By Lt. Colonel (Ret) Tom Norris
Recently former state senator Frank Antenori penned an op-ed on the Air Force’s A-10 and the future of Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force base. It is the political season, but the troops on the ground and the people of Tucson deserve a measured and educated response to Antenori’s polemic.
Antenori: If you listen to those making the emotional argument for saving the A-10, they say saving the A-10 is a must in order to save Davis-Monthan Air Force Base from a future Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) and because our troops need it.
Response: As of now, there is not a plan for an immediate replacement mission for DM. Should the Air Force succeed in their current plan, the Tucson metropolitan area will see tremendous job loss. The base will be at grave risk of closure without an adequate mission to protect it from closure.
What is more important to most Americans is the fact that our troops say they need it.
Antenori: There’s no doubt that the A-10, the pilots, and the infrastructure that support it at are vital to the local economy of Southern Arizona. It’s easy to see why the mere notion of mothballing it would stir an emotional response from the community and politicians, let alone guys like me that once counted on it in combat.
However, if you take a step back and look at the current picture you might come to a different conclusion. You may even come to realize that an overzealous effort to save the aging aircraft, while ignoring other opportunities for the base, could even wind up hurting our local community and economy in the long run. Let me explain.
Response: The effort to save the A-10 is as much an effort to the save the base as it to save the CAS capability. Unfortunately other than the efforts made by A-10 supporters, few from Tucson have been in DC lobbying to point out the amazing growth potential of the base and the nearby National Treasure called the Barry M. Goldwater Range Complex. DM 50 – NOPE, SADA – NOPE.
It appears that Mr. Antenori’s sources are misleading him, if in fact he has any real sources to back up his claim to be in the know.
That being said, the proposed new units for DM (one UAV, one RESERVE F-16 operational unit) will not come close to replacing the 3000 plus full-time jobs lost if the A-10s and half the EC-130s leave.
Antenori: The A-10 Thunderbolt II was developed after Vietnam as a Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft to replace the A-1 Skyraider and kill Soviet tanks. For the first 15 years of its service life, the A-10 saw no combat, one of the reasons it was almost mothballed back in 1989 .
Response: Mr. Antenori is misinformed. The A-10 was developed post-Vietnam (at the demand of Congress, not the USAF) because the USAF performed CAS terribly. Thanks to the A-1, the USAF did manage to provide some CAS to our troops before the war was over. Where did the A-1s come from? The Boneyard. They were USN assets that had to be refurbished and sent to the front.
The A-10 was almost mothballed in 1989 not because it did not see action (like all other USAF fighters) but because the USAF hated it from the beginning. Ironically, the USAF used the same arguments that Mr. Antenori is using now. Thankfully, the aircraft was still in service during Desert Storm where it saved many lives and made a huge contribution to the war effort.
Antenori: It wasn’t until Desert Storm, in 1991, where the A-10 first saw combat. As a young Green Beret, I personally saw the A-10 in action, doing what it was designed for, killing tanks, in close. My A-team helped ID Iraqi tanks for the A-10s. I watched dozens of Maverick missiles hit their mark, separating turrets from their tanks with a fireball. It was truly one of the most impressive things I had ever seen and by far, one of the highpoints of the A-10s history.
Response: According to the GAO report on Desert Storm, only the A-10 and the B-52 was feared by the Iraqi Army. If Mr. Antenori only saw Mavericks hit the target from an A-10, he missed a tremendous number of other missions targeting artillery, troops, personnel carriers, surface to air missile sites, and SCUDs.
Antenori: Ten years later, in Afghanistan, things would be much different. In late 2001, as Army Special Forces began their assault on al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, the A-10 was nowhere to be seen.
Response: True to a certain extent. The USAF purposely tries to leave the A-10 out of every war. General Horner (USAF) tried to do it in Desert Storm. Thanks to General Schwarzkopf, he would not accept this recommendation and A-10s were sent there in force. During this 2001 timeframe, the USAF kept the A-10s in Iraq. The USAF dictates force strength, not the pilots. We would have been in both theatres if the USAF would allow deployment. The A-10s were tasked for OEF at the request of the CENTCOM/CC during Anaconda because the USAF was experiencing terrible performance while conducting CAS. The CENTCOM/CC’s quote after the A-10s arrived in OEF “we now have a normalized battlespace with A-10s here.”
