Can America afford to scrap the A-10 Warthog?
President Obama’s Air Force wants to send the venerable A-10 Warthog ground attack plane to the boneyard, claiming it can’t afford the expense of keeping them. But if the cost is measured in human life, the better question is: can we afford not to keep them?
Let’s say you and your buddies are US Marines patrolling through a ravine in a remote area of Afghanistan. You’re ambushed by an entire company of Taliban fighters shooting down on you from a high ridge. It’s nighttime and the weather is bad. You’re out of range of artillery support. You’re pinned down and taking casualties. You can barely see your enemy up behind the rocky ridge. You make radio contact and the Air Force can vector in two aircraft to your area to provide close air support (CAS).
You and your buddies’ survival almost entirely depend upon what sort of aircraft can come to your assistance.
If the Air Force sends in a low and slow-flying A-10 Warthog, it’s your lucky day. Total cloud cover? No problem: the Hog flies almost to the nape of the earth so it can get up close and personal with the enemy. Nighttime? Also no problem: your plane is so maneuverable that you can bob and weave away from tracer rounds.
Your pilots get their Hogs near the ridge. The plane is literally built around a monster 30 mm GAU-8 Avenger multibarrel cannon, which shoots huge depleted uranium bullets at a high speed. Originally designed to kill Soviet tanks rushing into West Germany, the Avenger cannon basically cuts through anything in its path like, well, butter. The Warthog can loiter above the battlespace for hours, returning again and again for more attack runs.
Even the pilot is well cared-for. His seat is surrounded by a reinforced titanium bath that deflects almost all ordnance. It’s not pretty, but the plane can take a ridiculous beating: During the Iraq War, while Capt. Kim Campbell was flying over Baghdad, a jihadi fired a surface to air missile at her, punching a huge hole in her A-10 and knocking out all its hydraulics. Okay, so she switched to its unique “manual reversion” mode, where the stick can physically pull the cables through her own brute force, and she made it home.
But back to our scenario in that ravine: The jihadis are 50 feet up from you, which is too danger-close for you to ask the pilot to drop any bombs. But because the two Warthogs are the angel of your night, it only takes a dozen gun passes each to slice through and pin down the enemy, allowing you and your Marines to slip away from the ambush.
This story isn’t actually fiction. This really happened, in 2008 to Marine Master Sgt. Richard Wells and his five other Marines. They all lived. But they might not have if the Air Force had sent in one of its new, ultra high-tech F-35 Lightning joint strike fighters instead. The USAF wants desperately, and understandably, to solve all the technical problems plaguing the F-35 and believes that scrapping the unglamorous A-10 would free up the money to do it.
The F-35 is an amazing aircraft—when it works—but it flies too fast to simply loiter over the ground while leisurely machine-gunning the enemy. It can drop a bomb on a GPS-marked position, but what if the enemy is only a few yards away from your position?
US Rep. Martha McSally (R), a former Warthog pilot, helped to rally support for the Warthog this week, as the whole Congress gets ready to vote on the overall draft 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. By attaching multiple amendments in her committee, it looks like she’s kept the plane funded for another year. But only just, and only for another year.
In a moral world, money isn’t an issue in defense: You spend what you need. Our men need the A-10 and will for years to come.
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