Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Does the Air Force really have a plan to replace the A-10?

No, but they say they do. Personally, I do not have high hopes for this particular endeavor. The A-10 is the ultimate in simplicity: it is a virtually indestructible aircraft that is a flying dumptruck, able to carry unbelievable amounts of firepower, deliver it precisely and survive the harshest of battlefield conditions. Given the way the U.S. military has operated for at least 20 years now, "simplicity"" is not a word that is in the Air Force's vocabulary.

This is an early stages evaluation of what the Air Force would want in an aircraft to replace the A-10. The problem, of course, is the Air Force hates the role of the A-10, doesn't want to perform that role, and has an institutional resistance to the highly effective, low-cost solution the A-10 provides, even if the Air Force were interested in actually providing a solution to the problem the A-10 solves. Were the Air Force interested, it could provide engine, avionics and targeting upgrades for the A-10 and keep the aircraft in service for decades more. The airframe itself  has been proven top-notch time and again.

The Air Force has been trying for years to retire the A-10 because it is not in keeping with the Air Force's view of its core mission. That "core mission" has changed over the years, depending upon which faction is in the ascendancy in the Air Force high command, but close air support has never been one of those factions. There are two dominant, competing factions within the Air Force -- strategic forces (long-range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles) and fighter forces. Right now, the fighter pilots are running the show, which explains why the F-35, with all its problems, remains the primary aircraft acquisition program for the Air Force. A replacement for the B-2 bomber, a 1980s program, is not really in actual motion. Hell, we still use the B-1 (1970s) and B-52 (1960s) as strategic bombers.

The Air Force never really wanted to do close air support. Close-air guys are called "mud movers" by the Air Force, and it is not a term of affection. The Air Force prefers to soar above it all, whether that is in air-superiority fighter aircraft or strategic bombers. That's why the Marines always have had their own air wing, which focuses almost exclusively on supporting ground troops in combat. It also is why the Navy, which carries Marine aircraft to places where they can provide that close air support, also has tactical bombers, most of which are the same ones flown by Marines. The Navy's primary focus in aircraft is planes that can protect aircraft carriers from aerial attack and, to a lesser extent, planes that can sink enemy ships (although the Navy prefers to rely on missiles for that).

To the extent that the planes the Navy has that can sink enemy ships also can provide close air support for ground troops, the Navy is willing to accept that. It is not, however, their preferred aerial role. Only the Marines and the Army care about close air support, and the Army has no fixed-wing combat aircraft. The Army's fixed-wing aircraft are primarily artillery and close air support spotters. They have extensive rotary wing aircraft (helicopters, y'all), but those are primarily designed for anti-armor missions. They are highly vulnerable to ground fire in a close air support role.

The A-10, on the other hand, is considerably less vulnerable and is famous for coming back from missions with damage that would have left most aircraft a smoking heap of wreckage:

The Air Force is not interested in performing this mission. I'm sure that by the time they finish their evaluation process of what needs to replace the A-10, it will result in something that costs far more than the A-10 and cannot perform the mission.

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