Airmen at odds with Air Force brass over future of beloved A-10 plane

The Defense Department decision to retire an Air Force plane built specifically to support ground forces has ignited a firestorm of criticism from the airmen whose job is to embed with Army ground forces and spot enemy targets. Meanwhile, one top Air Force commander is defending his service’s decision to eliminate the A-10 Warthog, despite acknowledging the aircraft’s value.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in February announced his intention to retire 343 Warthogs, saying the aircraft “is a 40-year-old single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield. It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses.”

Lt. Gen. Mike Hostage, U.S. Air Forces Central Command commander, stands in front of a B-2 Stealth Bomber at Whiteman Air Force Base in Mo U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Carlin Leslie

Lt. Gen. Mike Hostage, U.S. Air Forces Central Command commander, stands in front of a B-2 Stealth Bomber at Whiteman Air Force Base in Mo. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Carlin Leslie

The military commander responsible for ensuring that the Air Force is prepared and capable of winning future wars said the move was unfortunate, but unavoidable in a tightening fiscal environment.

“I absolutely would like to have a fleet of A-10s, no questions asked,” Air Force Gen. Michael Hostage told the PBS NewsHour in a March telephone interview. “I just flat can’t afford it.”

Hostage, a veteran fighter pilot, who has flown F-15s, F-16 and F-22 fighter jets during his 36 year Air Force career, said he could “sympathize with the folks that are upset” with the decision.

“We are not coming at this because I don’t like the A-10, [or] I don’t want the A-10. I don’t think it’s useful… This is not about what I want to do. This is about what I have to do.”

The Air Force says it can save $3.7 billion over five years if it retires the entire fleet of A-10s. That money is to be spent on higher priority weapons, including the long-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

“I absolutely would like to have a fleet of A-10s, no questions asked,” Air Force Gen. Michael Hostage told the PBS NewsHour. “I just flat can’t afford it.”The leader of Air Combat Command told the NewsHour that the Air Force had to rebalance its capabilities and better prepare to fight wars against “near-peer competitors,” meaning adversaries that have military capabilities almost as good as the United States.

“We are going to have to shrink” the portion of the Air Force dedicated to counterinsurgency operations – like those in Iraq and Afghanistan – and build up the service’s capability to fight in the “high-end, near-competitor realm,” said Hostage, apparently referring to potential future adversaries like Russia or China. “And that’s the strategy, that’s the world that we’ve been told to focus on and be ready for.”

The four-star general said the “A-10 would have no place in that fight” because “it doesn’t have the range” and “because it doesn’t have the weapons to be able to deal with a near-peer competitor environment.”

But a number of highly trained airmen called “JTACs” — who embed with ground forces and call in air strikes against enemy forces in close proximity — told the NewsHour the A-10 would perform well against a near-peer competitor of the future. JTACS — pronounced “jay-tacks” — is short for “joint terminal attack controllers.”

“The A-10 was designed in a period of time that anticipated robust integrated air defense systems against the Soviet Union,” says retired Chief Master Sergeant Russell Carpenter, a 30-year veteran and specialist in leading JTACs. “It was developed with the intent to operate in an environment where the enemy contested the airspace. It was designed to operate in support of ground forces and built to take punishment from surface-to-air fires. Bottom line was it was developed during an era that anticipated both Secretary Hagel’s primary limiting factors [such as] air defense and advanced aircraft.”

For more on the features built into the A-10, watch an interview with one of the plane’s chief designers:

Other JTACs similarly stressed that the A-10 is still needed today.

“Everybody is absolutely opposed to this. Absolutely opposed,” said one former JTAC who deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 and also worked with Special Operations Forces, Army Rangers, as well as conventional Army forces. “The decision to get rid of that asset while we still have folks down range [in combat] is crazy, it’s borderline irresponsible.”

This one-time JTAC, who is in contact with many current and former JTACs, asked in a phone interview not to be named in this article because he works for a company with Defense Department contracts.

