The “flying tank” will live to fight another day. In fact, it will fly for many days because the Air Force is now moving forward with a plan for preserving the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which has been credited for saving many lives while absorbing massive amounts of incoming enemy fire.
This decision was made following years of debate, congressional directives, pilot and soldier testimonials and even a Defense-Department-led “fly-off” or competition assessment between the F-35 fighter jet and A-10 Warthog to determine which platform would be superior when performing a close air support (CAS) mission. It appears that a CAS mission requires a mixture of both aircraft.
Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies that the Air Force plans to keep and upgrade the A-10 Warthog yet reduce the operational fleet size from 281 Warthogs down to 218. The move, Nahom explained, will “right-size” the A-10 force to seven operational squadrons instead of nine.
“We will leave one A-10 squadron in the Koreas, give three to the [National] Guard, two to active duty and offer one A-10 squadron to Commanders in theater,” Nahom said.
The A-10 Warthog’s capabilities, continued relevance, and distinguished history have made its pending retirement a high-focus issue among pilots, troops, weapons developers and congressional lawmakers for many years. The aircraft’s titanium hull creates a protective capsule that protects pilots from small arms fire, something that allows them to continuously attack amid incoming enemy fire. The A-10 Warthog can continue to fly in the event that one of its major components is disabled, damaged or even fully destroyed.
As for the remaining 218 A-10 Warthogs, they will be upgraded with new avionics, electronics, computing systems and even new aircraft wings. These upgrades will ensure the decades-old airplane remains viable and effective in even less contested environments such as providing support to troops and equipment under attack.
Despite the A-10 Warthog’s performance and beloved reputation, it is unlikely to survive modern air defenses such as advanced air-defense weapons armed with long-range targeting technologies and more explosive bomb materials that can cause major damage to an aircraft or destroy it.
“The A-10 has limited utility in the high-end fight and we will use it in the low-end fight,” Nahom said. “The reduction will happen over the next few years.”
There has been and continues to be an ongoing discussion that the maneuverability of the F-35 fighter jet, its speed, its twenty-five-millimeter cannon and sensor fidelity, which make it ideally suited to take over the CAS mission. Certainly, an F-35 fighter jet could operate at speeds that make it a tough target for ground forces. Additionally, the range and accuracy of the jet’s sensors coupled with its computer processing make it likely to succeed in destroying ground forces from higher altitudes and greater distances.
At the same time, some people may wonder just how much small arms or anti-aircraft fire the fast yet more lightly skinned F-35 fuselage would be able to withstand and keep flying. Proponents of using the F-35 jet for CAS often argue that an F-35 jet simply would not have to absorb small arms fire given its speed, sensor range and precision weapons. Thus, it can be extremely impactful providing fire support and targeting information to ground infantry without being fully vulnerable to enemy attack. Nahom noted that the U.S. Marine Corps is using its F-35B variant jets in a decisive and effective close air support role.
Nonetheless, despite the planned reduction in the total number of A-10 Warthog, Nahom sent a very clear message that the famous “flying tank” is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Image: Flickr / U.S. Air Force