Months after staving off a trip to the boneyard, the embattled A-10 Thunderbolt II is headed to the Middle East where it could be used to fight Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.
An Indiana Air National Guard unit that flies the Cold War-era gunships, known as Warthogs, is planning to deploy about 300 airmen and an unknown number of its aircraft to the U.S. Central Command region early next month, says a Sept. 17 news release from the unit.
The 122nd Fighter Wing, located at Fort Wayne Air National Guard Base, Ind., has 21 aircraft, though it’s uncertain how many will be deploying, a spokesman said Thursday.
The Air National Guard release doesn’t mention where the group is headed or for what purpose.
The Air Force wants to retire the A-10, an attack aircraft intended for close air support, to pay for its new — and costly — multipurpose F-35 stealth fighters. Retiring the decades-old fleet of about 300 A-10s would potentially save about $4.2 billion over five years, Air Force leaders have said.
But Congress this summer spared the plane from defense cuts. And now some experts say they wouldn’t be surprised to see the almost-mothballed A-10 pulled into the air war in Iraq and Syria, a possibility that could further heat the debate on the plane’s future.
Designed to shoot Soviet tanks rolling across the open fields of Europe, the A-10 has been the primary aircraft for close air support of ground forces since the mid-1970s. Experts say that capability is well-suited to taking out ground targets in Iraq and Syria.
“When you deploy the A-10, they only have one purpose,” said Dakota Wood, the senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation, and that is “to kill things on the ground. If the expectation is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and help the Iraqis push them out or do anything in Syria, especially in the border area between Syria and Iraq, you will need firepower well-suited” to targeting armored vehicles and enemy fighters on the ground.
The A-10 flies “low and slow,” a capability that reduces collateral damage but also makes it more vulnerable to small-arms fire and portable anti-aircraft missiles, experts say.
The threat in Iraq, where Islamic State militants have shoulder-launched, man-portable air defense systems, is manageable, said Gareth Jennings, aviation desk editor for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.
Syria could pose more of a challenge for the A-10, Jennings said. It “would not only be going up against ISIS and other military groups, but you do have the Syrian government to contend with.”
The Syrian government, which has more sophisticated air defense systems, has not interfered with early strikes in the country “but there’s no guarantee that will continue,” Jennings said. “ ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ only goes so far.”
Those risks are worth managing, Jennings thinks, because of the distinct psychological advantage the A-10 and its fearsome 30 mm Gatling gun brings to a fight.
“No other aircraft in the world has the reputation of the A-10 in terms of instilling fear into the enemy” he said. “It can stay over a target; it doesn’t come in and drop its bombs and have to leave. It stays over the battlefield, picking off targets at will.”
Wood thinks it is probable the Air National Guard A-10s are deploying “because of basing options.”
To be able to generate more sorties, it’s better to fly from airfields that are closer to the fight, he said.
The A-10 is more adept than other fighters at launching from short, austere airfields, so it could be the aircraft with that versatility gives the U.S. military more options for sortie generation, he said.
“When you look at a map,” he said, the A-10s could possibly deploy “to Iraq, maybe Saudi Arabia, but there’s a strong option for Jordan.”
The aircraft could instead deploy to Afghanistan, if the Pentagon wants to shift types of airpower from Afghanistan to Iraq and replace that with the A-10, Wood said, but “that seems kind of a cumbersome, expensive dance.”
Deployment of the A-10s in Iraq and Syria would certainly extend the debate as to the aircraft’s future, Wood said.
It will “be a win for the A-10 communities and advocates … one more argument in favor of it.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., is among lawmakers who say now is not the time to get rid of the A-10, particularly in light of the current Islamic State threat.
Defeating the Islamic State “will require effective close air support — not just dropping bombs from high altitude on isolated targets — and there is no better [close-air-support] aircraft than the A-10,” Ayotte said in a statement to Stars and Stripes.
But Wood said the argument still comes down to money.
“Even if you said you wanted to keep the A-10, where does the Air Force come up with the money to retain the A-10 and all that comes with it … and still get its full complement of F-35s?”
Though Air Force brass are intent on retiring the plane, “no one is saying because it’s no good,” Jennings said. “They’re saying in this day and age … you can’t afford to have aircraft that are only good at one thing.”
He said this isn’t the first time the A-10 has been on the chopping block only to see a decision reversed in the face of a new conflict.
“What makes it different (now) is the U.S. Air Force doesn’t have the money to support all these different types of aircraft. Unless that changes, I’m afraid the writing is on the wall for the A-10, regardless of how it functions in Iraq, Syria and on.”