Speaking at a Defense Writers’ Group breakfast in Washington, DC on Wednesday, the outgoing U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh, expressed his desire for a dedicated close air support platform to follow in the footsteps of the venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II—affectionately known as the “Warthog.” General Welsh argued that pursuing such a program would not be feasible given fiscal pressure on the Air Force budget stemming from the Budget Control Act of 2011. However, in making that claim, he ignores how the service’s own decisions are responsible for this problem.
The A-10 has long been considered the premier close air support platform in the U.S. military. It flies low and slow, with an ability to loiter when providing fire in support of ground troops—with the pilot protected from ground fire by a titanium “tub”—and includes a “tank-killing” 30mm gun in its nose. It drew acclaim for its performance against Saddam Hussein’s army during Operation Desert Storm, with Iraqi prisoners of war referring to it as “Black Death.” According to Breaking Defense, General Welsh envisions a similar concept in terms of a platform that can loiter. Only he believes it would be unmanned, providing persistent coverage and support fire on demand—referring to the proposed system as a “flying coke machine.”
General Welsh is right that there is unlikely to be funding available for a follow-on to the A-10. As discussed here previously, the U.S. military is facing a modernization “bow wave” for its major nuclear and conventional weapons programs. A study by Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that the modernization effort will cost an additional $130 billion between fiscal years 2017 and 2022. Harrison additionally found that the driving force behind the bow wave itself was the Air Force’s major aircraft modernization programs—including peak procurement of the F-35, a new bomber, and the KC-46A tanker, as well as a number of smaller programs.
It is not surprising that the Air Force failed to make a dedicated close air support platform a priority in its modernization effort. Close air support has never been an Air Force priority. Prior to World War II, during the formative years of military aviation, members of the U.S. Army Air Corps focused on developing strategic bombing as an independent war-fighting capability—thus necessitating an independent air force. As historian Richard Muller wrote regarding the priorities of airmen in the Interwar Period, “A mission such as close air support seemingly promised to return air power to its World War I status as an auxiliary to the ground forces… close air support aviation suffered because of a conscious neglect on the part of the respective air force leaderships.” Such a “conscious neglect” did not end with recognition of the necessity for close air support during World War II. Only the failure of air power theories about strategic bombing in Vietnam and the U.S. Army’s pursuit for the AH-56 Cheyenne attack helicopter led the Air Force to take close air support seriously, leading in turn to a dedicated platform in the form of the A-10.
The A-10 has never fit easily in with the Air Force’s image of itself though. Slow, low-flying, and dedicated to support of ground troops, the Warthog is in many ways a black sheep. Though popular with the ground forces it supports and those who have flown it—including General Welch—it has survived numerous Air Force attempts to retire it (including by Welch) mainly by the grace of supportive politicians and the dedication of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), who call in close air support when needed. In each of the past several years, Air Force budget requests have proposed retiring the A-10 only to be stymied by legislators such as Senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte.
Despite this popular support, the A-10 will someday need to be retired. While it still receives rave reviews for its performance against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Warthog is now four decades old. Yet the Air Force knew this and failed to prioritize dedicated close air support among its modernization program. As always, the service saw the close air support mission as a lesser-included activity to its primary mission, including it in the multi-mission F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Yet among the many criticisms of the F-35 is the jack-of-all-trades joint development program has left the fifth-generation fighter a watered-down master-of-none, nowhere more so than in its ability to conduct close air support.
It is possible the Air Force has learned its lesson that a dedicated platform is necessary for close air support. Research by George Washington University PhD candidates Jacquelyn Schneider and Julia Macdonald, based on surveys of JTACs and Joint Fire Observers, shows that the A-10 remains so popular among those on the ground because they believe pilots of a single mission platform are more connected to that single mission than those flying multi-mission aircraft. However, a dedicated close air support platform means the close air support mission needs to be something the Air Force prioritizes. It has rarely done so previously though, and despite General Welsh’s protestations its current modernization program suggests that remains the case.
Perhaps the Pentagon should consider allowing others a shot at the close air support mission. The A-10, after all, is the product of the Air Force responding to the Army’s pursuit of its own close air support capability—itself the product of the lack of attention the former paid to the mission. And the concept General Welch proposed—attaching an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) more or less permanently to ground forces—fits with way the Army currently uses UAVs, with pilots serving in theater and coordinating closes with ground units. Obviously it would be up to the ground services if they see this as viable close air support concept, but the mission as a whole is one they have had much more desire to prioritize than the Air Force.