F-35 v. A-10

I’ll try to present the salient points from this article by Andrew Cockburn, and you can decide what position is best.

Obviously an F-35 would usually shoot down an A-10, but planning dogfights within our own military is not what is being discussed. The crux of the argument is that the A-10 allows for close human visual examination of a piece of territory during a conflict. A B-1 or F-35 will remain at higher altitudes and rely on more removed sources of intelligence, doing the A-10’s mission less effectively while rarely, if ever, getting into dogfights.

The conclusion is that the A-10 is the Air Force’s most effective weapon- it is an armored fighter that can withstand small arms fire at low altitudes[sup]1[/sup], provide reliable intelligence and, perhaps most importantly, ground support firepower when needed.

In terms of operational efficacy, the A-10 seems to have the best record, from WWII through Afghanistan. You’d think the Air Force would continue (or update) this program, but instead it appears that the whole fleet will be scrapped, and its missions handed off to the B-1 or the $200 million, still nonexistent F-35, with predictably worse military results (ie. more dead friendlies). Why?

The author of the article I cited has a theory:

point being that the P-47 was a forerunner of the A-10. After the war, some math nerds[sup]2[/sup] were hired by the Air Force to design the next thing. They crunched all the empirical war-time results numbers and came up with the A-10 design. And the A-10 has gone on to be perhaps the most effective weapon in the Air Force’s history. However, it seems the people who make the decisions are not focused on such details

Obviously there are two schools of thought, and the author argues that the wrong one is winning. Despite its usefulness, the A-10 is being eliminated for order-of-magnitude more expensive but less practical aircraft like the B-1 or the F-35.

The author stresses the superior usefulness of the A-10. He describes the A-10’s success in destroying most of Saddam’s armor and radar &etc, something that seems to be credited to the F-16 or guided missiles.
In Afghanistan too, the A-10 appears to be the superior tool. The author describes at length the poor quality of intelligence gained from drone video- “like looking at the world through a soda straw”. It can be difficult or impossible to gain true situational awareness through such a system. The A-10 allows for direct human observation, which means less blowing up of civilians and more precision in supporting ground units.

The ultimate point is that the Air Force plans to kill the cheaper, more useful A-10 in favor of the vastly more expensive, less useful F-35 for the sake of institutional pride and simply maintaining a larger share of the defense budget, and that this line of decision-making has an historical, explicit history.

The author’s argument is fairly well developed, and I’m just skimming it above. But in a time of budget hysteria, along with military anxiety, wouldn’t it make more sense to develop a successor to the A-10 at a fraction of the cost of the F-35, for the sake of not just the budget but superior military outcomes? Or, despite the loquaciousness of this point of view, are the salient facts overlooked and is the F-35 nonetheless the program the Air Force should proceed with?

That’s the debate.

Most Air Force generals are either ex fighter jocks or ex bomber pilots. Warthog drivers are rare in the general rank.
They buy what they flew.

So in this view the Air Force’s motives are not as institutional-psychological as my author implies. Still, with so many billions of dollars of the public’s money at stake, not to mention soldiers’ and civilians’ lives, shouldn’t everyone expect better than ‘they buy what they flew’?

I’m not arguing with you, but Warthogs just aren’t as sexy as F35s.
Sad but true.

I think there’s a reoccurring theme through military procurement history that it’s better to chase the super sexy high-tech stuff to defeat other conventional powers who are pursuing a similar strategy. A warthog is nice for brush fire wars against guys throwing firecrackers, but not in a “real war.” (so the thinking might go). But most of the wars nowadays aren’t against other great powers, so it leads to jamming those high tech toys into roles they weren’t meant to fill.

How successful is A10 going to be in an era of MANPADs and organic Air Defence for armoured formations?


One of the other points that the head of the Air Combat Command makes is that they have to prioritize the F-35 fleet because the F-15s and F16s are basically obsolete (remember these were first developed in the 1970s). A-10s are nice to have for ground support, but the Air Force is primarily concerned with air superiority.

When the Army (which loves the A-10’s tank killing capabilities) says “Look, if the Air Force doesn’t want the A-10, we’d be delighted to take it. After all, it’s already built, right?” the Air Force will fall back in love with it. That’s what happened before.

When the USAF was formed, they believed they’d win any future war with high altitude bombers, supersonic fighters, and ICBMs. They had no interest in low level missions, including supporting ground troops in combat. And they pitched a FIT when the Army 1) got helicopters with more capacity than the H-13, B) started using their aircraft for more than observation, artillery spotting, and as an aerial jeep, III) arming them for self defence, and worst of all 4th) arming their aircraft for attack.

I think they’re expecting a hell of a lot out of the F-35. I think there’s a good chance it’ll be the next F-111, another all service, all purpose, combat aircraft that didn’t deliver what was promised.

Everyone who says that the A-10 is currently better than the F-35 in close air support is unquestionably right. There’s really no substantive debate there.

However, what supporters of the A-10 tend to gloss over are a few points:

  1. Are we going to have more wars in the next 10 or 15 years where we will have tactical air bases that are not threatened by modern integrated air defense systems? Let’s face it, if the A-10 were to fly into China, Russia, Syria, Iran, or even North Korea, those environments would threaten even stealthy aircraft, and the A-10 simply wouldn’t stand much of a chance against extremely lethal SAMs. We used it in countries that have basically never had an effective air defense system (Iraq and Afghanistan), plus we used it without being contested. Same argument applies to those who think that Predator UAVs have rendered tac air obsolete. Let’s make that judgment when someone finally starts shooting back.

