The venerable Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, more commonly known as the Warthog or simply Hog, has been in the news constantly for the past 13 months or so. Why’s that? Well, the US Air Force, the sole operator of Warthogs, wishes to retire it and replace it with Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs. The F-35 program has more than its fair share of detractors, and while I personally do agree with some of the criticism thrown its way, I feel that other jabs are wholly unnecessary and the result of misreporting, sensationalism and hyperbole. This, however, isn’t a defense of the F-35A and its (in)ability to fulfill a close air support (CAS) role in the battlespaces of the future. Instead, I wanted to draw your attention to a recent news report from Defense News that indicated the Air Force’s willingness to consider replacing the A-10 with another airframe purpose-built for CAS missions.
“Part of the discussion we continually have is, what’s [the world] going to look like in 2020 and 2025? My belief is contested environments are going to go up because adversaries know what we can do when we own the airspace and they will continue to try and deny that to us.”
– Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, Air Combat Command
Afghanistan and Iraq proved to the US military more than ever before just how invaluable CAS was when placed at the disposal of infantry units outside the wire. Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters dug into positions in hills and mountains overlooking Army and Marine Corps combat patrols would be obliterated easily with a quick call for air support, carried out by available aerial assets. In many cases, CAS saved the lives of boots on the ground, staving off considerable numbers of enemy fighters with controlled bursts of GAU-8 fire or the deployment of guided munitions while friendly forces were able to regroup and egress.
So what happens when the A-10 gets too old and is finally retired? Will the apocalypse finally be upon us? Not quite.
The Warthog is, without a doubt, one of the greatest and most capable aircraft to have flown in the CAS role. But there are areas for improvement, especially when it comes to its eventual (and probable) replacement As we move away from the missions in Afghanistan (already in the process of drawing to a close) and Iraq (virtually over for now), we now have to come to terms with the fact that the next set of wars we fight will most likely feature contested airspace- something we didn’t have to worry about much in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a massive game changer for the Warthog, and it’s definitely not for the better. According to War is Boring and Combat Aircraft magazine, US Department of Defense officials didn’t forecast very glowing outlooks for the A-10 if the Cold War escalated and bullets were exchanged across the Iron Curtain. The Warthog was originally built as an armor-killer, its 30mm bullets able to shred Soviet tanks and APCs with frightening ease. Additionally, it could deliver laser-guided munitions and loiter low over battlefields for extended periods of time even with incoming small arms fire, thanks to its rugged construction and in-built protection. But that didn’t factor in threats presented by surface-to-air missiles and enemy fighter aircraft. I can’t imagine the A-10 being too successful when operating against modern (or relatively modern) enemies equipped with adequate aerial defense aircraft and surface air defense emplacements.
So now, for those of us who are ready to move forward from the A-10 (though hesitatingly so), we’re left with a single and supremely important question: What will the future of fixed-wing close air support look like?
Textron AirLand Scorpion (SCV12-1)
The Scorpion is, doubtless to say, one of the most peculiar aircraft I’ve ever had the chance of seeing. Constructed in secrecy between Textron and AirLand, the Scorpion was built as a low-cost alternative to larger aircraft like the General Dynamics (Lockheed Martin) F-16 Fighting Falcon and the McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) F-15E Strike Eagle, both of which find themselves flying air support missions with considerable consistency overseas. It seems that its cheaper price tag and total cost of ownership would be the Scorpion’s primary selling point. For a unit cost of around $20 million USD or less, and with projected $3000 USD/flight hour tag, the Scorpion is dirt cheap and a great deal for what it can supposedly provide (including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities- ISR). Interestingly enough, Flightglobal reported that the Scorpion drew interest from active and reserve components of the US military. However, the aircraft is far more suited towards a counterinsurgency (COIN) or light support role, considering the fact that it can only operate to a high degree of success in low-risk environments and carries an overall payload a little over a fifth of what the A-10 can carry. Taking into account American military involvement overseas, it’s safe to say that buying the Scorpion to fit the CAS role wouldn’t be a very safe idea at all.
Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II
By all accounts, the Marines love the F-35B and the air support options it provides for seagoing Marine Expeditionary Units. The STOVL (short takeoff, vertical landing) F-35B was designed to replace the McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) AV-8B Harrier II, the Marine Corps’ primary fixed wing air support aircraft. The Harrier can definitely pack a mighty punch, carrying a 25mm GAU-12 rotary cannon and a very diverse 9,200 lbs of under-wing payload. With a relatively solid range for an aircraft with the ability to hover in-flight, the Harrier was ideal for the Marines, and has proven itself time and time again in all conflicts the USMC has participated in since they first acquired the AV-8B. Now keeping in mind that positive recommendation, if Marine aviators say the F-35B is awesome, you’d better believe it. Pilots who’ve flown and tested the aircraft, due to reach Initial Operational Capability in July of this year, are pleased with the advanced next-generation capabilities afforded to them by the F-35B, and are excited to see its full integration into Marine Air Wings. However, the F-35B is a fast jet. It wasn’t designed to fly low and slow, as the A-10 was, systematically seeking out targets visually (post-identification) and neutralizing them. The F-35 definitely doesn’t have the same rugged armor the A-10 has either, mostly because at the altitudes and speeds it flies at, it doesn’t need it. With the Air Force already set to procure the F-35A as its F-16 replacement, they (mindful of the high price tag of the Lightning II jets) are probably going to balk on any offer to integrate the F-35B as a long-term CAS-only aircraft.
Offering up Requests For Proposals to the various big-name defense contractors for a brand new CAS jet seems to be the option the Air Force would most likely pursue. This is where things get interesting. What will such a jet look like? How fast and high will it fly, can it carry the same amount of payload as a Warthog? Can it be re-tasked to fly other mission types? Will it be as survivable as its predecessor? For all of its positive points, the A-10 has its own share of faults and shortcomings, one of which I had mentioned earlier in this article. What the clean sheet jet would do is build upon the strengths of the Warthog, while minimizing any perceived weakness. Obviously. I can’t really say what the aircraft would look like, nor do the math on projected prices, development costs, etc. I can however give you a relatively ideal vision for what it could (and probably should) be. I like to think of a new aircraft, designed to replace an older predecessor, as being the final product of layers. Let me explain. When you paint a wall, you first apply a coat of primer. Beforehand, just in case, you fill any gaps and holes in the wall, sanding it all down smoothly. That primer is the base of all subsequent layers of paint. It’ll allow for a proper final product without any discoloration or blemish. Then, you apply your first coat of paint. That’s your second layer. You could leave it at that, but you might want to consider applying at least one or two more coats, your third layer, to finish things off. You’re left with a tidy and well-painted wall. Moving away from home improvement and back to our original topic, the first layer of a replacement aircraft is its ability to perform most (if not all) of its predecessor’s functions to a high degree of success. The second layer would be improvements made the predecessor’s capabilities, as well as efforts to mitigate the shortcomings of the original aircraft. The third and final layer would be advanced capabilities that the previous jet did not offer.
Layer One: It has to be able to fly low and slow. I realize that it’s a phrase that gets repeated often but it still remains a very valid and necessary requirement, especially for an Bomb On Target (BOT) CAS runs. It needs to offer the pilot excellent cockpit visibility and work as a multiplier to the pilot’s already-heightened sense of situational awareness. It needs to fly with considerable maneuverability (including a tight turn rate) and retain the considerable 16,000 lbs payload of the Warthog. It needs to be rugged and armored; it has to be able to take a beating from small arms fire and then some, and still fly. And for goodness’ sakes, it needs to keep that massive GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon. One way or another, it needs to be procured for a reasonable price and the flight hour cost need to remain around the current mark (~$15K/flight hour for the A-10) which allows for an increased rate in sorties.
Layer Two: According to A-10 pilots, as reported on by Dave Majumdar, the new CAS jet needs better engines. The TF-34 has been a constant source of complaint, and with the Warthog operating in Afghanistan, pilots have found that they can’t take off at max weight. They have to either lose fuel or payload, sacrificing range and offensive capability. That becomes a limiting factor in what the A-10 can provide to troops on the ground. A slightly faster cruise speed would also be nice.
Layer Three: Better networking. The new CAS jet would be able to link up with other aerial and ground assets in the battlespace, easily transferring vital data and intelligence between forces to allow for a clearer picture of the current situation on the ground and in the air. It can provide targeting data to unmanned drones and vice versa. Onboard electronic countermeasures systems, similar to what F-35s come with. Stealth features. I understand that the very word itself leaves a bitter taste in some mouths, but it would only add to the survivability of the aircraft, allowing it to remain relatively undetected by more complex (and higher-altitude) SAM systems as well as enemy aircraft. At least until it starts unleashing hell upon the enemy. There also exists a possibility that such an aircraft could potentially be unmanned or optionally manned.