National Security: A-10

No doubt you have heard that the Obama Administration intends to slash the military’s budget in the coming years to devote more dollars to the domestic agenda including the growing cost of Obamacare. Among the casualties of this proposed drawdown is the Air Force’s A-10 close air support (CAS) aircraft. This will have a significant impact on nearby Moody Air Force Base where a couple of A-10 squadrons are stationed. Let me give you some background on the A-10. In the 1970s, this aircraft was developed to support the Army in the CAS role. The Air Force didn’t want the aircraft, preferring to spend their dollars to faster, sexier F-15s and F-16s, but the Army insisted – “if you don’t buy the plane, we will.” Since this impacted the critical ‘roles and missions’ doctrine, the Air Force relented and began buying the Long Island-based Republic Aviation aircraft. The official nickname of the jet is Thunderbolt II, in honor of Republic’s famous World War II fighter the P-47 Thunderbolt, but its ungainly appearance earned the name Warthog from those who fly and maintain the aircraft. It is not uncommon to see a couple of Hogs flying in tactical formation across the tranquil skies of Madison County. The A-10 was primarily designed to destroy Soviet tanks like the T-72 and T-80. Its primary killing system is a nose-mounted 30mm cannon, the GAU-8. The cannon is actually a multi-barreled Gatling gun capable of firing 2400 rounds a minute. With either armor- piercing or high explosive rounds, the gun packed quite a punch. I’ve seen video of the round’s impact actually lifting a five ton turret off a tank chassis and tossing it aside like so much litter. The GAU-8 is so large that it would appear the aircraft was actually designed around the gun instead of the other way around. The aircraft was also designed to sustain quite a bit of battle damage. The two TF-34 engines are mounted high near the twin tail to protect it from heat seeking missiles. The straight wings have plenty of room to carry external stores, including the AGM-65 Maverick anti-tank missile. The Maverick gives the pilot a lot more stand-off room to attack armored targets from safer distance. Ultimately, the Air Force sacrificed the A-10 to be able to afford to buy the troubled multi-service F-35 fighter. The Warthog is more than thirty years old and has been adapted to other roles like observation and forward air control. I suppose that USAF planners could not see a threat in the future that would require the A-10 although the jet has acquitted itself well in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the 1991 Gulf War, few aircraft performed as well as the A-10. In fact, there is an ironic story from Desert Storm where the Air Force was not planning to send the Hog. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf insisted and the deed was done. As I think about the Defense cuts proposed by the Obama Administration, what I see missing is a strategy that would match the reduced force structure. At this point, it is impossible for me to determine whether or not the cuts are justified by the strategy or if they are merely convenient to make room in the budget for more domestic spending. The way the system is supposed to work is that you determine a strategy and then match up the fighting units (brigades, squadrons, battle groups) to fulfill that strategy. I haven’t seen any such analysis to justify these Defense cuts. It certainly was poor timing to announce this reduction just as the Russians decided to invade the Ukraine, or at least the Crimean Peninsula. I don’t really see a military option for this latest international crisis since the Ukraine was the most important client state in the old Soviet Union and clearly in Russia’s sphere of influence, but we cannot negotiate from a position of strength as we draw down our military force structure. Where are future tank battles that would call for the A-10? Korea and Iran are two possibilities. Can we get away without this Cold War weapon system? Probably, provided that the F-35 comes on board in a timely fashion, but it is hard to imagine the sleek stealth aircraft groveling in the dirt like the A-10. What does all this mean to the future of Moody? Hard to say, although the base survived a serious closure threat in the early 1990s. Since then it has been rebuilt by the Air Force and local officials stronger than ever. There are other units and missions housed at the base. Several years ago, the Navy tried unsuccessfully to take the base from the Air Force. My gut tells me that the base will survive, but you never know in these uncertain times.

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