Review: The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate
By Taylor Marvin
The A-10 Thunderbolt II is one of the world’s most fascinating combat aircraft. Dubbed the “Warthog”, both lovingly and disparagingly, for its unique appearance, the A-10 was designed as a purpose-built aircraft uncompromisingly dedicated to Close Air Support (CAS), or supporting ground troops in direct contact with enemy forces. CAS has a controversial history within the US military because the mission can arguably be best performed by either the Air Force or the Army; while the Air Force is traditionally tasked with land-based fixed-wing aviation, effective close air support required close coordination with the Army’s ground troops. The Air Force has traditionally been accused of neglecting CAS in favor of the more glamourous air superiority and strategic bombing missions, and the service’s A-10 grew out of a complicated and protracted late-1960s bureaucratic struggle over the future of CAS pitting the Air Force against the Army’s claim that advanced helicopter gunships could fill the hole left by the service’s — in their minds — obvious neglect in the mission. This interservice rivalry and the increasingly-dangerous projected Cold War battlefield resulted in the A-10, a slow, heavily armed and armored aircraft armed with a massive, devastating gun.
Douglas N. Campbell’s 2003 book The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate (which I read after the book was noted by Robert Farley) is an excellent history of the A-10, and more broadly the postwar American debate over the best means of providing CAS and which service should fill the role. Campbell takes time to lay out the history of American CAS, beginning with the enormously successful WWII-era P-47, designed as an air-to-air fighter, that convinced the soon-to-be US Air Force that multirole aircraft were the best answer to the CAS mission. This perception was only strengthened by the Eisenhower-era “New Look” defense outlook, which stressed nuclear deterrence and the high-tech, high-flying strategic bombers and air-superiority fighters that the Air Force brass favored. During the Vietnam War relations between the Army and Air Force became more and more strained as the Air Force’s favored fast jets’ high speed, lack of maneuverability, and high fuel consumption made them unsuitable for the CAS mission. As helicopter gunships came into their own, the Army — prohibited from operating most fixed-wing aircraft — came to believe that its advanced AH-56 Cheyenne helicopter concept could provide the answer to the CAS question.
The A-10 was the Air Forces answer to criticisms that it was unprepared to fulfill the need for CAS. Recalling some aspects of contemporary procurement, the A-X program, the forerunner of the A-10, began as a Vietnam-influenced concept primarily dedicated to counterinsurgency, but as the war in Southeast Asia wound down and the US military refocused on the European theater the A-X’s mission shifted to killing Soviet tanks. Unlike previous efforts to realize the CAS role through multirole aircraft also capable of air-to-air combat or bombing missions, the A-10 was entirely dedicated to CAS. Its straight wings and engines made it slow, but also gave it superb low-speed maneuverability and the ability to loiter above battlefields for extended periods, abilities appreciated by ground forces that fast jets were incapable of. Heavily armored and designed to be as survivable as possible, the A-10 could take hits that would kill other aircraft.
But in the 1980s the A-10’s role was once again called into question. The Army, freshly armed with the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter that replaced the cancelled Cheyenne, now felt that the A-10 was less necessary, and the Air Force had decided that multirole F-16 could be a more versatile — and, importantly in some eyes, more glamourous — replacement for the Warthog. While most modern observers now dismiss proposals that the fast, multirole F-16 could replace the specialized A-10, it is important to remember that the Air Force had real concerns over the slow A-10’s ability to survive in the face of increasingly-capable air defense systems, and folding the CAS mission into the F-16 fleet would simplify the service’s maintenance, logistics, and training. As Greg Goebel notes in his excellent history of the A-10:
“While the military has its fair share of dumb SOBs, it also has its fair share of sensible and competent people, and the CAS issue was one in which good people could differ: What you see depends on where you stand.”
The Air Force has a long history of favoring multirole aircraft that ultimately proved unsuited to the CAS mission. But the argument that the A-10 would not survive the European war Air Force officers of the late-1980s were preparing for is not in and of itself unreasonable, and importantly it’s a question we’ll never know the answer to. However, the Air Force’s “A-16” proposal never progressed, and the A-10 famously served through the Gulf War and into the 21st century.
The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate focuses on the aircraft’s procurement, rather than combat, history, and contains relatively little description of the aircraft itself. But Campbell’s book is a fascinating look at the politics of military procurement and interservice rivalries, as well as how individual aircraft influence institutional behavior. Campbell’s most important insight is that the A-10’s dedicated single-role mission, rather than the aircraft itself, is its most important feature. Even if the Air Force could somehow adopt a multirole fighter as perfectly suited to the CAS mission as the A-10, pilots would inevitably spend less time training for close air support as other missions competed for their time and attention, an argument with particular relevance to discussions over the ability of the multirole F-35 to replace the A-10 in the CAS role.
Campbell includes many amusing anecdotes as well, including a McNamara Office of the Secretary of Defense staffer (Pierre Sprey, who bizarrely seems to have recorded the chorus sampled in the Kanye West song Jesus Walks) who left a short stint at Grumman Aircraft because “it would be twenty years before they let me design an aileron” and then played a pivotal role in the early A-X program: in Campbell’s words, “as a brilliant and energetic participant who helped ensure that the plane’s design remained practical, he influenced more than an airplane aileron’s construction.” Referencing the Army’s perception that the A-10 existed only to kill their beloved Cheyenne attack helicopter concept, Campbell relays an 1968 Armed Forces Journal cartoon showing
“a winged tank sitting behind a ‘Tactical Air Command’ sign. An Air Force general glares at the craft, while a subordinate says to him, ‘No sir General it won’t fly, but it will sure scare the hell out of the Army!”
The A-10’s unconventional appearance and slow speed also inspired its share of jokes: “What’s the speed indicator on an A-10? A calendar.”
Also mentioned is fascinating obscure trivia from the A-X program. Early in the program mounting a recoilless rifle was studied — which if adopted would have produced a far different aircraft — the A-X program was one of the first to be decided in a competitive flyoff since the 1950s, and the Army consistently referred to helicopter CAS as “direct fire support” to keep its options open by preserving the rational for the Cheyenne while also acknowledging that improved USAF CAS capability would be nice.
The book’s main shortcoming is its brevity. Campbell covers the flyoff between the Northrop A-9 and the winning Fairchild Republic A-10 in only a few pages, and in particular devotes little time to the engineering decisions led to each prototype’s differing design schemes. While Campbell briefly discusses foreign CAS, notably the IDF’s experience, more information would be valuable to contextualizing the American CAS debate. Additionally, the book’s scope is limited by its 2003 publication date: Campbell covers the post-Gulf War period only in the book’s conclusion. Today the debate over the future of CAS is dominated by questions over drones, the ability of advanced precision-guided munitions to allow non-tradition aircraft to fly CAS, and the real-world capabilities of the F-35, which is intended to fill the A-10s CAS shoes. Given The Warthog’s publication date, Campbell is unable to discuss these questions. Despite this, The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate is a fascinating book, and is recommended for anyone interested in the A-10, military procurement, and interservice politics.