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December 03, 2013

Can the F-35 Replace the A-10?
Posted by The Editors

by Nickolai Sukharev 

F35One 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.

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