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The Fighter Mafia and the A-10

Thomas LeeMay 6, 2022 (0)

We are a contentious race. And the newer and less established something is, the more contentious it can be. Almost 120 years have passed since the momentous achievement of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in December, 1903. Given the enormous strides in aviation since then, you would think the world would have been turned upside down by the news. But when the bicycle manufacturers from Ohio made their first flight, it was initially reported by a bee-keeping journal.

Soon enough, though, a Frenchman named Louis Blériot flew the English Channel in 1909. Planes first took part in battle during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911.

Then came the first truly modern war, the Great War, the war that was supposed to end them all, but didn't. Airplane design took off in leaps and bounds, as war often sparks invention. By 1918, planes had interrupter gear, allowing pilots to fire through the propeller, and this increased their ability to aim, as the machine guns were able to fire down the axis of the fuselage. They became faster, more maneuverable, and even started to appear in monoplane – single wing – configuration, bellwethers of modern planes.

The Great War was a time of aces: ours was Eddie Rickenbacker, a racing driver who took to the air as well as he took to the ground. But the high scorers were Europeans. The Red Baron, or the Rote Kampf Flieger – the Red War Flyer, as he was called by his countrymen – downed at least 80 Allied aircraft, until he didn't look behind him one fateful day, concentrating on the pro in front while the rookie wingman came from behind. (Debate continues over who fired the bullet that brought down the Red Baron, but today most historians and ballistics experts believe it was a anti-aircraft machine gunner on the ground.) Manfred von Richtofen was indeed a member of the nobility – a graf, or a count - and while he didn't need to work, he served the kaiser, as did his peers. If legend is to be believed, he was also a knight of the air, and allegedly led not a raid but a wreath-dropping sortie, with empty guns, when a valiant member of the American Lafayette Escadrille died. The wreath read, “To our friend and Enemy, but always valiant, and always honorable.”

Fast forward a few years. General Billy Mitchell was the great proponent of airpower, even as America became more and more isolationist, scarred by the war in Europe. Viewed today as the father of the U.S. Air Force, he disproved conventional thinking by proving that planes alone could sink great ships, setting the stage for conflicts like 1942's Battle of the Coral Sea between the United States and Japan, which led to the eventual retirement of the battleship in favor of the aircraft carrier.

Why this foray into the history of military aviation? Because in some ways the controversy surrounding the A-10 is emblematic of a debate that has waxed and waned throughout the last century: heavy vs. light fighters, sophistication vs. ease of maintenance and manufacture, gun and armor vs. maneuverability.

These dilemmas are best solved by designing a plane for a job. The so-called Fighter Mafia was a band of pilots and professors who advocated for lightweight, maneuverable aircraft at a time when accepted doctrine called for faster, heavier, rocket-equipped, gunless fighters. They preferred planes that were light, quick and easy to maintain over the big fighters of the 1960's such as the F-4 Phantom II.

Their brainchild was the F-16, at some remove; the A-10 is also thought to be one of their bastard children. It is telling that the F-16 remains in front line service practically everywhere it has been deployed; some 30 nations have bought the F-16 or produce versions themselves. The same is true of the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet, also flown by many nations. These three planes – the A-10, the F-16 and the F-18 - were all designed with specific purposes in mind, and all built on a lighter framework, with less sophistication and more reliance on excellent piloting.

The heavy fighters of yesteryear did what they were designed to, or sort of. The century series, fighters with designations from F-100 to F-111, were mostly great vast things.

I still harbor a sneaking affection for the F-104, even though it wasn't good for much except going really fast and firing missiles from afar at Russian bombers. Its flaws were so pronounced that the ace of aces, Bubi Hartmann, a general in the West German air force, hated it enough to resign his commission over it.

Of the others in the series, the 101 is not worthy of mention; the 102 and 106 were as dangerous to the guy flying them as they were to the enemy; the F-105, which was a fighter-bomber, was the main victim of the Vietnamese aces. Last was the F-111, much heralded but basically useless. All of these were built on platforms despised by the Fighter Mafia, and this group of thinkers looked to the nimble and light MiG's for inspiration.

Today, the debate continues about the A-10, which to my mind is the premier attack plane in the world. And it came about, at least in part, because of the Fighter Mafia, who wanted an even lighter and Gatling-gun-only armed attack plane. (Nota bene: the Fighter Mafia was comprised of several fighter pilots and defense analysts, with Col. Everest Ricciardi, of Italian heritage, who named the group.)

Proponents of the F-35 argue A-10's have done well because opponents such as the Iraqi military, Iraqi insurgents, and the Taliban lacked advanced MANPAD – shoulder mounted surface to air missile - technology. Detractors argue it will not survive without the stealth technology that has been integrated into the F-35. Yet that argument has yet to be proven, and is flawed in many ways; moreover, other considerations, many of them financial, balance pure performance analysis. According to one source, the cost of per-hour operation of the A-10 is roughly one-fifth of the F-35, not to mention the cost of the aircraft itself, factors which could have very real life or death consequences on the battlefield.

Whatever the case for a plane that is operated by a nation at peace, surrounded by the vast moat of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the difference for Ukraine would be incredible. The cost per hour is a factor that makes it amazingly attractive to a country like Ukraine; the high survivability ratio of its pilots due to the armor and countermeasures it has makes the A-10 the best bet. They exist in surplus, if I did my figures right, and are not so advanced as to make transitioning to them difficult. They are dedicated tank busters in a war against an extremely tank heavy army.

It is entirely likely that the ones that still exist and aren't in active service sit at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. It would not be that hard to bring them up to speed, but the difficult task is convincing the generals and the politicians. Ukraine has been successful in knocking out tanks in large numbers, and A-10's would expand that capacity so much that it is hard to consider denying them. Once you have been here, the idea of denying these people, now under the boot of the Russians again, is sheer folly. I hope the people who want nothing but fifth generation, super sophisticated airplanes in the US inventory and the intellectual heirs of the “keep it simple” Fighter Mafia can find common ground and get the A-10s here. It serves both of their drives, albeit in slightly different ways: if the A-10's are here, then they can't be in the US providing a counterweight to the argument that the whole air force should make. But if they are here and doing the yeoman job I am absolutely certain they would, then upon an assessment of that performance, the counterweight would get heavier.


Allegedly, a black A-10 called the Super Warthog has just been tested. It is essentially the same aircraft, reinforced in every way possible, and may be the thing that causes the scales to tilt in favor of retention. I hope so, because I think it is the greatest plane going right now.

As an outside observer who fancies himself mildly qualified as I see the armor-heaviness of the Russians, I can tell you that anti-tank weapons and closure of the sky would make a difference hard to quantify: the value would become apparent only in the aftermath. But every tank gone helps. And to have a weapon that would help assert dominance of the skies, as well as being the ultimate in close air support…well, that sounds like a recipe for success here in Ukraine. Let us hope that the dictates of the Fighter Mafia, cold warriors that they were, work equally well in defense of the people they were designed to work against. 

The writer is a former military man, now researching and writing about the Ukrainian Conflict. Questions can be sent directly to


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