Final approach at Spangdahlem of one of a dozen A-10s the USAF sent to Europe in light of Russia rising (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Opinion: Future USAF Close-Air Support – no longer the A-team

The close-air support that the US Air Force provides to ground troops will in the near future no longer be executed by the A-team, but by the F-team. Despite sending A-10C attack aircraft to Iraq, Syria and Europe, the Pentagon top brass seems eager to keep moving forward with retiring the plane best equipped for the task. According to a fresh report by The Washington Post CAS will be done by standard fighter jets instead.

For many air forces having so-called multi-role fighters doing everything is business as usual, since they don’t have the luxury of having specialized planes for specialized tasks. A larger military like the US Air Force should be able to protect and support its men and women in combat in a more profound way.

Stealthy fighter jets and high-flying drones won’t do all the tricks needed. Built around a big gun and with wings that can hold almost anything the Fairchild Republic A-10C Thunderbolt II is the best plane on the battlefield when it comes down to close-air support. As long as the threat from enemy air-superiority fighters is handled with care by planes well suited for that role – like the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lighting IIs.

Moving A-10 pilots to McDonnell Douglas/Boeing-designed F-15E Strike Eagles and the smaller General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcon – the current plan of the American top generals – is like moving SUV drivers into Mini Coopers. Sure, the Minis look sexier and are fun on the road, but they don’t provide your family with the same robustness and storage space you need in rough terrain.

A knife edge pass by a Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle. Sometimes, life is simple. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
The big wings make the F-15E clearly visible once its starts moving around (Image © Elmer van Hest)

The F-15E was designed to strike and is a derivative of the F-15C meant as air-superiority fighter. Due to its large wings the Strike Eagle can be spotted easily from miles away once it starts moving around.

The smaller F-16 is commonly used in the close-air support role by many air forces, but the plane with the nickname Viper is much more vulnerable to small arms fire. A Viper jock cannot have one of its engine castings been blown to pieces by low-tech hostiles on the ground – it only has one engine, while the A-10 pilot can still fly and land the plane even if it sustained considerable damage. War operations like the one above former Yugoslavia in 1990s have shown this.

And then there is the issue of pilot safety. The F-15s and F-16s might be able to fly faster, but in hilly or mountainous terrain speed is not always a solution. Moreover, Strike Eagles and Fighting Falcons don’t have an armoured cockpit like the A-10s have – something that is quite useful when being fired upon from below by cheap Kalashnikov rifles.

Whobbling a bit in windy conditions this RNLAF F-16AM comes in to land at Schleswig Airbase, Germany, during the NATO Tiger Meet 2014 (Image © Marcel Burger)
The USAF might learn a trick or two from the Royal Netherlands Air Force, which has been using F-16s in the close-air support role since the 1980s, including during war ops in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. (Image © Marcel Burger)

Going forward with retiring the A-10 and letting close-air support being provided by standard fighter jets alone, will both reduce safety and security for the fighter jocks and the men and women on the ground the US Air Force has vowed to protect and serve. Even the top generals must admit that, having sent A-10s quickly to the Iraqi battlefield to fight ISIS and to Europe as a necessary safety back-up with Russia rising. Without the A-10 or a credible successor the American air weapon will move itself from being an A-team to a B-team when it comes to CAS – no matter what new tactics are cooked up.

© 2015 editor Marcel Burger
Featured image (top): Final approach at Spangdahlem of one of a dozen A-10s the USAF sent to Europe in light of Russia rising
(Image © Dennis Spronk)

Spangdahlem-based F-16Cs chase this Davis Monthan A-10 down to the runway. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
When it comes to CAS, this A-10 is way ahead of the F-16s chasing it. (Image © Dennis Spronk)