It wasn't too long ago that the Air Force was making noises about cancelling the venerable, scrappy A-10 Warthog close air support plane. Last week at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, "a significantly upgraded version of the 1970s-era Warthog with new advanced precision engagement capabilities took its first flight," Inside the Air Force reports.
The $300 million [A-10C] program gives the Warthog two new glass multifunction color cockpit displays, along with a digital stores management system that allows pilots to control weapons through computers. Also, a new grip and throttle, which incorporate a number of buttons and switches to control various functions, will allow Warthog pilots to command most of the aircrafts functions without taking their hands off the throttle and stickThe power supply onboard the aircraft also has been increased to manage the new weapons the fighter will employ -- the Joint Direct Attack Munition and Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser...Finally, the PE [precision engagement] program provides the fighter with a fully integrated targeting pod capability to deliver the smart weapons. A-10Cs can carry up to six Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Wind Corrected Munitions Dispensers.The upgrades give A-10 pilots an unbelievable increase in situational awareness, along with a reduced workload, said Maj. Trey Rawls, a pilot with Eglins 40th Flight Test Squadron who commanded the aircraft during its first flight last week. He spoke with ITAF Jan. 24.Air Combat Command is aiming to begin deploying in 2007 only A-10Cs to combat theaters. The entire active-duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve A-10 inventory of 356 aircraft is scheduled to receive the upgrades.Not bad for a plane that Air Force generals have been trying "to kill it from the moment it was born," as Slate's Fred Kaplan notes.Why the antipathy? To understand that, "one must go back to 1947, when the Air Force broke away from the Army and became an independent branch," author Robert Coram explained in a 2003 New York Times op-ed.
"Strategic bombing," which calls for deep bombing raids against enemy factories and transportation systems, was the foundation of the new service branch. But that concept is fundamentally flawed for the simple reason that air power alone has never won a war.Nevertheless, strategic bombing, now known as "interdiction bombing," remains the philosophical backbone of the Air Force. Anything involving air support of ground troops is a bitter reminder that the Air Force used to be part of the Army and subordinate to Army commanders. For the white-scarf crowd, nothing is more humiliating than being told that what it does best is support ground troops.Until the A-10 was built in the 1970's, the Air Force used old, underpowered aircraft to provide close air support. It never had a plane specifically designed to fly low to the ground to support field troops. In fact, the A-10 never would have been built had not the Air Force believed the Army was trying to steal its close air support role -- and thus millions of dollars from its budget -- by building the Cheyenne helicopter. The Air Force had to build something cheaper than the Cheyenne. And because the Air Force detested the idea of a designated close air support aircraft, generals steered clear of the project, and designers, free from meddling senior officers, created the ultimate ground-support airplane.It is cheap, slow, low-tech, does not have an afterburner, and is so ugly that the grandiose name "Thunderbolt" was forgotten in favor of "Warthog" or, simply, "the Hog." What the airplane does have is a deadly 30-millimeter cannon, two engines mounted high and widely separated to offer greater protection, a titanium "bathtub" to protect the pilot, a bullet- and fragmentation-resistant canopy, three back-up flight controls, a heavy duty frame and foam-filled fuel tanks -- a set of features that makes it one of the safest yet most dangerous weapons on the battlefield."When the first Gulf War was being planned in 1990, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the chief of U.S. Central Command, had to fight the Air Force to send over a mere 174 A-10s for his use," Kaplan writes. "Yet in the course of the war, those A-10s knocked out roughly half of the 1,700 Iraqi tanks that were destroyed from the air... Even the Air Force brass had to admit the planes had done a good job, and they kept them in the fleet."By the second Gulf War, however, the Air Force was again considering putting the Warthog out to pasture. Air Combat Command's Maj. Gen. David Deptula told a subordinate to work up a "persuasive" argument for "terminating the A-10 fleet." It never happened. And the Warthog has gone on to be one of the most effective fighters on the Iraqi campaign.