“It just seems to me and everyone in the community that there are other options to get rid of,” the former JTAC said. “If you want to cut the budget, look at the B-1.”

The B-1 bomber was designed to fly from the United States to the Soviet Union and drop nuclear weapons. It has been reconfigured to carry only conventional munitions.

Both the B-1 and A-10 were produced in the early 1970s through the 1980s.

Russell, the retired Chief Master Sergeant, echoed the sentiment that a vast number of JTACs resent the decision made by the leaders of their service to retire the A-10.

“I can tell you what the JTACs are telling me, and that is the idea of retiring the A-10 is ‘F—ed up,'” Carpenter said in an e-mail exchange. “I have had dozens of them tell me … that retiring the A-10 is going to cost lives of our Army brothers and sisters.”

Air Force brass say they want to retire the A-10 because it would be more cost-effective to field aircraft that perform multiple missions, in contrast to the Warthog’s specialty in just a single mission, called “close air support.”

Watch our full report on the budget cuts that could lead to the retirement of the A-10:

Hostage said the flight characteristics that make the A-10 good at close air support limit that aircraft’s ability to perform other missions. The aircraft flies low and slow – an asset for targeting enemy ground troops. And its cockpit is heavily armored, which protects its pilot from ground fire.

Its low and slow characteristics, and its limited range, “basically rule it out for anything other than close air support,” the Air Combat Command chief said. “I can’t use it for interdiction. I can’t use it for air superiority. I can’t use it as a multi-role platform. It is good for one thing and one thing only. And it’s really good at that. And that is close air support.”

However, another former JTAC told the NewsHour the Air Force continues to field many other types of weapons that are capable of solely one mission.

“Air Force leadership is quick to point out that the A-10 is a ‘one-trick pony’, but then again so is the F-22, B-1, B-52, C-17, [and] ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile],” said one retired senior master sergeant who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan eight times in support of special operations units. This former JTAC also requested anonymity in this article because he works for a company with Defense Department contracts.

“When was the last time we had an air-to-air engagement that would justify having F-15Cs, F-16s, F-35s, and F-22s? Desert Storm? Kosovo? Early days of OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom]?” the former sergeant said in an email. “A-10s justify their existence every day on the battlefield.”

This joint terminal attack controller spent hundreds of hours controlling A-10s and received two Bronze Stars with Valor and a Purple Heart medal.

“Don’t let the Air Force hierarchy state that the A-10 is antiquated, old, and not as capable as other aircraft,” he added. The latest version of the A-10 “with its new avionics and targeting suite, is more capable than any F-16 in the current inventory when it comes to CAS [close air support],” the source said.

An A-10A Thunderbolt II aircraft flies over a target area during Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Fernando Serna

An A-10A Thunderbolt II aircraft flies over a target area during Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Fernando Serna

“I love when leadership says the A-10 is out of date, yet we continue to hold on to B-52s, which are as antiquated as rotary-dial phones,” the one-time JTAC claimed. “If you want to dump an out-of-date and technologically inept aircraft, then look at the B-52.”

Hostage acknowledges the A-10 is the best aircraft for performing the close air support mission.

“I don’t disagree that there are certain things the A-10 can do that others can’t do, it flies slow, it flies lower over the battlefield than the other fighters do,” he said in the recent interview. “And the combination of low and slow gives it an advantage in spotting targets.”

However, the general said the Air Force would still be able to conduct close air support missions using other aircraft. Hostage said he pledged to the Army that the Air Force would build on what it has learned during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Air Force would continue to develop the “exquisite ability to support the Army with a range of capabilities” including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems the air service typically operates during conflict. “And then our ability to pull wounded soldiers off the battlefield under hostile conditions with our CSAR [combat search and rescue] forces. We are not going to give up any of the elegance of what we developed.”

But from the perspective of some joint terminal attack controllers, no substitute for an A-10 has ever performed as well as the Warthog.

