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.”
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
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