The USAF plans to draw down its 283 aircraft A-10 Thunderbolt II fleet to save money for more important programs such as the F-35 Lightening-2. According to news reports, some of the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft, popularly referred to as Warthog, may be sold abroad, something that the US has never done in the past. The proposed sale is an opportunity for India, which if not availed could well turn into a threat!
The Warthog is a dedicated Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft, unlike the F-35, which is a multi-role stealth fighter that can provide CAS as well as air dominance.
Multirole aircraft provide CAS from standoff ranges using precision guided weapons (PGMs). The aircraft are expensive, as also the PGMS that they use. Operating from standoff ranges, they require precise targeting information and clear separation between enemy and friendly troops. A dedicated CAS aircraft like the Warthog attacks the enemy from close ranges after visual identification, providing more flexibility.
The Warthog, which first flew in 1975, was initially honed to address the threat emanating from the Warsaw Pact's numerical superiority in armor during the Cold War. The aircraft's ominously sized 30 mm GAU-8 Avenger multibarrel cannon can fire depleted uranium shells to penetrate armor and destroy tanks.
Featuring a straight wing, the Warthog is more fuel efficient and maneuverable than swept wing multi-role fighters like F-35, F-15 and F-16. It can loiter for long and position / reposition itself quickly for attack. The straight wing restricts the Warthog's max speed, but for CAS role that is no limitation. Significantly, the Warthog retains its maneuverability at high altitudes, which gives it an advantage in mountainous terrain. (We will see why that is important later in the text.)
As mentioned earlier, the Warthog is designed to engage the enemy from close quarters after visual identification, an essential capability when battle lines are fluid. Because the Warthog engages targets at close ranges, it often gets hammered by enemy small and medium arms fire, but the aircraft is designed to take the punishment in its stride. Cockpit positioning and armor protection ensure pilot safety; and the aircraft's twin engines are positioned in the rear so that the wings and tail plane shield them from ground fire. The Warthog is inclined to safely fly back to base after taking lethal fire that would cause a multi-role fighter to fall out of the sky.
Long term USAF plans envisioned the F-35 replacing the Warthog, but the delay in the F-35 program and the reemergence of the threat from Russian armor as a consequence of the festering Ukraine crisis, has raised hackles in the US congress over the proposed A-10 retirement.
Congress recently voted to fund the Warthog fleet for one more year, overruling USAF recommendations.
International Sales of A-10
The USAF Warthog fleet has been periodically upgraded with new technology and the aircraft has become deadlier than ever before.
As a result of upgrades, the aircraft can fly at low levels in mountainous terrain, day and night, under any weather condition, to accurately wallop the enemy with its powerful cannon or PGMs.
Boeing, which now maintains the aircraft originally developed by Fairchild Republic, is currently extending the service life of the aircraft through a re-winging program.
According to Flight Magazine, to offset the cost of the ongoing Warthog upgrade, the USAF is now contemplating international sale of some Warthogs.
A-10 and India
The IAF, is not known to have ever expressed an interest in the Warthog. The service has made a doctrinal commitment to multi-role aircraft over single role specialized aircraft. In a previous article we discussed why the IAF's doctrinal commitment may be at odds with the threat scenario facing the country; many analysts predict that India's next war would be fought in the Himalayas. The Warthog's weapon load, maneuverability and precision attack capability would be unmatched along the LAC and LoC, where battle lines would be fluid ruling out CAS from standoff ranges by IAF multi-role aircraft.
In the past the US has repeatedly refused to sell the Warthog to any other country. Interestingly, very shortly after the Warthog was developed, Pakistan tried to acquire the aircraft, but the US turned down the request!
The chances that the PAF is eyeing the deadly aircraft again are pretty high. High enough for the Indian Army to be very concerned. A good way to prevent the Warthog from falling into PAF hands would be for the IAF to acquire the aircraft. The stakes are high enough for the IAF to review its doctrinal disinclination towards dedicated CAS aircraft. Doctrines are never set in stone. Indeed, the IAF's doctrine solicits suggestions for change and improvement.
By Vijainder K Thakur