“My team has made decisions not to conduct a mission based off of the fact that we could not get A-10s to support us, even when other aircraft were offered up. This was because we knew we would make contact [with the enemy] and we wanted the best aircraft and pilots to support us,” the retired senior master sergeant told the PBS NewsHour.

“Me and my team would roll out on foot patrols with four U.S. personnel and a few Afghans to conduct raids and identify future targets for action,” he said. “We went out in [minimal] force and were confident, only because we knew we had A-10 support a radio call away.”

This former JTAC called A-10s “a force multiplier” that “gave us the confidence to take risks we would not have taken with other aircraft.”

Armed with that “flexibility,” the JTAC and his team could “conduct a number of successful missions and when things got ‘hairy,’ the A-10s were there to get us out of bad situations,” this source said. “Ask any soldier, marine, etc., what aircraft they want when things go bad? You may get some AC-130 [ground-attack gunship], but I guarantee the overwhelming response will be the A-10.”

A number of JTACs told the NewsHour they prefer to use the A-10 when striking targets that are called “danger close,” meaning that friendly forces are so nearby enemy forces that the friendlies could be hit by the bomb fragments dropped from the aircraft, or fired from other weapons.

“I generally will not employ the other types of aircraft” – like B-1s, F-15s or F-16s – “danger close, regardless of munitions, if I have other alternatives,” including the A-10 or less-commonly used Army Apache helicopters, Carpenter said. “What I need is the tank-killing gun that can engage large formations of enemy armor, vehicles or even infantry at close range.”

Carpenter, who achieved the highest enlisted rank in the Air Force, said during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he even turned away aircraft that were on station overhead because he preferred to use an A-10 to attack a group of Russian-made vehicles, known by the acronym “BRDM.”

“I have personally sent F-16s back to a CAS [close air support] stack and pulled A-10s out because, during the Battle of the Escarpment in Operation Iraqi Freedom 1, I had no luck with F-16s that could not identify my friendly armored vehicles closing on enemy positions,” he said. “The resultant delay enabled the enemy to adjust fire on top of our armored column that was breaching the escarpment. The A-10s checked in and, in rapid succession, destroyed three of the four BRDM reconnaissance vehicles that were calling in fires on top of our column. The F-16s simply could not ‘see’ the enemy vehicles.”

Carpenter controlled 67 combat air strikes during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He was recognized with the Bronze Star with Valor, the military’s fourth-highest individual military award, for his actions in the Battle of the Escarpment.

Hostage said that under certain circumstances, he could understand why JTACS prefer the A-10.

“If I had a danger close situation and I had a choice between an A-10 and an F-16, I would most certainly pick the A-10. That is an easy answer,” he told the NewsHour.

But Hostage also said that if there were no A-10s available during a close-proximity fight, he was sure JTACs would accept whatever aircraft were available.

“If I had no A-10s, and I have a danger close situation, and I’ve got an F-15 Strike Eagle, or an F-16 in the stack, I would be willing to bet you he’s going to call in danger close,” the general said. “It’s one thing to say you wouldn’t do it when you have the choice. It’s another thing to say you wouldn’t do it … despite the fact you have air support that is available; you’d let people die, because, gosh, it’s too close to friendlies.”

“If you are going to die, you are going to roll them in,” said Hostage, referring to aircraft that would remain after the A-10 is retired. However, the general added, he was “not saying” that having an F-15 or F-16 available for close air support “is a better situation than having an A-10.”

Hostage — whose overall responsibility is to ensure that the Air Force is organized, trained and equipped to provide combat-ready forces for rapid deployment underscored that he can’t have every combat aircraft he might want.

“If I have to sacrifice something in order to be able to fight the range of military conflict,” Hostage said, “I’d rather have the F-35 and be able to fight the full range, than have an A-10 and be world class at close air support, and then lose completely in any kind of high-end fight.”