The following is excerpted from an article written for Defense News, which itself (despite the official-seeming name) is a pure product of Lockheed-Martin, not coincidentally the producers of my least favorite airplane, the F-35.
WASHINGTON — The Air Force could finally get its chance to start retiring some of its older A-10 Warthog attack planes.
The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday announced it had advanced its version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which supports the Air Force's plans to divest 21 A-10s at Fort Wayne Air National Guard Base in Indiana. The Air Force said earlier this year, when it released its proposed fiscal 2023 budget, it would replace those Warthogs with an equal number of F-16s.
Politico reported on Tuesday the House Armed Services Committee planned to include a similar provision in its version of the NDAA.
If this provision makes it through the congressional process and is signed into law, it would mark a breakthrough in the years-long disagreement between the Air Force and lawmakers over the fate of the iconic attack plane.
The Air Force has repeatedly asked Congress for permission to cut A-10s in recent years, so far without success. Most recently, in the 2022 NDAA, Congress authorized all the aircraft retirements the Air Force asked for — except the request to cut 42 A-10s.
The A-10, originally built during the Cold War to mow down columns of Russian tanks if the Soviet Union invaded Europe, was used heavily in the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan to provide close air support to ground troops.
But Air Force officials have said they worry the A-10 will not be able to survive the next war, which is likely to be a high-end fight against a major adversary. The A-10 is a relatively slow aircraft, which service officials fear would make it vulnerable to a nation with advanced air defenses such as China or Russia. The Warthog is also aging, with the average plane about 40 years old.
“The A-10 is a great platform for a [permissive] environment,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown told lawmakers in April. “I don't see very many [permissive] environments that we're going to roll into in the future.”
Critics of the Air Force's retirement plans say the A-10 has repeatedly proven itself to be a devastatingly effective close air support aircraft, and that the service hasn't shown it has an effective plan for a replacement aircraft.
So Air Force officials – unnamed – are worried that the A-10 has a low probability of survival in a high-threat environment. By that they mean there are going to be a lot of fighters after them, and likely a lot of smart and smarter SAMs. However, there is no evidence cited for this, and frankly, they are talking about either Russia or China.
Let me address that in several different ways.
First of all, the thing about the A-10 is that in general, it is a plane flown by the Air Force for the benefit of soldiers and Marines. And while the Air Force has some very competent special operations types, generally with an aviation focus (Combat Controllers, PJs and the like), mostly the guys who are out busting tanks are grunts and gyrenes, to pull a term that has fallen into disuse for Marines back to current parlance. So the plane (which I have always thought was a natural for the Marine Corps Air Wings) is disfavored, according to Lockheed Martin, and possibly some Air Force guys who aren't thinking so much about destroying tanks, despite the tank-heaviness of both of the potential hi-tech foes, but are really focusing on doing combat in the heavens against other fifth or even sixth generation jets. After all, their anthem says it best: The Wild Blue Yonder. They look up, not down, and attack plane pilots sometimes are operating at an altitude of 10 feet. Nonetheless, the war in the air is and has always been secondary to the war on the earth, or the war at sea: after all, we aren't angels, and do not live in the clouds. Wars are won, truly and thoroughly, when you flood the other side with infantry and tanks. We have graduated to an era of declaring that objectives have been achieved and leaving; Russia may be forced to do the same in Ukraine, and I hope that happens sooner than later. True, closing the sky is important to making that happen, but it in and of itself reminds me of the phrase from Viet Nam, uttered by unhappy ground pounders: “She don't mean a thing.”