  2. The Air Force, Army and Navy have basically equal shares of the defense budget. Because of Pentagon politics, that isn’t going to change (with the one possible exception of the Navy getting some extra money for the new ballistic missile submarine to maintain one leg of the nuclear triad). Every additional cost of sustaining something comes at a price of giving something else up. Is it worth sinking literally billions of dollars to rewing and upgrade the A-10 when is simply will not be useful in high-end conflicts, like if we go to war with China? Keep in mind that it would be giving up buying F-35s or other modern capabilities.

  3. Anyone who believes that we can design an affordable strike aircraft is severely deluded. The F-35 was supposed to be that affordable aircraft, and we’re finding out it isn’t as cheap as we thought. Saying we should design an A-11 (or whatever) “but this time make it affordable!” is denying the simple truth that Augustine’s law correctly predicts that weapons will always escalate in cost.

  4. Do we want a military that has a vast array of tools that are perfectly suited to particular missions? Or must we accept trade-offs to buy weapons that are not great at any one thing, but adequate at doing a lot of things? For example, Marines love ship borne artillery if they ever do another amphibious landing. Does that require use to keep battleships, the undisputed master of softening up beaches? Or shall we invest in more destroyers, which aren’t as good at that, but are passibly good at ASW, missile defense, littoral patrols, naval bombardment, and various other things?

I can’t read the article because it is behind a paywall. The A-10 is a great aircraft at one thing. But like one of those wrenches that work on bolts shaped like 15 sided stars, it is indispensable once, but I question how many times you’re going to use it after you bought it.

ETA: plus, there’s zero chance the Army will take he A-10. Just guess what the Army wants more: hundreds of airplanes that cost ten grand an hour to fly, or maintaining 450,000-ish soldiers? There’s no question that the Army would rather have 450k soldiers and no A-10s, rather than 395k soldiers with A-10s. The Army is getting rid of Kiowa Warriors, fercrissakes, because they’d rather maintain their force structure.

Obsolete against whom?

Other than Israel and NATO (both allies of the US) there are few nations which have any combat air experience. The Russians and the Chinese haven’t flown combat roles since at least the Vietnam War and that’s over 40 years in the past.

Sorry, but if your potential enemies are even in the ballpark when in comes to combat air experience then they could be be flying the latest of modern technology and they would still simply be targets for your aircraft, whatever their vintage.

The F-15. F-16 and F-18 would be “obsolete” if they were to engage an experienced enemy. Since no such enemy exists, then they are not.

Well, SHORAD v. A-10 seems like a dogfight within our own military, which I try to head off pretty early in the OP. Who do we fight who has competent AA? How many aircraft have been shot down in the last 20 years with SAMs? (I really don’t know, so I can’t judge how big a threat AA is to the A-10) If we did fight an enemy able to defend against the A-10, wouldn’t they be expected to have defenses in other domes as well?

In any case, you don’t send in close-support aircraft until the worst of the AAA has been neutralized. But bottom-line, we don’t need the F-35 and likely never will. Upgrading current systems is cheaper and more applicable to any foreseeable conflict. But the Air Force must have the newest toys…

Bear in mind that the A-10 is pretty unique - no other military in the world employs a dedicated ground-attack craft; a unitasker, as Alton Brown would say. In every other air force, all the fighter jets are needed for air superiority, and only once that’s achieved, you can strap some missiles to them and send them out against tanks. The USAF is suffering from an embarrassment of riches. A first-world problem, in which the first world consists of the U.S. and the U.S. only.

Let me repeat one of my quotes:

The A-10’s role isn’t an exotic one-off like a 15 sided star bolt. It’s the most useful contribution the Air Force could make to any conventional war.

It’s hard to respond to the specifics of an article when it is behind a paywall. The utility of the A-10 has unquestionably been bolstered due to the total lack of any IADs in Iraq and Afghanistan, same as the Predator.

There was a proposal a couple years ago to build a Super Tucano; a prop driven airplane with 50 cal guns and optimized to CAS. It probably would have done a very good job in those wars, too. But that doesn’t mean that a Super Tucano would have an enduring place in the Air Force (or Navy, as it happened to be).

It’s obsolete in the sense that it’s a 4th gen fighter that’s been around for almost 50 years and that is currently outmatched by newer machinery such as the Eurofighter.

I don’t disagree with your assertion about potential enemies, and I think that’s the basis for the OP’s argument about retaining the A-10. But the Air Force mission is air superiority. You can’t achieve that with the A-10.

What about the SU-25? Doesn’t that fit the bill?

Do you know what the S-300/S-400 is, and who is buying them?

Hmm, you’re right. OK, so just *two *countries - the U.S. and Russia.

The A-10 (which BTW was stationed at two of the bases that I was when I was in the Air Force) was for years disparaged as being too slow to be useful. What saved it (in my opinion) is the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fact that US conflicts since then have been against enemies whose air defense systems have been only slightly better than shooting at it with bolt action rifles.

The A-10 would probably not do well in a conflict against say Iran until the Iranian air defenses had been ground down to nothingness. Even then, it would still be vulnerable to shoulder launched missiles in many scenarios.

The A-10 is good at a specific role - Close air support when your enemy has an extremely limited or a non-existent air defense system. I had heard one time that the Marines had considered anti-littoral shipping role but that they rejected due to the maintenance costs (I’m not certain if that ever got beyond studies)