01 January 2006
The A-10 Warthog is an ugly plane designed to do something that the United States Air Force has often been reluctant to do. It provides scouting and close air support for ground troops. The Air Force had planned to phase the plane out entirely in favor of the F-35A, a multi-role fighter aircraft comparable to today's F-16, which is ill designed to close exposure to enemy fire and long period of lingering over battlefields. But, the A-10 has proven very useful in this role in Afghanistan (from which the picture above derives), the other war the U.S. is fighting, which is now in the tail end with a declining U.S. troop presence, less than a tenth of that of Iraq, despite the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan are similar in population and land area. Helicopters can have more trouble than planes operating at very high altitudes, such as those in Afghanistan.
The A-10 also proved superior in Iraq to the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, which is the primary airborne anti-tank weapon in U.S. war plans, primarily because the A-10 is more reliable since it has fewer moving parts and more redundancy, is faster, has more range, and is less vulnerable to damage from enemy fire.
Fixed wing aircraft can't do everything that helicopters do, but they do many things much better than helicopters. The division of the Army and the Air Force, however, has minimized the institutional incentive to use fixed wing aircraft to solve Army needs. The A-10 is a Vietnam era aircraft with a thirty year old design. But, right now the Air Force appears to lack the political will to build a next generation manned close air support craft, even though the justification for having a human being in the loop on the plane when one is dealing with developing situations on a complex ground battlefield is more compelling than the need to have a human being in the loop for air to air combat. An aircraft carrier based version of the A-10 or a successor would also be a useful means of providing the kind of Naval fire support U.S. Marines have complained about losing with the phasing out of service of the battleship.
It is also worth noting that the A-10 is not a terribly expensive plane, because it doesn't have to have the supersonic speeds, extreme manuverability, stealth and very long range avionics required for air to air combat that drive up the cost of modern combat aircraft. A plane designed primarily to combat infantry, tanks and artillery can be perfectly functional (indeed superior due to better fuel economy) even if it can't break the sound barrier, isn't equipped for sophisticated aerobatics (it tries to keep its most heavily armored side down at all times), and only has sensors with a fifty mile range (further than anything that is likely to attack it from the ground). Radar stealth is less important when your primary opponents primarily rely on sound and visual identification to mark your close range presence. And, unlike military troop transports, an anti-tank and scouting aircraft rarely has occassion to land in or near a battlefield, so vertical landing capability is less of a priority.