Since air warfare began in World War I, several constants have emerged. One is that most aircraft are shot down by other aircraft they never saw. Another is that air cooperation with ground forces can have a decisive result while strategic bombing does not.
The US Air Force (and many other air forces) has done an exemplary job of ignoring both of these constants, the first by designing fighter aircraft with poor visibility rearward and the second by emphasizing strategic bombing while neglecting ground support. In recent years, it has accomplished the latter simply by not buying any aircraft that can effectively do ground support missions. No “fast mover” can; the mission cannot be performed at high speeds or from high altitudes. “Fast movers” are much too vulnerable to ground fire to fly low and slow as the mission—especially identifying ground targets as friendly or enemy—requires.
There is one big exception to this picture: the A-10. The A-10 is the world’s best ground attack aircraft, because it was designed from the beginning for this mission and no other. More, it was designed using a wholly different approach from that used for other combat aircraft. The main man behind the A-10 was Pierre Sprey, whom I know well. Pierre was John Boyd’s colleague and closest collaborator through much of John’s life. He designed the A-10 based on combat history. He interviewed many successful ground support pilots, including Hans Ulrich Rudel, the famous Stuka pilot who specialized in busting Russian tanks. The design of the A-10 reflects the aircraft characteristics these men said were most important to performing the ground attack mission. Subtle points were often highly important. I remember Pierre telling me Rudel’s reply when Pierre asked him how he survived when so many other Stuka pilots did not. Rudel said that in making an attack on a tank (with cannon, not bombs), he only flew straight and level for a second and a half. Other pilots usually took a second longer. That second made the difference between life and death.
How does the US Air Force usually design aircraft? Combat history plays no role at all. It and its captive “private” aircraft companies simply throw technology at the barn wall, going with however much sticks. The result is aircraft like the F-111 and its worthy successor, the F-35: hugely expensive turkeys that can perform no mission optimally and cannot do ground support at all.
The A-10 was forced down the Air Force’s throat by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Air Force has always hated it. It has tried to dump the A-10 repeatedly, only to have it come back because we have gotten into a ground war and it was the aircraft the guys on the ground loved.
Now, the Air Force is again trying to get rid of the A-10, from the Air National Guard as well as the active-duty Air Force (if the Marine Corps were smart, it would pick them up from the Air Force as fast as the latter gets rid of them). Because the war in Afghanistan is winding down, it looks as if this attempt may succeed.
It shouldn’t. If we care at all about the soldier or Marine on the ground, we need to save the A-10. The idea that the F-16 or F-35 can substitute for it is a joke.
Fortunately, there is an effort underway in Congress to keep the A-10s. That seems to be the only hope, although I find it difficult to understand why a Secretary of Defense who served on the ground in Vietnam would let the Air Force get away with screwing his successors. If Secretary Hagel does not intervene, then all we can do is hope Congress sees the game that is being played and does its duty.
At some point, the A-10 will wear out and need replacing. When that day comes, Pierre Sprey has given a lot of thought to what its successor should be like. It should keep the A-10’s combat-derived characteristics—slow speed, powerful gun armament, good armor protection for the pilot, heavy redundancy—but have better maneuverability and smaller size. Unless OSD once again puts Pierre in charge of the program, the Air Force will design a “successor” that has none of the characteristics a ground support aircraft requires. The Air Force does not want an aircraft that can do a mission it despises.