What about the notion of A-10 survivability, in a missile rich environment or one saturated by enemy fighters? Well, let us look to a potentially applicable historical analogue: the battle over Ukraine in the Second World War. During the most iconic conflict of the modern era, and perhaps in history, only two countries really flew strategic bombers: the United States, the product of the sleeping tiger feared so correctly by Admiral Yamamoto, and the British. There were other four engine bombers about: the Germans manufactured a few, and arguendo their rocket campaign, V-1's and V-2's were a strategic and not tactical exercise. And while soldiers and Marines may giggle a bit when the toughness of aircrews is mentioned, during the Second World War the most dangerous place to be, as a general rule, was sitting or standing in the fuselage of a heavy bomber, behind a .30 or .50 caliber machine gun. A wonderful Youtube video interviews a man with the equally wonderful name of Luckadoo, obviously shortened to Lucky, and he was: a B-17 pilot, he was one of the few who survived the pre-escorted era, for by the time we got the B-17's to England, and started to reduce Germany to rubble, they were dealing with extremely experienced German fighter pilots flying excellent airplanes, and they were doing so unescorted. It wasn't until somewhat late in the war that drop tanks were developed, giving the fighters sufficient range to escort the bombers all the way to Berlin and back, and bomber attrition went way, way down. Of course, the Germans had by that point developed the Me-262, Crown Prince of turbojets, which made all American fighters obsolete, but that is for another day. My point is this: proper escort would allow the A-10's and the attack helicopters, which I can promise you infantrymen fear more than almost anything (artillery is up there, and so are really excellent ambushers) to do the dirty work where angels fear to tread, just as it did in Ukraine during WW2, when Messerschmitt 109's and Fw 109's accompanied Ju-87 Stukas, and Migs and Yaks accompanied the IL-2 Sturmoviks, the thing most feared by the battle hardened Germans on the Eastern Front.
Hence the Gunship Calypso. That name comes from a song written by a Rhodesian soldier, talking about flying in an Alouette gunship during the war that turned Rhodesia, basically a colony of South Africa, into Zimbabwe. It goes like this:
We are sailors of a kind
We sail across the sky
The sails are made from the chopper blades and the rotor takes us high
The Captain is the Jockey, the first mate is the Tech
And like a nautical man I fire on downward from the deck.
Nanananana na na
We don't sail sailing ships so
Nanananana na na
But we sing the Gunship Calypso
Edwards, John, Gunship Calypso
The truth is, there are subtle political digs in the lyrics that it requires an intimate knowledge of that bloody and pointless war to understand. But there is another point he makes, the bard of the bush: the gold we find in our treasure chest is a case of cold Chiburi, the beer that acted as fuel for so many during that time of unwanted-by-some change. There were no diamonds, and there was no gold, despite both proliferating under the contested savannah. Those things are for others: the simple grunt wants a beer and a cessation of hostilities.
Coupled with the above mantra what frankly I think are politically and financially motivated shenanigans by the Air Force, or at least some of the generals, who see the financial gains realizable with ever more sophisticated programs, this song says it right: we now sing the gunship calypso. Seriously: if an A-10, moving low over the ground at 450 mph can't survive it, how can any attack helicopter? Well, easy: good countermeasures, and strong top cover. Do not deny the men on the ground, the warfighters, the relief they need. Strategic bombing effects a gradual change, and the pressure such puts on a populace is constant. But the guy pinned down behind a wall can tell you this: if it isn't tactical, and it isn't low, she don't mean a thing. The generals know the A-10C is a highly capable aircraft. They know it can be reaccoutered to adapt to practically any threat. But it doesn't make the logs roll, and it doesn't bring the billions into the economy. No one wins wars but the men who own armament factories, looked at from one perspective.
So we sing the gunship calypso. It is a comment on just that, the guy on the ground, and the man in the air, and in some ways the attack helicopter and plane community is the link that binds them.
If the Air Force is successful in getting rid of the A-10's, we at this website have the perfect place to put them. But while getting rid of a few might be of benefit to Ukraine, there hasn't been anything that is so successful is destroying tanks as it is, US, Ukraine or wherever. Fighter planes fight other fighters; attack planes attack ground targets, and it is very, very hard to stop them, if they work together.
The writer is a former military man, now researching and writing about the Ukrainian Conflict. Questions can be sent directly to email@example.com.
Welcome to the discussion.