When they hear or see A-10s, they know the business end of combat is overhead and maybe it’s time to retreat and withdraw.”  – “McGraw,” A-10 pilot

There I was… It was the early spring of 2003, and our brigade headquarters was situated on the southern edge of Baghdad, with the tactical operations center operating out of an abandoned chicken processing plant west of Highway 1. The maneuver battalions were occupied clearing their sectors within the city, and many of our days were spent ensuring that the troops in direct contact with the remnants of Saddam’s forces were postured for success. Our sole focus was on the task at hand: securing the capital city.

We’d only been in Baghdad a few days, and the tactical situation was – as we often say – fluid. The fighting was ongoing, and it wasn’t unusual to encounter militia cruising in search of some action. On more than one occasion, we’d received gunfire in the vicinity of the base camp, and rockets and mortars were just part of the scenery.

Early one morning, I was chatting over a canteen cup of MRE coffee – an especially delicious blend of shaving cream remnants and Taster’s Choice – with the brigade executive officer when an A-10 came in low and loud, engaging a target not that distant from our location with its 30mm GAU-8/A Avenger. The roar of the main gun was deafening, a chattering “BRRRTTT!!!” sound that was simultaneously reassuring (to friendly forces) and horrifying (to those on the receiving end).

The brigade executive officer glanced over where a group of troops were watching the attack run and, without missing a beat, said, “That, boys, is the unmistakable sound of freedom.”

The Rise of an Icon

The first Air Force aircraft specifically designed to provide close air support for ground forces, the Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II emerged from the service’s A-X program of the late 1960s. The namesake of the Republic P-47, the A-10 entered service in 1976 and has been a mainstay of every major combat effort since. An exceptionally battle-hardened aircraft, the A-10’s cockpit and systems are protected by 1,200 pounds of titanium armor, affectionately referred to as a “bathtub.”

But its autocannon, a hydraulically driven, seven-barrel rotary gun designed to kill tanks, is what gives the plane it’s signature sound. Fully loaded, the Avenger weighs in at over 4,000 pounds and is nearly 20 feet in length. With a fixed rate of fire of 3,900 rounds per minute, the gun gives the A-10 the capability to put the fear of God into anything on the ground, and it does. When the sound of the Avenger echoes across the battlefield, the good guys cheer and the bad guys run for cover.

The A-10 puts the “close” in close air support. Flying low and slow, the Warthog – no one I’ve ever met actually calls it a Thunderbolt – brings the fight to enemy ground forces unlike any other fixed-wing aircraft. The damage it can inflict on targets is awe-inspiring, but the psychological impact of the A-10 – for both friendly and adversary forces – is unlike anything else in the wild blue yonder, with the possible exception of the AC-130, which literally owns the night.

The Fall To The Boneyard

But, as the Warthog closes out its fifth decade in service, it’s showing its age, like most 50-year-olds tend to do on the battlefield. It’s slow, an advantage in some respects, but that lack of speed exposes it to faster fighters from above and advanced air defense systems hidden below. It’s also a rare animal these days – a single-role aircraft in a domain where platforms are expected to assume multiple roles. And, according to the Air Force, it’s simply too vulnerable to survive in a high-threat, modern environment.

After years of wrangling with Congress – with debate continuing across multiple presidential administrations – the U.S. Air Force began retiring its fleet of A-10 aircraft last year, reducing its inventory from 281 to 260. The first set of A-10s arrived in the boneyard earlier this year, transiting from the 354th Fighter Squadron in Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The service refers to the process as “divesting,” an disturbingly antiseptic term for an airframe with such a passionate community and following.

The Air Force has no plans to replace the A-10; other airframes will assume the mission – close air support is not considered a capability – as they have for some years now. But the debate is far from over. Ground forces have a tendency to like to see what and who is shooting in their areas of operation (the “close” in close air support). Given the choice between an attack helicopter loitering on station and, say, a B-52 providing close air support from 50,000 feet, most ground troops will inevitably choose the former.

It’s safe to say that close air support as we’ve come to know it has come to an end. Like many things, it’s being redefined for a different era, for different platforms, for a different environment. Only time will tell if that redefinition was a good thing.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.