F-16 Vs A-10: why Viper’s CAS Variants failed to replace the Warthog

AirLand Battle, the F-16 Vs the A-10, the Aborted A-16 and the story of why the Viper’s CAS Variant failed to replace the Warthog

By Dario Leone
May 25 2023
Sponsored by: Schiffer Military
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Some armament folks said they could match the 30 mm cannon in the A-10 with a pod-mounted cannon for the A-16.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is the first US Air Force (USAF) aircraft specially designed for close air support of ground forces. It is a simple, effective and survivable twin-engine jet aircraft that can be used against light maritime attack aircraft and all ground targets, including tanks and other armored vehicles. The first production A-10A was delivered to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB), Arizona, in October 1975.

Here's why F-16's CAS variants failed to replace the A-10 Warthog

As told by RG Head in his book US Attack Aviation: Air Force and Navy Light Attack, 1916 to the Present, in 1982, the Army and Air Force began to focus again on the threat of a European war. Vietnam was in the past, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 had demonstrated the lethality of modern weapons. The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command under Gen. Don Starry rejected a defensive strategy for NATO and developed a doctrine of AirLand Battle, which envisioned maneuver warfare and offensive thrusts. The new strategy was published in Field Manual 100-5, Operations. Gen. Starry’s concept was that the Air Force would provide extended attacks on Soviet rear areas to disrupt and destroy forces en route to the battlefield. Air Force planners were delighted with this new emphasis on interdiction, as opposed to close air support, which reinforced the service’s preferences dating back to Billy Mitchell.

In 1984, the Air Force and Army ratified the doctrine with the publication of “31 Initiatives,” which implemented the strategy. The F-16 was now the darling of the fighter community, and as the cheaper of the multirole aircraft, it seemed the best choice for the interdiction portion of the attack mission. At the same time, the Air Force was developing the Fighter Roadmap, but it did not include buying more A-10s. The official Air Force position was that the A-10 was too vulnerable for the deep-interdiction mission, and AirLand Battle required a faster, more maneuverable aircraft. Of course, some modifications would have to be made, and the resulting aircraft was to be called the A-16. The standard argument was that the higher speed of the A-16 would make it more difficult to be hit by ground fire. These proponents chose to forget that the A-10 had won the A-7/A-10 fly-off because it was slower and could turn tighter over a target and under the weather. One can understand that the old “subsonic versus supersonic” debate was history, and the more relevant one was “fast versus slow.”

Operation Desert Storm A-10 print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-10A Thunderbolt II 354th TFW, 353rd TFS Black Panthers, MB/78-0660. Myrtle Beach AFB, SC – 1991, Operation Desert Storm

Once again, some armament folks said they could match the 30 mm cannon in the A-10 with a pod-mounted cannon for the A-16, just like the apologists argued for the missile-only F-4D that could be augmented with a pod-mounted M-61 20 mm Gatling gun.

The issue of aircraft procurement got very public throughout the 1980s. Three of the movement’s unifying themes were (1) that the F-16 was not the right airplane for the close-air-support mission, (2) the CAS mission was being neglected in the Air Force’s current war-fighting doctrine, and (3) the A-10 was exactly the right airplane for the mission. The group was labeled by some as being “anti-F-16.” One of the original Fighter Mafia members, Tom Christie, became exasperated with some of this rhetoric, and he remarked, “Suddenly, we who had pushed the F-16 were viewed as being anti-F-16…. We weren’t anti-F-16. We were just saying that’s not the airplane that was going to do close air support well.”

Here's why F-16's CAS variants failed to replace the A-10 Warthog

In 1989, the argument against close air support was bolstered by the fall of the Berlin Wall, which allowed the A-10’s opponents to argue that the diminished armor threat in Europe should result in a decrease in the number of A-10 units. Congress once again intervened and barred the Air Force from spending 1990 money on F-16 production until a new study of more alternatives was conducted. Congress also required a report on the advisability of moving the CAS mission to the Army.

Near the end of 1990, the Air Force announced it was dropping the idea of modifying part of the F-16 fleet into the A-16.

US Attack Aviation: Air Force and Navy Light Attack, 1916 to the Present is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II model
This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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