Musings of a Former Warthog Driver
By Tom “Swanee” Swanson
You cannot participate in any tactical aviation forum these days without getting caught in the controversy over the monthly on again-off again retirement and resurrection of the A-10 Warthog. No new arguments are being forwarded on either side. All has been said over and over since the early 1970s, and the fight is not so much in the military arena but rather in the political arena; so what else is new? The two basic arguments seem to be whether the A-10 is the “only” viable close air support platform and whether the USAF really wants to do the CAS mission. I’d like to explore that controversy from the point of view of someone whose 1,800 hours in type qualifies as having “been there.”
The A-10 still today comes closest to meeting all the demands of a good CAS airplane; able to operate relatively close to the fight with enough legs to reach and loiter in the target area with a reasonable weapons load, maneuver and stay eyes on to the target area with a good chance of putting ordnance on the correct target; ability to take some hits and keep on fighting and still get the pilot home; and keep collateral damage and fratricide to the minimum. During an interview with Defense News (defensenews.com) Air Combat Command chief Mike Hostage stated:
“I would dearly love it to continue in the inventory because there are tactical problems out there that would be perfectly suited for the A-10. I have other ways to solve that tactical problem. It may not be as elegant as the A-10, but I can still get the job done, but that solution is usable in another level of conflict in which the A-10 is totally useless. It does not make any sense to cut the other program and keep A-10s if I have to give one up for the other. I really save the big bucks when I take an entire [platform] and shut it down because I save the squadrons of those airplanes but I also save the logistics infrastructure, the training infrastructure and all of the overhead.”
I don’t agree there are other, “just as good” ways to solve the CAS problem. The reason the grunts on the ground and the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) love the A-10 is because of its ability to excel in “danger-close” and demanding troops in contact (TIC) situations. That is what they mean by Close Air Support. What the other weapons systems can do is more appropriately what we used to call Battlefield Air Interdiction (BAI). That still requires coordination with ground forces as the aircraft are operating in the ground commander’s space in between the Forward Line of Own Troops (FLOT) and the Fire Support Coordination Line (FSCL), but it is not the same as bad guys in the treeline 100 meters away. That is a different problem not easily solved by other weapon systems— USAF or otherwise.
Ironically, one of the arguments against the A-10, its reliance on a gun, is actually its biggest strength in the CAS/TIC arena. Point and shoot with forward-firing ordnance is the key. The most successful attack aircraft (Spad, IL-2, A-36, P-47, A-1, A-10) were not, and are not, bombers. All successful attack aircraft, from the Soviet IL-2 onward, were primarily strafers, heavily armored and with powerful guns.
The Warthog’s GAU-8 30mm Gatling is still the only gun we don’t sell overseas because it’s the most effective and lethal air-to-ground CAS weapon ever built, and it isn’t being replicated on the F-35. In the A-10, if you have to jettison all your external ordnance, you still have 1,174 “bombs” internal. And a full combat load of HEI/API mix is nasty. In fact, the 30mm round has enough energy to do damage to thin-skinned armored targets out to 15,000 ft. but the trick is how do you keep the pipper on the target and control the flight of the round. A 30-ft. tank is only 2 mils at 15K ft., and no one can keep a 2 mil pipper on a target at that range.
In 1985-1986 we had multiple pilots in the 138th FS, NY ANG, who were engineers at GE Owego. Once the A-10 got an INS, it was possible to let the airplane fly itself to keep the round on the target. A guy named Gene Tye at GE was the world’s expert on computing gunsights, a real 1,000-pound brain with experience back to WW II. Sponsored by the ANG/AFRC Test Center at Tucson, those ANG pilots and Gene Tye developed PACA- IAGSS = Precision Attitude Control Augmentation – Improved Air to Ground Sight System. Essentially, once you put the pipper on target and pulled the trigger you took advantage of the INS-stabilized platform and the airplane flew itself to keep the pipper stable. It worked like a champ. The Guard-developed system didn’t get on the jet due to active-duty politics but did make it eventually, known as the LASTE or “Low Altitude Safety and Targeting Enhancement” mod. It’s ironic that the only way the active USAF could get the mod to the airplane was to tie it to “low-altitude safety” instead of overtly taking advantage of the inherent capability of the weapon, but that’s how it is in bureaucracy land. The excuse was to tie the firepower mod to getting the radar altimeter in the airplane under the guise it would stop “controlled flight into terrain” accidents. What a way to “solve” the tactical problem.
From SE Asia experience, the A-10 was designed to be a jet powered A-1 Skyraider type CAS machine that could loiter at medium altitude for long periods and carry lots of iron. That was the reason behind the 11:1 high bypass turbofan TF-34 engines — they offered great specific fuel consumption. Of course, engines are one feature of the A-10 that needed upgrading from the day it was built. An operating range of 250-400 kts, dash capability to 450 kts, with a sustained 5-G maneuvering capability to keep the target in sight and negate small arms and up to medium caliber AAA is needed. With the TF-34s at 9,000 lb. of thrust per side and operating weights up around 40,000 lb., the specific power bleed rate is just too high. You find yourself down at 200-250 kts for way too long. And that has only gotten worse as the engines have aged.
