“There’s only so much you can get out of that airplane,” Carlisle said. “Those airplanes are gonna wear out. They’ve been worked very, very hard. They’ve done incredible things for us. But eventually that platform is going to age out.”
-Gen. H. “Hawk” Carlisle, USAF
Over the past 15-16 months, we’ve heard and witnessed vigorous discussion on the possible retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt II from the U.S. Air Force’s active and reserve squadrons. For the most part, people are against the retirement of the A-10, nicknamed the “Warthog”, as it’s a purpose-built close air support (CAS) platform that has flown exceedingly successful missions in the Global War on Terror and has more than proven itself as a life-saving measure for beleaguered troops on the ground who are outside the wire and under extremely heavy volumes of fire. Hypothetically, should the A-10 fly on into the future (at least the next 5-10 years) to its original retirement target date, rather than be retired immediately, what happens to the Air Force’s close air support mission, and more importantly, who flies it?
In a recent article by Brian Everstine of the Air Force Times, it appears that the Air Force has been thinking about this for a while. According to General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the current plan calls for the use of Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles and Lockheed Martin F-35 Ligh… just kidding, nearly had you there, didn’t I? While the F-35 will be undoubtedly be expected to be able to perform close air support missions, the Lockheed Martin (General Dynamics) F-16 Fighting Falcon will likely back up the F-15E for USAF-flown CAS missions in special integrated squadrons. Currently in Afghanistan, and previously in Iraq, F-16s have been mostly unable to perform any air-to-air missions owing to a overwhelming lack of enemy fighter aircraft. Instead of letting them rust, the USAF jumped to exploit its multi-role capabilities, as it did back during Operations Desert Storm and Southern Watch. Ever since, the USAF has been using them in the CAS role, apparently more often than Warthogs in the past 13 years. And, believe it or not, to very acceptable degrees of success. Strike Eagles, the deep air support/strike fighter derivative of the F-15 Eagle, have also been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and have flown CAS missions with high success rates as well.
According to the Air Force Times, a timeline hasn’t yet been set for the creation and standing up of these special integrated squadrons, though Air Force Air Combat Command will form a “close air support integration group” in the near future at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, that’ll feature a dozen or so F-16s, crewed by Air Force pilots but in a state of interaction with representatives from both the infantry of the Army and Marine Corps and the special operations forces of the US military, who also rely on on-call CAS during their various missions. This will play an important part in determining the structure of the previously-mentioned integrated CAS squadrons, while serving to highlight areas for improvement, adaptation and growth in the training of Tactical Air Control Party and joint terminal air controllers.
This all comes after a week-long deliberation between higher-ranking members of the US military on the future of the CAS mission, where the conclusion appeared to be that the “A-X” clean sheet replacement for the A-10 would not be on the table at least for the next 10-15 years, while the possibility of procuring smaller attack aircraft like the Textron AirLand Scorpion to fly “low-end” CAS missions still remained. The problem, as I see it, with the Scorpion is that it can only realistically and potentially-successfully operate in low-risk environments. It’s not as armored as an A-10, it doesn’t have speed nor does it have a heavy weapons payload. In itself, it’s highly reminiscent of the Vietnam-era OV-10 Bronco. However, all negative thoughts aside, if you use the Scorpion as a supplemental platform to larger, faster and heavier-loaded multi-role fighters armed to the teeth with smart munitions, you could possibly create a very cost-effective and all-encompassing solution to the eventual loss of the A-10, where you cover all areas of the CAS spectrum efficiently and successfully.
The future of CAS is still up in the air, and like it or not, the A-10 will eventually be retired, be it today or ten years from now. Instead of lamenting what might be or what could’ve been, it’s time to start finding concrete solutions. To not do so would be grossly irresponsible and negligent. At the moment, the Air Force is confronted with finding an answer to who will fly CAS missions of the future, in support of Army, Marine Corps and special operations activities on the ground, and it appears as though the F-15E/F-16 concept could very well be the answer they’re looking for, at least until it becomes viable to design, build and procure the A-X, the true successor to the A-10.