Every once in a while, a product comes along that, for all intents and purposes should not succeed, but does. It’s too heavy, too lightly armored, too slow, not enough firepower. The list can go on and on. Sometimes, a unique objective requires a unique platform. This is the case with the A-10. Conventional wisdom would put this attack aircraft six feet under a decade and a half ago (it almost did). The Air Force doesn’t like it. It’s old. It’s too slow. It’s not smart enough. They have aircraft that are better at EVERYTHING than the A-10. So why not just replace it? It’s good at a different kind of mission. One that requires a different kind of aircraft: close air support (CAS).
Thus we have the genesis of the Air Force’s disdain for the Warthog. The Air Force does not prioritize close air support. Its other aircraft can perform it if they have time on their way to or from their more important missions. We don’t need a whole line of airplanes to conduct this one low priority mission, do we? My background may make me a little biased, but I tend to think it’s important enough. My reasoning is simple: once you have bombed the hell out of someone, you have to go in and seize the terrain. You can’t seize terrain from 30,000 feet above it. You also can’t see the ten bad guys hanging out in the two houses waiting to ambush your infantrymen. There is a point in any full spectrum conflict in which belligerents transition from bombing to close air support.
Doesn’t the Army do CAS with the AH-64 Apache? Well, technically the term is CCA (Close Combat Aviation) because we like to have different names for things we want to take ownership of, but, yeah, the concept is the same. That being said, there are shortfalls to relying entirely on rotary-wing aviation assets. Weather is a big one. Speed, yet another. The Apache is really good at finding and killing bad guys, but it can be limited (as can all helicopters) by heavy wind/severe weather. Fixed-wing aircraft fare better in all weather. Apaches can also be great assets to troops in contact if they are relatively close to the area or are already on station. The cruise speed on an AH-64D is 143 knots versus 300 knots for the A-10. That 300 knots may be relatively slow for a fixed-wing aircraft, but it’s getting to you in half the time as the Apache. The two platforms have similar range, and have the ability to loiter in support for an extended period of time. Then let’s look at the armament. The A-10 can take off heavier, with more armor, and more payload than the Apache. The sound of its 30mm cannon is enough to elicit a physical response both in friend and foe. There is still a place for the Apache, but it does not outperform the Warthog in CAS.
It may be better than the Apache, but what makes the A-10 better at CAS than, say, an F-16? The F-16/F-15/F-22/F-35 platforms can conduct the mission successfully. They have on numerous occasions (here’s one). The problem is that it isn’t their primary mission. Many times they are more proficient at deep attack type missions because that is what they do most often. They are used to flying at over 20,000ft and dropping GPS guided munitions on precision targets. They also fly much faster, which may seem like an advantage, but it limits their ability to loiter in support of a ground force and conduct effective CAS. Finally, as it isn’t their primary mission, it is more difficult for the ground customer to get these guys on the line for a mission of such "low importance". A distinct CAS platform is necessary to ensure that the support needed is available to the ground pounders who need it, when they need it. Not when the jets get around to it.