While fast jets aren’t ideal for spotting enemies on the ground from the air, that role should be left over to drones or long-range sensors—which have improved significantly on new aircraft such as the F-35. Ultimately, in the current air-defense environment it is wiser to avoid exposing aircraft to antiaircraft guns and MANPADS.
Argument: The A-10 is too old, outdated and overspecialized
The A-10 dates back to the 1970s. Operating the A-10 and keeping it in flyable condition will cost money—at least $4.2 billion over the next five years—that could be spent on modern aircraft such as the F-35 that could perform a wide variety of missions. The A-10 is a dedicated close-support plane that can’t contribute to other kinds of operations—including close support in a high-threat environment. The Air Force can’t afford to pay for such specialized designs.
Counterargument: It isn’t really that old and expensive. Operating the Air Force’s A-10s consumes just 2 percent of its budget. The “too old” argument is a bit disingenuous. A service-life extension to reinforce the wings of 240 aircraft is being completed, and should keep the aircraft flyable for decades.
The A-10 is capable of performing other missions besides close air support: forward air observation (observing the battlefield from above and directing airstrikes), interdiction, armed reconnaissance and support for combat search-and-rescue missions. They also could have application in maritime missions, and have recently been deployed to the Philippines.
Finally, the A-10 could be a surprisingly effective fighter—for hunting slow, low-flying helicopters, that is.
Argument: The A-10 is the most cost-effective air support platform.
The cost of operating an A-10 is extremely low, around $17,000 per flight-hour. By comparison, an F-15 costs around $40,000 per flight-hour, and the new F-35 costs $67,000 per hour. (The latter’s cost is expected to decrease with time.)
Yet despite repeated attempts to shut down the Thunderbolt, the aircraft keeps on getting deployed to conflict hotspots because it gets the job done.
While faster and more sophisticated fighter can deliver precision guided munitions against insurgents, just like the A-10, they aren’t better than the A-10 at that job. And the A-10 does it way more cheaply.
I could try to make up an argument here, but the Air Force leaders have themselves tentatively expressed a change of heart in regard to operating low-cost aircraft for the close air support mission in permissive (low-threat) environments. According to General James Holmes, “[the F-35] would certainly be an expensive way to go after a permissive environment mission and we hope to not have to do that, so we will look at other options.” The options mentioned are between developing a new ground-attack plane or acquiring AT-6 or A-29 counterinsurgency aircraft.
Although my take on the A-10 debate will not satisfy everyone, I think you can judge where you stand on the Warthog debate by your answers to the following questions:
1. Should the Air Force focus mostly on preparing for possible future war against peer opponents, or set aside resources for the kinds of conflicts the U.S. military has fought in the previous two decades?
2. Is it better to maintain a cost-efficient war plane that is very effective at a specific role, or use that money to acquire a more expensive and versatile airplane, even if it cannot perform that specific role as well?
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: A-10 Warthog at the 2015 McDill airshow. Flickr/Holmes Palacios Jr.