No one has more friends in Washington than the A-10 Thunderbolt, an aged attack plane made famous by its 30-millimeter Gatling cannon and durability—both in battle in the Middle East and in skirmishes between Congress and the U.S. Air Force.
The plane, dubbed the “Warthog” for its ungainly visage, dates to the early 1970s and was built to decimate Soviet tanks that never emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. The beast has survived numerous brushes with retirement as its political allies repeatedly rebuffed Pentagon efforts to put it down. Under current Defense Department funding, the A-10 will fly until 2022. Even though U.S. lawmakers may keep the money flowing to retain the jet beyond 2022, the Air Force has begun contemplating alternatives for its mission of providing close air support for ground troops.
The future of the A-10 is part of a much larger military debate regarding close air support and what type of conflicts the U.S. will confront, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with Teal Group. Should the U.S. focus on existential threats, such as aggression from Russia or China, or lower intensity fights, what Aboulafia calls “brushfires,” in places like Afghanistan and Syria? The 1970s-era A-10 no longer has a viable role against a major adversary such as Russia, he said. Lesser opponents, such as Islamic State and other terrorist groups, give an A-10-like aircraft a mission, as long as the enemy has no credible air defense.
“There’s not a lot of political will for more Iraqs, Syrias, and Afghanistans,” Aboulafia said in a telephone interview. “But if that’s the future, then by all means it makes sense to continue funding something like the A-10.” If not the current fleet of more than 280 A-10s, then what might take over the mission? Here are a few of the options that have been floated in military circles. (Its signature 30mm gun may not survive the transition.)
Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine
The AT-6 is a light-attack aircraft that can carry a range of bombs and laser-guided rockets. It's an armed variation of Beechcraft’s T-6, which is used by several nations to train pilots. The plane is also a turboprop, which might raise some eyebrows at both the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. “With something that’s low and slow, if you’re facing an adversary with anything more than an AK-47, you’re in real trouble,” Aboulafia said. Yet the per-cost operating hour of an aircraft such as the AT-6 could make it competitive—especially if it can handle many of the requirements for close air support.
Embraer A-29 Super Tucano
The Super Tucano is a light air support military aircraft that Congress has already bought—for the Afghan air force. Embraer SA builds some of the planes in Florida, with support from Sierra Nevada Corp., and it has been sold to several countries, including Angola, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mali. Many of those have used it for counterinsurgency battles. Afghanistan plans to deploy its 20 A-29s against the Taliban. One reason the A-29 may not become an A-10 replacement is that it hasn’t found a combat role with any robust air forces, such as those of Israel, South Korea, France, or the U.S.
Much of the debate around the A-10 concerns cost. The Pentagon is devoting huge sums to the F-35 Lightning II, a multi-role fighter being built in three versions for the Air Force, the Marine Corps, and the Navy. (The Air Force declared its F-35 variant ready for combat on Aug. 2, a year after the Marine Corps.) And while the F-35 can perform many of the A-10’s duties just fine, it’s a $379 billion fighter jet program that was designed for high-speed, long-range aerial dogfights, not close air support. That’s where a cheaper jet might work. For more than two years, Textron Inc. has been peddling its Scorpion, a budget-minded “multi-mission tactical jet,” to governments and militaries worldwide. The selling point: a pricetag of only about $20 million per plane. And while it wasn’t designed for close air support of ground troops, the Scorpion might be adaptable and “not something outside the realm,” Air Force General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle said earlier this year. “We’ve done some research,” he said of the Scorpion. “We’re just keeping our options open.”
Leave it to the drones
As technology advances, there’s an argument to be made that close air support is the natural evolution of what the U.S. military is already doing with its remotely piloted vehicles. The Air Force’s fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones are armed, multi-mission, long-endurance birds that operate at a range of altitudes. The real issue is whether a Reaper-like drone could be effective: A-10 pilots see much more of the battlefield than the cameras and sensors of a drone, regardless of the technology’s sophistication. The A-10 is also far more durable than a drone when someone fires back. Add the perils of shooting near friendly forces—not to mention the high cost of each vehicle—and a Reaper-like drone could be a tough sell to Pentagon brass and to Congress. Still, that’s today. Technology advances for drones continue to accelerate.
The A-10 Warthog, version 2.0
In theory, the Air Force could build a fleet of modern aircraft that would be virtual copies of the A-10 with improvements afforded by current tech. In an era of limited defense resources, this option would be among the more expensive avenues and is probably the least realistic. One idea would be to field a small fleet of A-10-like aircraft for higher-risk combat theaters while letting less-expensive aircraft handle what the Air Force dubs “permissive environments.” That’s a diplomatic way of saying that the enemy’s air defenses are considered rudimentary, and an A-10’s capability isn’t needed to support ground troops.
While mulling new options, it’s worth recalling that the Air Force flies more than two dozen U-2 spy planes, a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft that joined the service in 1956 and was a central player in the Cold War. That’s 60 years of active duty, and nearly $2 billion went for U-2 upgrades in the past two decades. The same goes for the ancient, constantly refitted fleet of B-52 bombers. Likewise, the A-10 fleet could be rebuilt for years. It wouldn’t be particularly cheap, and this route wouldn't garner many fans in the Air Force. But when it comes to military aircraft and Capitol Hill, the A-10 stirs a deep love, like a marriage no one wants to end.