Sometimes I love being vindicated; sometimes it leaves a taste of wormwood and gall, to quote the King James Version of the Bible.
Please see an article reproduced on the internet by various organs on or about July 26 entitled, in various iterations, “Ukrainian Officials Don't Want Old US A-10's.”
“Air Force officials said last week that a variety of American planes could be given to Ukrainian pilots in their fight against Russia, including the A-10 Warthog. But in a message to Military.com on Tuesday, Yuriy Sak -- an adviser to Ukraine's minister of defense -- made it clear: The country doesn't need A-10s, it needs the more modern F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet.”
Why would this be, in a theater of war that seems so suited to the A-10, the tank destroyer par excellence? The answer is simple: shoulder-mounted missiles. For years, Air Force officials have tried to retire the A-10, claiming that it has a low survival probability in a Stinger-rich (and shoulder mounted, Stinger-esque) environment. The same seems to be true of tanks; some military cognoscenti are declaring that the age of tanks is done, and that shoulder-mounted missiles now dominate the battlefield. They are cheap and increasingly effective. Please see the attached photograph of St Javelin, a piece of street art – street art that enraged the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, incidentally – celebrating the MANPAD Javelin, a US made piece of technological wizardry. Unlike simpler systems, it has two settings: either it can hit the tank (or whatever other ground-borne piece of technology that it is fired at) directly, ballistically, striking whatever is closest to the missileer; or, in the other setting, the missile rises to a particular altitude, whereupon it dives into the ostensibly least armored part of the tank -- the top of the turret. It is immortalized in the church-defying street art because it has proven more effective than prayer at taking out Russian tanks. It is one of the two weapons that have been apotheosized during this struggle, and each is weirdly emblematic of what is emerging as a new form of warfare. The other, of course, is the drone, and 15-year-old kids have been successful in directing artillery fire or even dropping munitions from what only a few years ago were at best advanced toys.
MANPAD – man-portable – shoulder mounted fire missiles are also the bane of attack aircraft. Certainly, FiM-92 Stingers broke the back of Soviet aviation in Afghanistan, where the Mujahideen famously said, “We are not frightened of the Russians, but we are frightened of their helicopters.” And I can assure you that an Mi-24 Hind, called “Alligator” or “Hunchback” by the Russians, is a fearsome, fearsome thing. Fortunately, the last one I saw with Red stars (as opposed to the welcome blue and yellow ensign of Ukraine), it was maintained the way all equipment east of the Vistula is maintained. In other words, it wasn't. Unlike most airplanes, helicopters have an incredibly high need for maintenance; ideally, they are maintained after every flight. This is an ideal, and warzones are not the places where ideals obtain. Yet the more sophisticated the helo, the more it requires, which means that the Hoplites, Hips, Hinds and Havocs, made for less-trained Russian pilots and made to deal with the realities of life east of the Vistula, often hold up well in combat when their Western counterparts do not. (Note: in NATO nomenclature all Warsaw Pact and successor helicopters were named with an ‘H,' just as fighters were named with a radio-intelligible noun beginning with ‘F.' And they did run out of nouns. Would you want to fly a plane called a “Fishbed?” No? Yet it was viciously effective.)
Back to the A-10s. Western thinkers have long discounted them; they last rolled off the production line 40 years ago, and they go no faster than a WW2 fighter. Yet grunts think the sun rises and sets upon them, and their sound has warmed many the dogface's heart. Are the Ukrainians serious about refusing A-10s? There are few pilots in the Ukrainian air force, because there are few fighter and attack planes; according to CNN there are fewer than 100 effective combat aircraft in the entire Ukrainian aviation panoply.
See: How Russia and Ukraine's militaries compare - CNN (Google)
So despite the fact that Ukrainian pilots, trained in the US, immediately called “politics,” there is a dearth of pilots no matter what is given. When I was sworn into the Ukrainian Army – we have been transferred from the Foreign Legion to the Army, likely to afford us nominal protection from accusations of being mercenaries, and thus falling outside of the protections of the Geneva Convention and the Hague – I came to realize the ad hoc nature of things. I have already described the intensely thorough medical exam that we underwent to be inducted; it was both the most and least thorough exam I have ever undergone. The i's were dotted and the t's crossed; but instead of checking our blood pressure, the doctor asked if we had high blood pressure – in Russian, which meant the Ukrainian Army lady with us, a Ukrainian speaker, got really mad at him, and he got mad back. He asked if we had had traumatic brain injury, or serious trauma; no, we replied. Then he noticed the curvature of one guy's spine, and asked him to lift his shirt. The soldier replied to the translated question that he did not have lordosis, but had been in a serious motorcycle accident…about three minutes after he said that he had not had any serious trauma.
Again, this is the problem: certainly, if a squadron of F-16's landed in Kyiv, and they were suddenly painted yellow and blue, I am sure the pilots to fly them would appear. They might be stolen from Ukraine Air, or hired, or fat, or old and weird…but they would appear. And the same is true of A-10's. Frogfoots (or Frogfeet?) are still overhead, and they are essentially the Soviet counterpart. They are still knocking out Ukrainian tanks, despite what Western news says; they are still feared by infantry. And the same would be true of A-10's. In truth, fighters fly so fast that they rarely represent a danger to infantry. Of course, if they have unexpended ordinance, or napalm – fighter-bombers, more properly – they are a danger. But helicopters, which are truly vulnerable to missiles, are the real danger to ground forces.
That this is the truth: unless you are fighting a really well equipped and supplied army, the possibility that a standard infantry unit is going to be equipped with man-portable SAM's is low. So…send them, Uncle Sam, and send them now.
They will not go wanting.
The writer is a former military man, now researching and writing about the Ukrainian Conflict. Questions can be sent directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Welcome to the discussion.