“One need not destroy one’s enemy. One need only destroy his willingness to engage.” – Sun Tzu
As the enemy prisoners of war shuffled south along Main Supply Route Texas, they cast nervous glances toward a distant sound echoing across the sky overhead. Almost imperceptible at first, the sound reached a crescendo, causing those glances to transform into a collective look of sheer terror. They recognized the sound, and its psychological effect on the Iraqi soldiers was irrefutable.
It was the unmistakable sound of freedom.
Flying low and slow, the A-10 Thunderbolt II was a predator in search of prey, hunting for survivors, relentlessly combing the charred ground below for any enemy armor that might have somehow avoided destruction. The unforgiving air campaign that marked the launch of Operation Desert Storm had left few remaining targets, and on this day only the distant sounds of the Warthog’s turbofan engines lingered over the rocky western desert. As the A-10’s search patter carried it out of sight, the fear remained behind, hanging over the Iraqi prisoners like a cold chill.
Twelve years later, I felt the same cold chill settle over Baghdad as Army and Marine Corps forces began a decade-long occupation of the Iraqi capital. No other aircraft (with the possible exception of the AC-130) stirred the same deeply emotional response – fear among the enemy, a calm confidence among friendly forces. Resistance literally withered when the A-10s descended from the clouds, delivering punishing firepower from the throats of their GAU-8 Avengers. And as resistance withered, coalition forces rose to the occasion knowing that the Warthog loitered nearby, bringing the scunion when it mattered most.
“When you’re hunkered down behind a sliver of cover taking heavy fire, there is no more reassuring sound than the twin engines of the A-10 Thunderbolt screaming in from the distance… Then you know the most reassuring sound you’ll ever hear.”
– Walter Hickey and Robert Johnson, ‘This Is the Face of Salvation When You’re Outgunned in the US Army’, Business Insider
Fast forward to 2015, however, and we find ourselves on disturbingly familiar terrain with the Air Force. Once again, it’s time to pull chocks on the A-10. Too old, too slow. Forget the fact that we’re pulling Eisenhower-era B-52s out of the boneyard. Look, I like Ike as much as the next guy, but if we can keep platforms in the air that are older than your grandparents… well, you get the point. No, this is about the close air support (CAS) mission, and anyone who’s ever had to look their enemy in the whites of his eyes will tell you that the A-10 puts the close in close air support.
But, when push comes to shove, the Air Force doesn’t really like the CAS mission. It’s risky, it puts pilots’ lives in danger, and – quite frankly – it isn’t sexy. The pilots who strap themselves into the titanium bathtubs are a different breed of aviator, kindred spirits to the knuckle-dragging combat troops slogging it out in the block-by-block fighting below. With a bravado and swagger foreign to their Breitling-wearing cousins, the A-10 pilots celebrate the close-in fight – the closer, the better. In the world of CAS, low and slow beats high and fast any day of the week. And that’s just not something the Air Force embraces.
So, like a fat kid chasing the ice cream truck on a hot summer day, the Air Force is going to spend away its future on a fast-burner, the F-35 (what the Army secretly refers to as FCS with wings), a system so ridiculously expensive that without sister service and partner nation investment it might be cheaper to just build a Death Star (and a lot more fun, too). The senior Air Force leadership reassures us, though, that the F-35 will take on the A-10’s CAS role, clearing the way to retire the venerable Warthog.
This is the part where clearer heads prevail.
Let’s break this down, Barney-style. Once all of the myriad operational issues are resolved, don’t be surprised if the price tag on the F-35 approaches $150M per airframe. There is no conceivable scenario in which the Air Force will risk putting an airframe that expensive in harm’s way. So, the F-35 will remain above the clouds, on station but out of sight. Close air support in name only – close being the operative term. Let’s face it, if you can’t see it coming, it isn’t really CAS. And if you’re on the ground, precision fire… ain’t.
But let’s not forget the psychological effect the A-10 brings to the fight. Aside from the aforementioned AC-130, no other airframe is capable of striking the same degree of fear into the hearts of the enemy. War is, after all, a battle of wills, and the Warthog has long been a key factor in breaking the will of the enemy. The F-35 can’t, and won’t. So, we’ll retire – not replace – the A-10, and in the process sacrifice a capability that fundamentally alters the calculus of close combat.
I get it, we need to press our advantage in the air domain. But at what cost? By the time the Chinese are finished hacking away at the Lockheed Martin servers, we’ll have a multi-trillion dollar fifth generation fighter program using stealth and avionics that are as openly shared as Edward Snowden’s hard drives. In the process, we’ll have ceded a major advantage in the close fight, the cost of which will be borne by ground forces, paid for in blood in treasure. And that’s the real cost of the F-35 program, isn’t it? Human lives.
That’s the unmistakable sound of treason.
Doctrine Man is the nom de guerre of a career Army officer and strategist, dedicated to bringing reason to the insanity around us. In 27 years of service, his adventures included multiple combat tours as well as assignments across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. You can follow his escapades in The Further Adventures of Doctrine Man and at his national defense blog, The Pendulum.