Is the A-10 Right for Iraq?

An A-10 flies during a training mission at the Razorback Range at Fort Chaffee Maneuver Training Center, Ark., June 4, 2012.

An A-10 flies during a training mission at the Razorback Range at Fort Chaffee Maneuver Training Center, Ark., June 4, 2012.

The fight over the A-10 may have been thrown a screwball this week, thanks to the sudden, dramatic surge from ISIL forces as they have overwhelmed whole chunks of Iraqi territory.

The battle over the future of the A-10 has largely centered around the Air Force’s argument that the plane doesn’t match future needs in a contested air environment. Proponents of the “Warthog” dispute that, and point to the types of mission  the plane still performs to protect troops on the ground today – missions they say perfectly fit with battling ISIL forces if President Obama gives the ok for airstrikes.

Many say the Warthog’s finest moment came during the first Gulf War when the plane efficiently ripped Saddam Hussein’s fleet of tanks to shreds. With groups of pickup trucks tearing across the desert and photos showing armored vehicles captured from fleeing Iraqi army forces, supporters of the plane are saying the situation is ideal for the A-10.

“You want to keep in mind [that] this is not exactly a purely military confrontation,” said Pierre Sprey, considered the father of the A-10. “If you want to stop an outfit like these [ISIL] guys with pickup trucks and machine guns, there’s no other airplane anywhere that’s really useful.”

Sprey raises concerns about potential civilian casualties if high-level fast jets come by and cannot distinguish between ISIL forces and innocent locals. In contrast, he argues, the A-10 can go low and slow to scope things out before engaging.

“You can’t tell the farmers’ pickup trucks form the ones with machine guns,” Sprey said. “There aren’t that many targets. You’re not dealing with huge forces, so you really need an airplane that can get down there and tell a watermelon truck from the machine gun truck.”

“Absolutely the only thing we have that can really exert notable, useful power against 800 or 1,000 of these [ISIL] fanatics is the A-10,” he added. “Nothing else will do much but exacerbate the situation.”

While other pilot communities would likely disagree that the A-10 is the only option, no one, even those in favor of its retirement, has said it won’t fit the mission in Iraq.

“I’m sure they can go out and do an effective job,” Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Research, said, before warning about reading too much into how the plane performs in Iraq when making future force decisions.

“This is still a very permissive airspace,” she said. “They may go out and do an excellent job and we can sing their praises, but what the A-10 does in Iraq right now is not relevant for what it could or could not do in other scenarios down the road. It still doesn’t mean this is the right platform for the future.”

Logistically, turning to the A-10 – a platform already in theater – would make sense for a potential mission.

“We have a variety of assets already over there in the regular order and of course we have others that could be moved within a matter of a fairly short period of time should that be asked of us,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said this week, noting the A-10 was one of those assets<<>>.

Would an anti-ISIL campaign in Iraq constitute a last hurrah for the plane? That’s up to Congress, which seems inclined to protect the machine for at least another year. Keep an eye on CongressWatch and in the coming weeks for more.

Aaron Mehta

Aaron Mehta

Air Warfare Correspondent at Defense News
Aaron covers the Air Force for Defense News. In his spare time, he tweets about the Air Force for Defense News. Follow him @AaronMehta
Aaron Mehta