U.S. troops in Afghanistan came to depend heavily on Hogs
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The A-10 Warthog, a muscular and armored ground attack plane, is an odd vehicle because it was originally designed to attack Soviet tanks in Europe in the event of a third world war.
Thankfully, that conflict never occurred. Instead, the Warthog flew in the Persian Gulf War, the Balkans and has spent years taking on lightly-armed insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq — where it performs excellently at the job.
Particularly in Afghanistan, given the length of the war and the A-10’s predominant role, it might not be a stretch to say the Warthog is bound to it in the way the Il-2 Sturmovik and Ju-87 Stuka were to World War II.
The RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank closely tied to the U.S. Air Force, recently compiled statistics on A-10s in Afghanistan, with the goal of studying how they performed and how the Air Force could replace them in the future.
It should come as no surprise that as the war continued, the A-10 took on a larger share of missions — comprising “one-half of all the CAS [close air support] missions … despite representing a small fraction of the total aircraft in theater,” according to RAND.
Warthogs also began striking targets across a wider span of the country as the Taliban’s reach expanded.
A-10 air strikes increased sharply as U.S. Marines and soldiers surged into Afghanistan in 2010. But RAND’s data is incomplete, as it doesn’t include statistics on drone strikes and from Army attack helicopters.
The lack of data on Army helicopter strikes — such as from the AH-64 Apache — is central to a Feb. 5, 2017 Military Times report on missing records in America’s overseas wars.
The Air Force continued to rely on A-10s primarily because of the aircraft’s ability to fly low and slow, giving the pilot enough time to line up and strafe with the plane’s 30-millimeter rotary cannon. This weapon is especially useful for hitting moving targets.
RAND noted that regarding other aircraft such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon and B-1 Lancer, a fast-moving jet bomber, “weapon use and enemy killed tended … to be somewhat lower than those for the A-10.”
The Warthog also killed fewer civilians than other manned aircraft, which RAND suggested is due to the accuracy of the A-10’s cannon and its smaller destructive radius than aerial bombs.
A-10 pilots relied more often on their cannons than bombs and missiles — a shift from the Warthog’s original tank-busting mission, which would primarily fall to the Maverick anti-tank missile. Taliban tanks, of course, were destroyed early in the war.
While fast-moving fighters such as the F-16 can — and occasionally did — conduct strafing missions, this was often a last resort because of the danger to the pilot. When turning to attack a ground target at more than 500 miles per hour, an F-16 or F-15 pilot would only have a second or two to fire before pulling up hard.
“One can’t just stare, zombie-like, at the target,” retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Lewis wrote in a 2007 report for Air Force magazine on the challenges of low-level attack. “This causes target fixation, which can become a fatal experience.”
The lack of armor on lighter planes such as the F-16 is another shortcoming given the hazard from ground fire. The A-10’s armored “bathtub,” however, can absorb far more punishment.
There’s an important lesson there. When the Air Force retires the A-10 — and it eventually will — it will need a similar plane if it wants to keep doing strafing missions at the A-10’s level. If not, and if F-35 Joint Strike Fighter takes over, the flying branch will have to change how it performs close air support altogether. Simple as that.