The United States military is a big organization with multiple services, so it’s inevitable there are going to be disagreements – often big ones – about how to do things. From the long-running saga of trying to get all the services outfitted in camouflage that actually helps you hide to the future of the nuclear deterrent, politicians and senior officers spend a lot of time pushing their own ideas on what the military should do. Sometimes that can have serious consequences for the troops on the ground, and the current debate about close air support aircraft could be one of those issues.
The USAF is pushing hard on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, and one of its big goals for the advanced jet is to reduce the number of combat aircraft types in service. Eventually the plan is for the F-35 to replace the USAF’s F-16 fleet as well as – and here’s the potential problem – the A-10 Warthog close air support plane. If the F-35A performs as advertised, it should be a good replacement for the aging F-16s, but there are big question marks about how well it can fill in for the A-10.
The A-10 was designed to kill Soviet tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap, back in the long ago days when Russia maintained large armored formations and maneuvered them aggressively in Eastern Europe. It’s also turned out to be very useful for counter-insurgency. That shouldn’t have surprised anyone because the A-1 Skyraider it replaced did an excellent job in Vietnam and the A-10 was designed to the same philosophy. Slow and well armored, it can loiter at low altitude, drop weapons very precisely, and carry out accurate gun runs against soft targets. If it catches a few small arms rounds it won’t take much harm, and it’s relatively cheap to fly. With modern ordnance like the Small Diameter Bomb, it can carry a huge number of weapons, letting it strike an equally huge number of targets, and it can operate easily from austere fields.
The F-35A is a whole different kettle of fish. Optimized for strike missions, it’s much less suitable for close air support than the old A-10. It isn’t suitable for austere airstrips (even the USMC’s F-35B version isn’t as flexible as the old Harriers it will replace) so it’s likely to be flying from a lot further away. It has a higher stalling speed so can’t use its gun as effectively against small ground targets, and the gun only carries 180 rounds against 1,345 for the A-10. Even with external weapons pylons, which compromise its stealth features, it carries a much smaller number of bombs or missiles than an A-10. It’s also practically unarmored and vulnerable to small arms fire. It’s likely that, with the A-10s replaced by F-35s, troops in contact will have to wait longer for close air support and it will be less effective when it arrives. In a larger conflict, it might not be available at all; the F-35s are likely to be committed to strike missions, leaving the ground forces to rely on their own helicopters.
Of course helicopters have their own problems, including low speed and restricted performance in mountainous regions. The question the US Army has to ask itself is how will it provide heavy fire support for its forces in a post A-10 world? For counter-insurgency operations, armed trainers like the Shorts/Embraer Tucano might be a solution; they’re cheap to buy and operate, have good loiter times and can deliver light ordnance very accurately. But if US troops ever have to face a powerful enemy with large armored forces, they’ll feel the lack of the A-10.
It looks like the USAF is going to win this battle, so the Army is going to have to think ahead and decide how to fill the close support gap.