Another sign that the Middle East is declining to be a priority for the United States is that A-10 Thunderbolt II attack planes will replace more advanced American fighter jets that are moving from that region to Europe and the Pacific.
The Wall Street Journal was the first to publish the news. It quoted retired US Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Stutzriem has insisted that the A-10 remains “relevant to CENTCOM’s (US Central Command) mission over the Middle East.”
The April plan is part of a larger strategy to keep a smaller US land and naval presence in the hazardous region so that more resources can be diverted to confront Russia and China.
Critics cited in the report argue that deploying A-10s instead of more advanced aircraft – the report describes the Warthog as “aging” – could weaken the US military presence in the region. Such appreciation may ultimately prove correct.
The A-10 earned the moniker “tanker killer” because it effectively eliminated Iraqi tanks and tracked down mobile Scud missile launchers during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The aircraft can operate from much more rugged or improvised runways than those requiring more advanced fighters like the F-16. In Afghanistan, the A-10 played an essential role in providing close air support to troops in close combat.
The armored assault plane can assault enemy ground forces from close range using its powerful Avenger cannon, which can fire off about 4,000 bullets per minute.
The United States withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, and there have been indications that the A-10 is not the most suitable aircraft for the conflicts the United States has waged in the Middle East for the past decade.
For starters, the Warthog is not a supersonic aircraft and it doesn’t have the range of strategic bombers like the B-52 Stratofortress or the more modern B-1 Lancer. And while these planes aren’t as well-suited for providing close air support, the B-1 nonetheless proved crucial in supporting Syrian Kurdish fighters fighting a fierce ISIS siege on the border town of Kobani in 2014.
Consequently, B-1s had to be flown out of the Persian Gulf to provide air support at distances that A-10s could not reach without substantive air refueling.
On the other hand, when Turkey finally cleared US flights from Incirlik, A-10s flew an impressive 1,600 sorties against 2,500 targets. Just 12 A-10s from the 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron hit 44% of all targets in Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS, earning that squadron the prestigious Gallant Unit Citation.
Although the A-10 has limited secondary air-to-air capability – it shot down two Iraqi helicopters during the Gulf War – it is highly unlikely to deter enemy fighters. In August 2016, in Syria, USAF F-22 Raptors forced Syrian Su-24 bombers to abort a mission against Kurdish forces in the city of Hasaka.
In June 2017, a US Navy F/A-18E Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter after it targeted allied Kurdish troops. That engagement marked the first time a US fighter had splashed an enemy fighter since the 1999 Kosovo campaign.
These fighters are needed to deter Syrian and Russian warplanes. In March, Russian planes flew directly over the US garrison of Al Tanf in southern Syria almost every day of the month.
The A-10 was conspicuously absent on February 7, 2018. On that day, US commandos in eastern Syria received artillery fire from an attacking force made up of hundreds of pro-regime Syrian militiamen and Russian mercenaries.
At the subsequent Battle of Khasham, they received substantial air support. From F-22 and F-15E Strike Eagles to AC-130 and B-52 gunships, as well as AH-64 Apache helicopters and MQ-9 Reaper drones, they rushed in to save the day and decimate the attackers, leaving 200 to 300 dead and no American losses.
US troops in Syria have also been repeatedly targeted by drones, mainly single-use loitering munitions dropped by Iranian-backed militias. On March 23, one of these munitions killed a US contractor and wounded five servicemen at a base near Hasaka. The United States quickly retaliated with precision airstrikes using F-15Es flying out of Qatar’s massive al-Udeid airbase.
Keeping such fast aircraft in the region will remain essential as long as the United States maintains its modest 900-strong presence in Syria.
When it comes to deterring enemies on the ground and in the air, faster planes like the F-15 and F-22 are vastly superior to the A-10. To add insult to injury, A-10s can only adequately protect Syrian forces if they are stationed in either Jordan or Turkey’s Incirlik (the latter of which has a long history of reliability issues).
Politically, deploying A-10s to the Middle East instead of modern fighters leaving the region is unlikely to inspire much confidence in America’s regional allies. Following the drone and missile attacks on Abu Dhabi in January 2022, the USAF quickly deployed F-22s to the Al Dhafra airbase as a demonstration of US support for the security of the United Arab Emirates. However, the Emiratis were still not calm.
Deploying A-10s instead of fifth-generation jets like the F-22 is unlikely to be perceived as a sign of commitment by those regional allies. The USAF openly hopes to retire all A-10s by 2029. long-term US military relationship with the region and its security.