Aviation History

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

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.

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.”

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.”

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

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
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.

View Comments

  • The Real and only reason the USAF hates the A-10 is that it supports other branches of the military at the cost to the Air Force. At a time when they are trying to pay for many new technologies. They want the Army and Marines to cover the cost and those branches are fighting just as hard to budget their own branches. It does not matter that the A-10 can save lives and is an awesome aircraft much needed by all the branches, it is 100% about money.
    The CAS F-16's with the gattling gun pod was a huge failure. The F-16 airframe shook so much during firing, the pilots could not see their instruments. The pod itself shook so badly, the impact rounds went everywhere except for the target. And finally, the F-16 airframes took damage to the point one was written off as too badly damaged after the test.
    The middle east conflicts have shown that nothing cam loiter, take damage and provide the best air support other than the A-10. Hands down, this specialty mission aircraft flaunts it's record of solid service, economy and mission success to the USAF bean counters who will not acknowledge it's solid record and continued strong need. It's a shame as ultimately it will be soldiers on the ground who pay a horrible price when this aircraft is retired.

  • Given the demonstration of ruzzian folly to not be capable of combined arms warfare in Ukraine: Infantry, Armour, Artillery and Close Air Support, it would be a massive error for Congress to ignore that lesson and allow a Service specific stove-pipe procurement and sustainment approach.
    Let's hope that the Joint Chiefs are committed to the best solution for all combatants and the tax payers.
    The appointment of an Air force leader to the top job who is known for leadership and speaking truth seems a good sign.

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