McSally's Quest for a Lethal Next-Gen A-10 Warthog
Former Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II squadron commander and current U.S. Congresswoman Martha McSally (R-AZ) is calling on the Pentagon to budget for a next-generation replacement for the venerable jet affectionately known as the Warthog.
“The U.S. Air Force needs a next-generation A-10 before attempting to mothball any further A-10s. The specific mission set for CAS/FAC-A/CSAR requires a specific aircraft, not one that is a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none,” McSally wrote in a January 28 letter to President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. “In a March 17, 2015 HASC hearing, both the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force confirmed that mothballing the A-10 was driven only by budget constraints and not by strategy.”
McSally emphasized that despite the Air Force’s protestations, there are certain mission that only the A-10 can perform. “There is no aircraft, either in the fleet or in development, that can replace the Warthog’s unique capabilities. The Air Force has proposed that other aircraft, such as the F-35, could perform the CAS mission. However, in testimony last year, the DOD’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation Dr. Michael Gilmore admitted that the F-35 is less survivable from a direct hit and would perform ‘standoff CAS,’” she wrote. The congresswoman added:
“There are times, and there will be future times, where you must provide very close air support to the troops on the ground who are often on the run or unable to provide coordinates. I have flown CAS missions in these conditions where the pilot must visually identify friendly forces and enemy combatants to hit the target and avoid fratricide. You cannot stand off in all CAS scenarios, even in the future.”
McSally wrote that it is the intent of Congress that the A-10 remain in service until a proper replacement is developed. “I hope that the restrictive language in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act and Omnibus Appropriations serves as an indication of Congress’s support for the A-10. My amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, which passed committee and both chambers with large bipartisan support, clearly outlines the intent of Congress to preserve the current A-10 fleet,” McSally wrote. “The Air Force cannot continue its duty to national defense without a dedicated CAS/FAC-A/CSAR weapon system. I look forward to working together to support the Air Force in maintaining the A-10 and beginning the process of developing a next-generation A-10 to support our national security and bring our brave troops home alive.”
The Warthog 2.0
What would a next-generation replacement for the legendary attack jet look like? A couple of years ago, I spoke to a group of around twenty highly experienced A-10 pilots and engineers working on unofficial specifications for a successor to the Warthog to answer that very question. The group began by using the original A-X program requirements that resulted in the Warthog starting nearly fifty years ago. Even though technology has advanced since then, the fundamentals of what is required for the close air support mission have not changed.
“There is a lot that can be made better than the A-10,” Pierre Sprey, a former Pentagon official and aerospace engineer who originated the Warthog concept told me at the time. “There is simply no question that we can make it better. The airplane was in a lot of ways a disappointment to me because of where it came out.”
According to Sprey, the A-10 is by far the most survivable aircraft for the low-altitude, low-speed CAS mission. But almost every aspect of the A-10 can be vastly improved using modern materials and construction techniques. However, The key to producing a new warplane quickly, on time and to budget is to use the best existing technology rather than trying to invent entirely new hardware and software.
The basic requirements for a “Warthog 2.0" are that it retains the A-10’s current capabilities. “These are the things we hold as the minimum requirements going forward in kind of a follow-on CAS platform,” one of the two A-10 pilots leading the group behind the prospective Warthog replacement project told me. “The slow speed and tight turn radius is what allows us to get below the weather and have a rapid rate of re-attack especially with the flexibility of the gun.”
As such, in a next-generation CAS aircraft, the pilot must have good visibility—which is why a round, expansive “bubble” canopy is crucial. “In an air-to-ground mode, being able to look out over your shoulder and behind you—not at threats, but the ground you just attacked or to keep an eye on the friendlies—is a critical capability,” the A-10 pilot said.