When the focus shifted to WW III in Germany’s Fulda Gap, and the GAU-8 became available, the lessons of the past were not lost on the Fairchild Republic engineers or marketeers. The A-10 was originally to be a $750,000 “Volkswagen Sturmovik.” The first ones I flew had a TACAN and a UHF radio, no ILS, an iron sight, and certainly no INS, etc, but they had the GAU-8 that nothing else came close to touching. In effect, all improvements up to and including the A-10C glass cockpit have ultimately been to improve that basic CAS capability. No other platform, except the AC-130, can offer the combination of maintaining eyes on the target with the kinetic point and shoot capability.
I was in the 138th FS when the unit was picked, based on its years in the CAS mission, to explore the F/A-16 concept. The F-16A with the GPU-5 30mm gun pod fell short in many ways. Avionics were optimized for the interdiction and close in air-to-air role. The F/A-16 CAS loadout was actually six Mk-82s (500 pounders) without wing tanks; two Mk-82s with wing tanks, the gun pod, and two Sidewinders for self protection. However, the pod weighed 2,000 pounds, was non-jettisonable, only carried 275 rounds (vice 1,174 in the Hawg), took up the centerline station which was the preferred fuel configuration, was not in the fire control computer so was not a computed sight — only an iron pipper, and you had to select 20mm internal M61A1 or 30mm GPU-5 on the ground before takeoff — no switching in flight! The pod “tray loading” system was a nightmare for the maintenance troops. Nevertheless, the unit was sent to Desert Storm without ever officially reaching combat status from the A-10 conversion, and with about 70 hours average F-16 time per pilot. What do you think, a political or operational decision? It turns out the pods were only loaded on one day and that was when we almost lost somebody to enemy fire. The squadron commander immediately went to the 4th Provisional Fighter Wing commander and told him, “I’m taking those damn pods off my airplanes before we kill somebody – I’ll be in my tent if you want to arrest me.” So the great F/A-16 experiment died right then. Years later, as the ANG rep in the ACC Weapons and Tactics shop, I was asked what we wanted to do with the pods in storage at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ. I told them to use them as boat anchors.
Having been around for all three major attempts to retire the A-10, I still can’t strictly buy the argument the AF simply doesn’t want to do CAS. Rather the USAF doesn’t want to do CAS if it has to dedicate a weapon system to one mission per Gen. Hostage’s comments. The ugly truth is you can do half-baked CAS (really BAI) with just about any delivery platform, not really well, not in all threat environments, and not accurate enough with troops in contact, but it can be done after a fashion. Conversely, you can’t do OCA/DCA/INT or any really high threat mission with the A-10. That having been said, however, in 23 years of CAS sorties in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, only 6 A-10s were lost; 4 to direct enemy action, 1 that got back to base but was destroyed in a manual reversion landing attempt, and another that got its pilot home in manual reversion but was too damaged to fix.
The Hawg was designed to take hits, with the pilot encased in the well-known, one-inch thick “titanium bathtub,” the dual hydraulic systems, backed up by a “manual reversion” system that uses direct push/pull tube connections to trim tabs to move control surfaces without hydraulic pressure, dual engines, anti-fire foam in the fuel cells, landing gear that doesn’t retract all the way into the wings, the dual tail that hides the hot section of the exhaust, and the fact that most of the exhaust is “cool” turbo-fan bypass air anyway. The airplane has all the normal ALE / ALQ / ALR systems and expendables (up to 480 separate IR flares/chaff bundles). It is a typical “Fairchild Republic Ironworks” aircraft that was said to be able to keep flying with one tail gone, one engine gone (not inop but shot off !), 2/3 of the wing gone, no hydraulics, and all the electical system inop. Just think of an F-16 without electrons!
Gen. Hostage, in a recent speech to the Air Force Association Airpower Conference, talked about not wanting to “shut down” the A-10 and U-2 but rather having to “sacrifice” them to buy the F-35. Like it or not, the politicians want a single airframe to do all things (a la F-111, F-4, F-16, F/A-18, F-35) and will consistently vote for jobs over combat capability. Remember the final reason John Boyd and Pierre Sprey got the A-10 pushed through the USAF bureaucracy was political — to keep the Army from getting the money for the AH-56 Cheyenne attack helo in 1972. The A-10 was not acquired because it was what the Air Force and DOD really wanted; rather it was bought by the winner in a political battle over control of missions and resources. Boyd and Sprey also got round about help via an endorsement from the Marines who got congressional approval for their initial Harrier money in the same deal; two against one, but whatever worked.
So where does the CAS fight go from here? In my humble opinion, the F-35 expense is going to kill all the other airplanes out there. But it is not going to fill the warfighters needs, and we still won’t be able to afford it. DOD Tac Air across the board is broken and bankrupt; meaning there is neither money to fix legacy aircraft nor enough money to buy the F-35 to replace them. Already USMC Hornet and Harrier pilots are flying five hours a month! We used to laugh at the Soviets when they were in the same situation. When I was still on the Air Combat Command staff we pleaded to keep the F-15 and F-16 lines open, and to re-engine the A-10, but the then ComACC, Gen. Johnny Jumper, would have none of it; gold plated F-22s and F-35s or bust.
Well, I’m afraid we got BUST! J