The US Air Force is finally getting rid of its A-10s
an a10 over central germany in 2020

After the US Air Force tried many times to get rid of the A-10 Thunderbolt II, Congress finally approved a plan to eliminate 21 of these old ground-attack planes late last year. The A-10 Thunderbolt II is the only US military plane ever made specifically for close air support.

Air Force chiefs plan to continue retiring A-10s for years to come, which will lower the fleet size to 260 aircraft if these retirements go forward.

Air Force leaders have shown a preference for the F-35 to replace the A-10 “Warthog” as the principal close air support aircraft for the service.

However, according to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan watchdog group, the Air Force appears to be deemphasizing close air support training for F-35 pilots.

CAS, or Close Air Support, is the use of fixed or rotary aircraft to strike targets in close proximity to the enemy. These operations are challenging and require precise coordination with ground troops to avoid hitting friendly forces, but they can significantly alter the course of battle.

The Air Force is the only branch of the United States armed forces tasked with “providing combat and logistic air support.” close” to the Army, and while other branches of the armed forces do close air support missions with different aircraft, none of them have dedicated platforms like the A-10.

The US Air Force is finally getting rid of its legendry Plane A-10s
An A-10 at an aerial firing range in Michigan in April 2016.

Not so Close

Current and former Air Force officers have said the F-35 would take over the A-10‘s mission after the Warthog left the fleet.

At a 2016 Senate hearing, Michael Gilmore, then the Pentagon’s director of operational testing and evaluation, confirmed that the F-35 was intended to succeed the A-10 citing the F-35 operational requirements document, which outlines the role of a weapons program and is created before a program goes into development.

“On page 2, it says that the F-35A will rely primarily on the F-22 for air superiority and will assume the F-16’s current role as the lower end of the USAF’s high-low combination fighter strategy and the role of the A-10,” Gilmore said. “This is how it appears in the operational requirements document.”

At the same session, former Military acquisition chief Frank Kendall testified that the F-35 would approach the close air support job differently.

“The A-10 was designed to fly low, slow, and close to targets, relatively speaking. We will not use the F-35 in the same way as the A-10. So it will carry out the mission very differently,” said Kendall, now the Air Force’s top civilian officer.

However, CAS training for F-35 pilots seems to have taken a backseat. As reported by POGO, the Air Force has classified close air support as a secondary mission for its active duty, National Guard, and reserve F-35 pilots. This means that pilots in these roles must be conversant with the operation but do not need to be experts in it.

The latest F-35 training brief from the Air Force was produced in October and covers training for 2023 and 2024; it states that F-35 pilots are not required to conduct any CAS training missions, either real or simulated.

“To be clear: No F-35 pilot of any experience level in any Air Force component is required to fly a single close air support training mission in 2023 or 2024,” wrote Dan Grazier, a senior fellow at POGO defense policy, in the report.

Comparatively, A-10 pilots are obliged to fly between 13 and 20 CAS training flights, depending on their degree of experience and their component, but they frequently fly more, as commanders typically give A-10 pilots about 32 additional CAS sorties. Pilots of the A-10, according to POGO.

POGO noted that the only F-35 pilots required to fly close air support missions are those attending the service’s Weapons Course, a premier postgraduate course in weaponry and tactics.

However, only two of the 21 sorties flown by Weapons Course students are dedicated to CAS. The course program adds, “CAS combat training objectives are permitted but are secondary to approved program objectives.”

A representative for the Air Force informed POGO that CAS training was a “necessary aspect” of the F-35A aircrew-readiness program and that CAS training required the integration of forward air controllers in order to be an “effective training event.”

A change of course

An A-10 at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey in October 2015.
An A-10 at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey in October 2015.

With its GAU-8 Avenger 30mm gun and other air-to-surface armaments, the 1976-released A-10 was created to fend off a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

For this operation, the A-10 would need to fly low and very slowly in areas with plenty of anti-aircraft weaponry, engaging enemy forces close to friendly soldiers.

The A-10 was designed to be tough, with features such as a titanium “bathtub” surrounding the cockpit, but even Cold War-era architects anticipated severe losses. Low-altitude CAS operations are riskier for the F-35 because it has a less effective gun and is not as tough as the A-10.¬†

The US Air Force is finally getting rid of its legendry Plane A-10s
An A-10 and an F-35 over Texas in October 2020.

The F-35 could carry out close air support from medium altitudes using its advanced sensors and smart bombs, but CAS from that height “doesn’t work when the enemy is close” too friendly troops, said Billie Flynn, a former forces officer. Canadian airlines and chief test pilot for the F-35 told The Aviationist last year.

“You can never talk about any aircraft truly and effectively replacing the A-10, even after all these years,” Flynn added. The Air Force has been trying to begin retiring the A-10s for years, but Congress has repeatedly intervened to prevent this. This has caused significant delays in the program.

Given the inherent danger of bombing targets near friendly forces, “regular training” in CAS-related procedures is crucial, according to A-10 veteran pilot Brian Boeding.

“These skills are ephemeral,” Boeding said, “and the stakes are too high not to train specialized crews (on the ground and in the air) in purpose-built close air support aircraft.”