Can the F-35 Replace the A-10?
Posted by The Editors
by Nickolai Sukharev
One of the big decisions the United States Air Force has considered over the last few months is whether to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II fleet as a cost saving measure while developing and procuring the F-35A Lightening II. Given the Budget Control Act caps on Pentagon spending and the need to better allocate funds, officials have expressed their preference to prioritize multi-mission platforms in the inventory. But the problem is that the F-35A is not a replacement for the A-10’s close air support. The reason is simple: it lacks comparable capabilities despite a higher operating cost.
Given the constrained budgetary environment, the comparative cost to maintain and operate the two aircraft should be a decisive consideration. The A-10 is a significantly cheaper aircraft to maintain, costing about $17,564 per flight hour. In contrast, the F-35A nearly doubles that with a hefty $35,200 per flight hour. Accounting for this difference are facts like the A-10’s 1:5 fuel consumption ratio. To put that into monetary context, the DoE’s Energy Information Administration estimates that current aviation jet fuel prices average at approximately $2.87 per gallon. The A-10 carries approximately (11,000 pounds) of internal fuel compared to the F-35A’s (18,250 pounds). Using a conversion calculator we can convert fluid weight into gallons. That comes out to approximately 1,647 gallons for the A-10, and 2,733 gallons for the F-35A. By multiplying the gallons by the average price, the fuel cost for a mission requiring a full tank would be $4,726.89 for the A-10 while the F-35A would be an astounding $7,843.71. These costs render it financially impractical for the F-35A to perform close air support operations of the A-10 in a tight fiscal environment.
Not only is the F-35A more costly to operate, but also it buys less close air support capability. The A-10 was designed from the start to be a close air support platform as a replacement for the Vietnam era A-1 Skyraiders. Close air support heavily depends on the aircraft’s loiter time. Loiter time is defined as the ability to cruise at slow speeds over a small area. Loiter range is, in part the function of range – the greater the range, the longer it can spend over an area of interest, where ground support may be needed. Compared to the F-35A, which has a range of about 1,200 nautical miles, the A-10 out flies its potential successor by about twice the distance, reaching a distance of 2,240nm. That additional range allows the A-10 to loiter above areas of battlefield activity further from its takeoff origin without the need to refuel.
Moreover, an aircraft providing close air support has to be survivable and fly at low altitudes to deliver a coordinated ground attack in support of friendly forces. This often means being engaged by small arms fire and anti-aircraft artillery. In terms of durability, the pilot of an A-10 is protected by inch and a half thick armor dubbed a “titanium bathtub” and can rely on redundant hydraulic systems to maintain flyability in case of major damage. The story of Air Force Captain Kim Campbell is a prime example of Thunderbolt’s survivability. After flying a close air support mission over Baghdad in April 2003, she was called to assist troops who had been encircled by Iraqi forces. After sustaining major damage to her vertical stabilizers, she was able safely return to her base in Kuwait. Winslow Wheeler, Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, described the F-35A as too vulnerable and too fast. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine in April 2012, he stated “it can't even begin to compare to the A-10 at low-altitude close air support for troops engaged in combat.” Further outlining the drawbacks of the F-35A, Wheeler specified in the Huffington Post: “It is too fast to independently find and identify tactical targets; too fragile to withstand ground fire; and it lacks the payload and especially the endurance to loiter usefully over US forces in ground combat for the sustained periods they need.”
There is also a major disparity between the armament loads the two aircraft can carry. The F-35A simply does not nearly pack the same kind of punch as the A-10. The former has an internal payload of only about 5,000 pounds. While, it has the ability to carry weapons externally, but that would eliminate its stealth and would be less than the A-10’s 16,000-pound payload. By comparison, the F-15E, F-16, and F/A-18 have approximate payloads of 29,000, 12,000, and 17,000 pounds respectively.
Furthermore, the A-10 has one ground support weapon that the F-35A lacks: the iconic GAU-8 Gatling gun. This seven-barreled rotary cannon with 1,350 30mm rounds is instrumental in close air support missions when providing precise heavy firepower against small targets. By comparison, the F-35A falls desperately short, possessing a similar gun but with just four barrels fed by only 180 25mm rounds. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan showed the importance of the A-10’s firepower in support of ground operations. One of the best-known examples occurred in Afghanistan on July 24, 2004 when a column of American troops encountered an ambush in a valley. Desperately outnumbered, a B-1 long-range bomber attempted to provide support but was unable to. Shortly after, two A-10s arrived and prior even establishing radio contact, they were able to visually discern friendly from enemy forces and lay down effective cover fire, forcing the ambushers to withdraw.
Taking the comparison provided above, this prompts the question: how much sense does it make for the Air Force to replace the A-10’s close air support capability with the F-35A? Given the parameters outlined above, the F-35A simply does not cover the same mission scope to justify replacement. That is unless, Air Force strategic planners want to spend more and get less.