The US Air Force is being backed into a corner when it comes to retiring the A-10. Pressure from some US Senators and advocates of the A-10 Thunderbolt II have led to the USAF launching all sorts of studies ranging from justifying the F-35A Lightning II’s credentials as a suitable Close Air Support (CAS) platform, to looking at other existing types in the Combat Air Force (CAF) to pick up the mission, to now even looking at a new platform to fill the A-10’s shoes.
If the recent words of some senior RAF officers ring true, the USAF is likely to be fighting a counterinsurgency war in northern Iraq and Syria well past the current 2022 final retirement date set for the A-10C. Chances are that the US military is going to need a CAS platform that get down and dirty for decades to come. Few will query the wisdom that a high-end F-35 shouldn’t be eating up valuable service life fighting this kind of battle in an uncontested environment.
So, what will the USAF do? ‘My requirements guys are in the process of building a draft-requirements document for a follow-on CAS airplane,’ Lt Gen Mike Holmes, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, told reporters last week. Thoughts turn to two key areas, the Beechcraft Textron AT-6 Coyote and Scorpion or the T-X trainer competition.
Textron has spent a lot of time and money working with the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command down in Arizona proving the credentials of these aircraft. Few gave them a sniff of landing domestic US government business a year ago… has that changed?
As for T-X, there’s all sort of talk of potential dual use for whichever aircraft/OEM wins this. It started with Red Air, but now, companion trainer (embedded alongside front line fighter units to provide aggressor support or downloaded flying hours), and even complementary fighter. Could a developed T-X fulfil the USAF’s nees for a lower end, cheaper, lightweight fighter…?
As reported in the fascinating Steve Davies feature in our current May issue of Combat Aircraft, the USAF’s elite 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada, was tasked within its F-15E and F-16C teams to work very hard throughout 2014 and 2015 to be able to inform the USAF of how it could fulfill the A-10’s key roles — combat search and rescue (CSAR) and CAS — if the ‘Hog’ went away.
Steve Davies spoke to the commander of the ‘4-2-2’, Lt Col Joshua Wood. ‘The purpose of the test was really to inform the Air Force’s senior leadership which platform is better suited to take on CSAR, if we divest the A-10. More importantly, we wanted to tell them what the known unknowns are, and what training bill they can expect if they want to keep this mission as a primary training task for a given squadron. Why? Because what we in the OT community want to avoid is this mentality that if the airplane can do it, you can put this mission on the shelf and you never have to train to it, and you never have to revisit it. In our opinion, that will get people killed. ‘If you want to pick up this mission, you have to devote X number of training sorties a year to keep your aircrew current, and this is the cost that you are going to buy’’, Wood expounded.
‘What we determined was that CSAR is hard. It’s a challenging mission, and something that the Air Force cares deeply about’. But the ‘Green Bats’ came back with two key learning points. Firstly, ‘If the A-10 goes away, it doesn’t really matter which platform you choose. F-16s and F-15Es each have strengths and weaknesses: it’s not so much the platform as the operator and the aircrew who are trained for that mission and have the culture that comes with being asked to do that job.’
Secondly, and most interestingly, the F-35 excelled in the CSAR test!
Wood’s test findings are a timely reminder of an oft-neglected component in the air combat equation — the man in the loop.
One ‘4-2-2’ pilot added: ‘What’s the difference between other ‘CAS assets’ and the A-10? The training. Any time you talk to an A-10 pilot and he’s beating his chest about CAS, it’s because he was trained to find the target, kill it and protect the friendlies. We’re not talking about the friendlies being one click away; we’re talking about shooting within 50m (164ft) of a known friendly location. He can go into a chaotic battlefield and he can kill the enemy within that proximity of the friendlies — he was raised to do that.’
Read more on the 422nd TES and their CAS studies in the current issue of Combat Aircraft.