Antenori: The remoteness of Afghanistan made it impractical for the A-10 to be used until a forward airbase could be secured. Initially we relied on B-2 and B-52 bombers to drop guided bombs (JDAMs and Paveways) on enemy targets we designated with lasers or geolocated using GPS.
Response: A-10s were stationed at Baghram AB as soon as CENTCOM could open it. No other fighters were allowed because the runway and ramp areas were in such terrible condition. The USAF knew the F-16, F-15E etc., would ingest concrete and destroy engines. The A-10 can drop more air-to-ground precision weapons than the F-16 and as many as the F-15E. In addition, the A-10 can refuel to get anywhere in the world. Lastly, the A-10 can operate (and has) from austere field FAARPs which no other fighter or bomber in the USAF inventory can accomplish. This provides a means of keeping continuous pressure on the battle by refueling and rearming close to the fight.
Antenori: If we ran into trouble, we used F-16s and F-18s for close air support. They had to fly from Qatar or Kuwait to get to us, refueling on the way and really could only stay above us for 15-20 minutes before running out of fuel again. Close Air Support was “spotty” at best.
Response: Again the USAF did not deploy the A-10 because they are trying to get rid of it by showing other platforms can do the mission. Short loiter times are just one of the problems associated with using an Air Interdiction aircraft in the CAS role.
Antenori: Soon what would become the Close Air Support workhorse for Special Operations in Afghanistan arrived. The AC-130H/U “Spectre & Spooky” Gunships had several advantages for us; first and foremost, they were fitted with auxiliary internal fuel tanks so they could remain on station overhead for hours rather than minutes. They were equipped with a lot of firepower; a 25mm Gatling gun, twin 40mm Bofors cannons and a 105mm Howitzer. The number of Taliban positions we “pounded” with the AC-130s were too numerous to remember. It became a soothing sound to hear the AC-130s overhead.
Response: Interesting. So you have a CAS platform for 12 hours of the day (only flies at night because they are so vulnerable)? As shown in Desert Storm, even a modest amount of anti-aircraft fire shot one of these down because it stayed too long after sunrise.
Antenori: The A-10 didn’t show up in Afghanistan until March of 2002. Although available for Operation Anaconda, we never used them, opting instead for the AC-130s, Apache Helicopters, bombers carrying those 2000lb precision guided bombs, and on occasion, a Hellfire Missile or two from a Predator drone.
Response: Even when A-10s were deployed, the USAF deployed small numbers of them to cover a huge battlefield. Only a Joint Terminal Controller can execute fires from an aircraft to a ground target unless emergency CAS operations are being conducted, not sure who Mr. Antenori is referring to when he says “we.”
Antenori: The same would hold true again for Iraq in 2003. As my A-team made its way deep into Iraqi territory, we were attacked by a large Iraqi armor force. This time we had one of the Army’s newest weapons at our disposal, the Javelin Missile. For thirty-five minutes we proceeded to engage the tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) with these precision shoulder fired infantry weapons; destroying most of the armor before the first aircraft arrived to provide CAS.
Response: One has to ask Mr. Antenori if this case means he doesn’t want CAS for any scenario. I think other soldiers would disagree. How many Javelins can you carry? Enough to handle a battalion of tanks? One A-10 with 1150 of Combat Mix is more Javelins than you can carry on your back.
Antenori: What’s my point? Well the world of military weaponry is evolving so quickly that many of the Cold War era weapon systems are quickly becoming obsolete. There are those that make the claim that the A-10 can’t be replaced by the F-35. I would agree with that statement but add the A-10 isn’t being replaced by just the F-35, but by a host of emerging weapons and technologies.
Response: Mr. Antenori does not name the technologies the A-10 does not have. The A-10 is more advanced than ANY USAF fighter in the inventory in the areas of precision air-to-ground forward firing and free-fall weapons, datalink, displays, sensors, radios, survivability, helmet mounted cueing systems, combat search and recovery systems and unguided forward firing ordnance. These technologies he cites are all very vulnerable to all kinds of spoofing and jamming. Further, a simple weather deck in combination with moving targets makes these precision technologies unusable.
Antenori: Congress and the President have decided to reduce funding for the Defense Department. As a result, all of the services are making tough decisions surrounding where they want to focus the limited dollars they receive. They have to balance modernization; keeping one step ahead of our potential foes and readiness; having enough well trained bodies to fight when called upon.
