Gary Bennett: Keeping the A-10 Thunderbolt is vital to safety of troops

GUEST OPINION: AIR FORCE

April 12, 2014 

The recent announcement by the Air Force of its plan to remove the A-10 Thunderbolt from the Idaho Air National Guard is much more serious than the local economic disruption. Writing in the February 2014 issue of Harper's Magazine, Washington editor Andrew Cockburn described the disaster facing our troops if the Air Force is allowed to eliminate any close air support aircraft like the A-10. (The article is titled "Tunnel Vision: Will the Air Force kill its most effective weapon?")

In 1991, when Saddam Hussein threatened the U.S. with "the mother of all battles" if the U.S. Army attempted to engage his tanks, it was the A-10 that destroyed most of the Iraqi tanks, trucks and other ground equipment.

But the Air Force has never liked the A-10; it is not sexy like the F-22 or the F-35, even though it is far superior for close air support and it costs about a tenth as much.

The A-10 is a rugged aircraft with bulletproof armor and reinforced fuel tanks unlike the thin-skinned supersonic aircraft the Air Force prefers. The A-10 can travel close to the ground, turn tightly and loiter. This gives pilots a much better view of the terrain than that from a $300 million B-1 bomber flying 5 to 10 miles above the battle or the video feed from some exotic supersonic fighter whose electronic views have been likened to looking at the world through a soda straw.

The Air Force suffers from its version of "battleship admirals" - they're known as "bomber generals." Prior to World War II, the Navy thought that battleships would win the next sea war. Instead, it was aircraft carriers. Even before it was a separate service, Air Force officers envisioned winning future wars with bombers.

Despite heavy bombing campaigns in World War II and the Korean War, it was ground forces with close air support that were the deciding factors. Bombers flying miles above the battle and exotic fast-moving fighters have not been decisive in Iraq or Afghanistan, either. Instead, the ground forces depend upon close air support like the A-10.

The F-35, which the Air Force proposes to use for close air support, is too expensive and too complex to be employed in the kind of low-level loitering required for the small-unit battles the U.S. military is currently engaged in.

Moreover, the F-35 has the smell of Robert McNamara's TFX about it; an aircraft that is to be all things to all services will end up being of no use to any service. But to protect its $1.5 trillion F-35 program, the Air Force is willing to kill the A-10 to save $3.5 billion over five years.

The Air Force needs a reality check. Just as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf had to force the Air Force to give him A-10s for the first Gulf War, it will take strong action by Congress and our ground forces to save the A-10. This is bigger than Boise's economy - this is about protecting our service men and women.

Bennett, of Emmett, served in the Idaho Air National Guard from 1957 to 1963.

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