:: February 2015 Letter ::
Teal Groupís aircraft reports cover about 135 planes. Having written or edited these reports for 25 years as of January, Iíve come to know these planes like friends. But I never wrote a report on the iconic A-10 because it ended production about seven years before I started my job. As a relatively simple plane, there were few upgrade opportunities. There was no reason for us to cover what we expected to be a slow but steady cruise to retirement.
The A-10 has been in the news lately because the Air Force has proposed retiring the fleet. They say they canít afford to operate single-mission aircraft, and that the cash would be better spent on multi-role fast jets (F-35A, and F-15/F-16 sustainment). Congressional opponents of this move say the Air Force neglects the vital mission of supporting ground troops. Since I canít offer anyone a Teal A-10 report, Iím going to give the A-10 itís very own Teal Monthly Aircraft letter, to provide some context for the debate.
A bit of history may be useful. A year after I started at Teal, the A-10 got an unexpected big break. In Operation Desert Storm, A-10s helped strafe and destroy a long column of retreating Iraqi tanks. This was a bizarre combination of circumstances that were perfect for the A-10: the enemy had thousands of tanks, but absolutely no air force, no integrated air defense system, and only a few surviving surface-to-air weapons. The A-10, along with its pal the Armyís AH-64, became TV stars, loitering like those Skynet robots from The Terminator over tons of dead metal. But, I wondered, could this combination of circumstances happen again in the A-10 fleetís remaining decade or two of life? Thinking about that, I figured thereíd be no point in writing a Teal report.
Sure enough, the A-10 had little relevance in the Ď90s, with little or no presence in the Somalia and Serbia conflicts. Even in the Second Iraq War and the Afghanistan war, it has played a relatively small role. A lot of the fighting has been done by the Marines, who have their own organic Close Air Support (CAS) capabilities, but absolutely no interest in the A-10 or an A-10-like plane.
After the invasion became the counterinsurgency, the A-10 flew 19% of all Air Force CAS sorties between early 2006 and October 2013, compared with 33% for the F-16. But these figures exclude Marine and USN sorties, and of course they exclude attack helicopter sorties. They also exclude UAV Hellfire strikes. And even this limited A-10 role was only made possible by having an enemy with no air assets and very limited anti-air capabilities.
A-10 supporters believe that itís the best plane for CAS. Itís very good at CAS (particularly against tanks), but the advent of precision munitions, coupled with better ISR and targeting, has made fast jets just as relevant and far more survivable. Attack helicopters have gotten better too. The real reason the A-10 is loved by ground troops and their political supporters is because it guarantees an Air Force commitment to CAS, even on Day One of a war. After all, an F-16 could be tasked with many days of air-to-air missions before the air war had been won. Only after that, the Army believed, would F-16s be tasked with air-to-ground missions.
An A-10, by contrast, is good for exactly one thing: CAS. This fact also means that it is utterly defenseless against enemy fighters, and not particularly survivable against decent anti-air weaponry either.
SoÖwhy was this vulnerable plane built in the first place? Consider its Cold War origins. Better still, consider Steve, a friend and Dungeons And Dragons comrade from my home town who joined the Army after college and flew an AH-1 Cobra in central West Germany. After grad school in the mid Ď80s, I got a Eurail pass and paid him a visit. He had a great life in a delightful Bavarian town, with a lovely German wife and plenty of opportunities for day trips and fun hobbies. He took me up in a glider and we spent a terrific day looking at storybook castles. For him, it was just another weekend away from the base.
There was just one hitch. If the day came and thousands of Warsaw Pact T-72s started pouring through the Fulda Gap, his life expectancy would be measured in minutes. NATO forces were expected to take horrible casualties, just as long as the kill ratios were sufficient to erode the enemy before they reached the English Channel. The A-10 was slow, low-flying, and again, defenseless against other aircraft. Despite all that blather about a titanium bathtub cockpit, it wasnít expected to last much longer than Steveís Cobra, or any other weapon that made contact with a giant wave of steel. As long as each Cobra or A-10 killed six or a dozen T-72s before it was shot out of the sky, well, they did their job. And until that day, pilotsí lives in Germany were idyllic.
Our notion of war was different back then. The line between War and Peace was thick. Today, itís almost non-existent. Since 2001 the US has been continually strafing or bombing someone or another, and the opposition never seems to have much by way of an air force or air defense capabilities. The ISIS campaign means another few years of this, at least.
In short, when we discuss the A-10, thereís a much broader political debate here, one thatís way beyond a mere aircraft. On one side of this debate are people who think the US military should primarily be reserved for fighting existential threats to the US and its allies, like the one my friend Steve prepared to face on the Fulda Gap, or against an increasingly aggressive China. On the other side are people who think our military should focus on brushfire wars, counterinsurgencies, and Black Hawk Down-like interventions.
In the first scenario, the A-10 no longer has any relevance. The Asia Pivot, for example, involves no possible role at all for the A-10. When A-10 supporters propose sending the plane to Eastern Europe as a bulwark against Russian expansion, they presumably hope that the Russian Air Force sportingly recuses itself from the conflict. Otherwise, most of the A-10s die in the first minutes of a war. But in the second scenario, as long as the bad guys have no air force, or just a few AK-47s for air defense, the A-10 still has tactical relevance.
These are two very different views of the USís strategic direction. Iím starting to regret not doing that A-10 report 25 years ago. Thereís much to discuss.
But, back to what we do cover, this monthís updated Teal reports include the F-16, A350XWB, B-1, B777, B787, Bombardierís Challenger 300/600/Global Series, and the Special Mission Aircraft overview. Have a great month.
Yours, ĎTil I Get A Titanium Clawfoot Bathtub,
© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.