty Sad Replacement
A-10 Warthog. Bryan William Jones Photo The Air Force’s Awesome Attack Plane Has a Pretty Sad Replacement The A-10 is the best warplane for... The Air Force’s Awesome Attack Plane Has a Pretty Sad Replacement
A-10 Warthog. Bryan William Jones Photo

The Air Force’s Awesome Attack Plane Has a Pretty Sad Replacement

The A-10 is the best warplane for saving lives — too bad its days are numbered

On July 24, dozens of U.S. troops in Afghanistan were nearly wiped out by a Taliban ambush. Until two A-10 Warthog attack planes showed up.

It began with a routine patrol to clear a highway of bombs. But the convoy of 12 vehicles and 60 soldiers got stuck when the lead vehicle fell into a ravine and flipped over. Night fell, and the soldiers worked to pull the vehicle out. Meanwhile, the Taliban quietly set up firing positions along a tree line with a view of the stranded soldiers.

At dawn, the Taliban opened fire.

The soldiers were in a bad place. The gunfire pinned them behind their vehicles. The Taliban were then free to move closer for a possible assault on the position, which could have caused potentially horrendous casualties for the Americans.

The A-10s roared in from Bagram Air Field near Kabul.

“I flew over to provide a show of force while my wingman was looking for gunfire below,” one A-10 pilot said. “Our goal with the show of force was to break the contact and let the enemy know we were there, but they didn’t stop. I think that day the enemy knew they were going to die, so they pushed even harder and began moving closer to our ground forces.”

Flying low and slow, the A-10s strafed the Taliban. The aviators’ eyesight — and the bird’s-eye view through the Warthog’s big round canopy — was instrumental. “Even with all our top-of-the-line tools today, we still rely on visual references,” the pilot said.

For two bloody hours, the A-10s dropped three 500-pound bombs and strafed the militant positions 15 times, burning through thousands of 30-millimeter cannon rounds, according to the pilot. The Taliban fighters withdrew, leaving 18 of their dead behind.

Three U.S. troops were wounded. It could have been much worse.

The firefight was only briefly mentioned by the Air Force in a press release. It’s one of hundreds of times the A-10 has rescued U.S. ground troops under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its mere presence is often enough to deter an attack.

But the A-10 might not be around much longer.

A-10s in Kandahar, Afghanistan on Nov 6, 2009. David Axe photo

The competition

The A-10 is a ground-attack airplane — the Air Force’s only jet designed solely for such missions. The twin-engine fighter was developed during the Cold War to destroy Russian tanks steamrolling through Germany in the event of World War III. Its arsenal of rockets, missiles, bombs and a powerful 30-millimeter cannon destroyed huge numbers of Iraqi tanks during the first Gulf War, and the plane went on to fly regular missions over Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.

The Warthog flies slow and looks ugly as Hell, but it was cheap to build — about $13 million in the early 1980s — and its turbofan engines sip small amounts of fuel. The best feature is that the plane is essentially a flying gun that’s super-lethal against anything on the ground. In recent years, it’s also been upgraded with new sensors, wings and more advanced targeting systems.

But the Air Force is faced with a dilemma. Its main jet planned for the coming decades is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a stealthy multi-role warplane equipped for both air-to-air and ground-attack missions. The F-35, which is still in development, could eventually replace most of the Air Force’s fighter fleet.

At a cost of at least $400 billion just to develop and build, the F-35 is the most expensive military project ever. (A single F-35 costs more than $100 million.) The Air Force is also being ordered by Congress to trim billions from its share of the defense budget.

Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast, an influential voice in U.S. military doctrine as director of the Quadrennial Defense Review, said the F-35 is here to stay. “We must be able to project power in contested environments and the Joint Strike Fighter is that machine,” Kwast told reporters this week.

In military-speak, he means the long-range F-35 is what’s needed to extend the range of U.S. fighters into areas where potential foes — like China — could deny U.S. warships access with a combination of advanced new aircraft and deadly anti-ship missiles. The end of the war in Iraq, and the upcoming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, has led the Pentagon to downplay weapons used for fighting insurgents and plus-up gear for fighting some future war with Beijing.

That’s also the conclusion reached by a recent review ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, which suggested retiring 120 Warthogs of a total fleet of 343, on top of two squadrons of A-10s that have already been shuttered over the past year.

An A-10's 30-millimeter cannon. Bryan William Jones photo

False promise

There’s one big problem. The F-35 is not particularly good at what it’s designed to do and certainly can’t replicate the A-10’s performance. The JSF is stealthy, which is okay for avoiding detection and sneaking past enemies before destroying them at long range.

But in a close-range fight, the F-35 is dead.

The reason is how its cockpit is designed. Instead of a bubble-canopy like the A-10’s, the F-35's windscreen looks like a giant clamshell. This means an F-35 pilot can see out of the front and sides of the cockpit, but not the back. That’s a huge problem in a fast-moving dogfight, and equally problematic while supporting ground troops. A JSF flier could never get the same view of the battlefield that allowed the Warthog jockies to save all those soldiers.

Still, the F-35 will eventually replace the A-10 and be tasked with carrying out the same ground-attack missions currently assigned to the Warthog.

But the JSF just can’t do the job. Besides having a terrible view of the battlefield, the F-35 is also too fast and lightly built to loiter over a hot ambush zone — and its 25-millimeter gun comes with just 180 rounds, compared to the more than 1,100 bullets an A-10 carries. It’s worth pointing out that the two Warthogs over the Afghan battle apparently fired all their ammunition.

“Note the actions the F-35 is incapable to perform,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C. “Among them long time loiter, low altitude observation of the problem, multiple gun passes with extreme accuracy.”

These things saved American lives. The A-10’s replacement? Perhaps not.

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