Response: The issue is how the USAF is spending their money. $160-180 million per F-35 is outrageous. A strategy which bets every dollar we have on the most unlikely scenario is reckless. I propose that we do a nose-to-nose comparison of the A-10 versus any airplane you want, let the USA/USMC/SOF decide the winner.
Antenori: The U.S. Army is investing heavily in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), precision guided weapons and precision targeting systems. Soldiers now have numerous new weapons that provide “organic” supporting fires and Close Air Support.
The Army has GPS and laser guided Excalibur 155mm Artillery shells, image guided “Fire and Forget” Javelin Missiles. Soon they will have hundreds of UAVs armed with Hellfire missiles, laser guided bombs, and a host of other guided small tactical munitions. You can see why Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno told Congress the Army can get by without the A-10.
Response: General Ray Odierno also said the “A-10 is the best CAS aircraft in the world”. The only reason the USA/USMC are not fighting this is 1) you don’t piss in my budget charcoal and I won’t piss in yours and 2) the USMC has no choice but to support the F-35. If the F-35C does not see reality, USMC aviation will cease to exist.
Antenori: U.S. Special Operations Command has also been investing in its own “organic” Close Air Support, by upgrading their AC-130s which with the new Griffin Missile and Viper Strike Precision Guided Munition, while at the same time developing an even more effective next generation gunship. They too are buying and arming UAVs.
Response: More capability perhaps, but only usable for 12 hours a day, not the path most soldiers want to pursue. The added capability is relative to a legacy AC-130 not a two-ship of A-10s. A-10s have more precision firepower and ability to operate under a 1000 feet above ground level (agl) weather deck with 2 miles visibility day or night. So, what are we going to tell our sons and daughters; if there are clouds in the sky you are on your own?
Antenori: Defense Advanced Research and Projects Agency is developing a Persistent-Close Air Support (P-CAS) system. The new platform will be on call “24-7” and loaded with hundreds of precision guided munitions ready to rain down on any enemy with the push of a button from a soldier on the ground.
Response: Guided munitions sound great but a lack of high fidelity coordinates, a simple weather deck, or a moving target makes them difficult to employ from the air.
Antenori: Sadly the writing is on the wall for the venerable A-10. Make no mistake; the A-10 will be mothballed. Besides the USAF not wanting to keep it, their two biggest customers, the U.S. Army and Special Operations Command say they don’t need it and contrary to popular belief it isn’t being replaced by the F-35, but, like many things in our lives, a host of rapidly advancing technologies.
Response: Bet you a case of your favorite beer! But seriously, Mr. Antenori needs to be more careful about making claims that he cannot support with current or historical evidence. The troops on the ground are telling everyone a very different story than what the generals are saying. The troops are telling everyone, including Senator Ayotte, ‘please do not let the A-10 be divested.’
Antenori: Much like previous CAS aircraft like the P-51 Mustang and the A-1 Skyraider which hold a special place in the hearts of the soldiers who counted on them, myself included, it’s time to say goodbye to the A-10 and embrace the future.
Response: Once again, Mr. Antenori needs a history lesson badly. The P-51 failed miserably at CAS. Thank the good Lord we had the P-47. The P-51 was liquid cooled so the first little bit of anti-aircraft fire and these things were falling out of the sky. The P-47 was air cooled, rugged, and had a large payload – turned out to be a good CAS platform which occurred totally by accident. How did the United States Army Air Corps think they would never need a CAS aircraft? They thought there would never be another ground war after WWI….and again after WWII…and again after Korea…and Vietnam…and today.
The point of all this is, you do not eliminate a critical capability before you have a viable replacement. At this point we do not have viable replacement.
Antenori: Local leaders and politicians should be focused on the future not hanging on to the past. To preserve Davis-Monthan we need to work to bring newly developed technologies, combat systems and missions to the base. Whether it’s a new squadron of UAVs armed with precision weapons, next generation bombers and gunships, refueling tankers or cyber and counter-cyber warfare technologies and missions, Davis-Monthan’s survival depends on the future not the past.
Response: Once again, Mr. Antenori needs to stop playing politics. You don’t get a new mission like ordering food off a menu. It takes a concentrated effort to identify the strengths of DM, getting both Senators on board, and a continuous Tucson lobby in DC. Not one of these is being done by anyone in Tucson.
Lt. Colonel (Ret) Tom Norris has approximately 3,000 hours in the A-10 and flew out of DMAFB. He works closely with staff on the Hill, and is a staunch advocate for the “boots on the ground.”