The A-10’s “Other” Mission: Combat Search and Rescue

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The predominant selling point behind the F-35 propaganda campaign is the proposition that it’ll be capable of a broad range of missions, from air superiority to suppression of enemy air defenses … from stealth strike to (cough, cough) close air support.

The Air Force’s effort to push the A-10 into the boneyard to accommodate the F-35’s excess budgetary girth has featured roughly the inverse logic — that the Warthog is a “single mission” platform and therefore not versatile or flexible enough to earn a spot in a shrinking future inventory.

This is, of course, total bunk. Students of airpower — at least who haven’t yet donated their brains to the cult ideology of F-35 uber alles — can enumerate at least four distinct A-10 missions: close air support, air interdiction, anti-maritime, and combat search and rescue, or “Sandy.” 

It’s the Sandy mission that has been most grievously ignored by the Air Force in its proposal to retire the A-10. The mission of commanding and coordinating the recovery of downed airmen behind enemy lines is specialized. It requires low-speed maneuverability, comfort in the low-altitude environment, long loiter, close integration with rescue forces, superb cockpit visibility, and consistent practice. There’s no answer for how this mission gap will be filled if the A-10 is retired. Neither the F-35 nor legacy F-16/F-15 platforms have the right blend of capabilities to pick up this mission requirement without a significant spike in operational risk.

Unless the U.S. is ready to accept having its downed aviators captured and perhaps tortured and killed by non-state groups unlikely to obey the dictates of International Humanitarian Law, it would be reckless to divest the A-10 Sandy mission without a clearly established, proven follow-on.

The astute Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), who flew the A-10 in combat and commanded an A-10 squadron, has said or implied as much repeatedly over the past several months. Her skilled advocacy has rallied Congress to slam the door shut on any plan to retire the A-10 before a credible follow-on is developed. A presidential veto has complicated things, but it still appears as though a materializing budget compromise will save the Air Force from itself on this issue for at least the next two years.

Hopefully, by the time the issue ripens for debate again, a new Air Force leadership team will have taken the opportunity to lucidly reflect and develop a more balanced vision of future warfare that supports the full spectrum of envisaged capabilities required for national defense.

If anyone needs a reminder of the Sandy mission in the meantime, this footage can help. It’s a vivid illustration that the A-10’s “other mission” as chief guarantor of the recovery of American aircrews from enemy territory is in good hands, and should remain there until someone has a better idea.

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