America’s efforts to train rebel groups in Syria hasn’t been all that successful – and isn’t even a good idea – but the military is giving some more practical help to anti-ISIS groups. Part of that help is air support, mostly flying out of the Incirlik airbase in Turkey, and recently a US Army spokesman confirmed that it was planes from Incirlik that allowed the Syrian Arab Coalition to recapture two towns from the jihadists. More specifically, it was A-10 Warthog attack aircraft – the controversial plane that the USAF is trying very hard to get rid of.
The A-10 was originally designed to kill Soviet tanks in West Germany and their life expectancy in a major European war wouldn’t have been all that high, but it’s now taken on a new role as a highly effective counterinsurgency plane. Its low speed and powerful, accurate gun make it ideal for precisely targeting enemies close to friendly troops; its massive carrying capacity means it can carry an assortment of missiles, rockets and guided bombs, so it can take off with a golf bag of weapons capable of dealing with any target it’s likely to find. Armored against light ground fire and with a reasonable chance of surviving a missile strike, it’s proved its value time after time in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now doing the same in Syria.
Unfortunately, the Air Force wants to retire the veteran attack planes and hand their mission to the new F-35. Offhand, it’s hard to think of a less suitable replacement for the A-10; the stealth aircraft’s gun is up to the job but only carries 180 rounds, compared to the A-10’s standard load of 1,174 (the drum can hold 1,350). The F-35 has fewer pylons and is cleared for a smaller range of weapons. It’s also a lot more vulnerable to enemy fire, especially when operating low and slow, and can’t loiter as long as the A-10. It’s fast and sexy though, and the Air Force is very proud of them, so they’re determined to use them for every mission they can even if they’re not the best tool for the job.
A lot of A-10 missions can be covered by the AC-130 gunship, which can also put very accurate heavy fire on a target, but it has its drawbacks. The A-10 was designed to operate in the lethal air defense zone above an advancing Soviet army. Casualties would have been heavy – the prediction was that 7% of them wouldn’t have come back from each mission – but any conventional aircraft flying into the multi-layered hell of gun and missile engagement zones over Soviet forces would have at best an even chance of surviving. A big, slow converted cargo plane like the AC-130 would have no chance at all. That doesn’t matter against an unsophisticated enemy like ISIS, but what if the USA had to attack someone with a functioning air defense system? That’s where the A-10 is essential.
Dedicated close support planes like the A-10 are unglamorous compared to a fifth-generation fighter, but they’re a lot more useful for most of the missions the USAF actually flies. The recent reports from Syria just confirm what every sensible analyst already knows; the A-10 fleet needs to stay until a proper replacement exists, and the F-35 isn’t it.
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