The Buzz

The Next A-10 Warthog: An Armed to the Teeth 'Flying Coke Can'?

When a senior Air Force official offered me a correction some months ago, a Marine colonel friend of mine suggested that I “tell him to stop bothering you and to get back to trying to kill the A-10.” We may actually now be getting past the jokes. The air and ground crews of A-10Cs are doing such yeoman service against Da’esh that the retirement is clearly on hold. Now the USAF is talking about actually replacing that Cold Warrior the Thunderbolt II, and drafting the requirements for what might come next. That might not be an updated clone of the venerable jet.

Last week, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General David Goldfein (the hopefully incoming chief of staff) offered some thoughts on how he’d like to improve on what he’s got:

“Why is it I only get a minute and a half of trigger pull on a 30-millimeter bullet? Why don’t I get ten minutes? Why is every bullet not precision-guided? Why do I spend so much time in having to figure out who’s actually friend and foe on the ground when we have technology to be able to help us do that? Why is it that I have to do all the work on collateral damage estimates when I have a machine that can help me do that?”

All that got me thinking about the qualities that the next fixed-wing ground-attack aircraft could have, the tradeoffs that could be made, the contractors that might offer solutions, and how the Defense Department might structure the problem.

Inexpensive? According to current Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh, at almost $20,000 per flight hour, the A-10C is almost as expensive to fly as an F-16C. When one builds a plane to survive ground fire, one builds it tough, but the planes are getting old. Meanwhile, the USAF pleads poverty in its replacement, as all the money is tied up in the F-35, the KC-46, the B-21, and that huge space budget. So whatever comes next should be cheap; with the next plane, Welsh aims for under $5,000 per hour. Note, though, that he didn’t discuss purchase price—that must be low too, if it’s to fit into that budget. So are the two generals just describing a rethought and reworked MQ-9? An A-29? General Atomics probably already has the viewgraphs. Sierra Nevada and Embraer would certainly be eager too. Who knows—maybe such a requirement could even get Boeing interested in fighters again.

Survivable? Such a plane would not be another radar-evading black project, and that would keep the costs manageable. After all, the A-10C is not remotely stealthy either. Even its signature weapon has an immense audible signature; as Doctrine Man says, brrrrrt is the unmistakable sound of freedom. Maybe if the future plane is firing single precision-guided shots at night, it stands a chance of avoiding visually-aimed ground fire. Otherwise, commanders would either restrict its employment to areas of lower threat, or accept high casualties. Indeed, in the 1980s, the A-10 wasn’t meant to survive for long. Its basing might have been a bit more secure, as the pilots could land on highways when incoming missiles cratered their runways. But while airborne, Thunderbolt squadrons were meant to fly over and tear up Warsaw Pact columns to blunt the offensive against West Germany in the first few weeks of the war. Losing planes was fine as long as the enemy lost a lot more tanks, trucks, and troops.