U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has been changed radically since President Trump’s decision to let military commanders conduct the war. One of the most significant changes is the decision to target the drug labs and smugglers that produce revenue for the Taliban and other anti-government groups. The mission requires careful targeting and close and sustained observation, which has prompted calls for the return of the legendary A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” planes to the theater.
Afghan Officials Request A-10 Return
Military Times reports that the request for the A-10 comes directly from Afghan defense officials. U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Lance Bunch, director of U.S. air operations in Afghanistan, addressed the issue at a press conference on December 12. He refused to comment on whether or when the planes would be deployed. “The discussions of what forces we move to Afghanistan or draw down from Iraq and Syria are all ongoing,” Gen. Bunch said. “We have not made any decisions at this time to move A-10s, that I know of.”
“All pilots love the A-10. And troops on the ground love them because it’s a visible asset.”
It is easy to understand why Afghan commanders want the A-10 back. It is perfectly suited for a mission targeting the Afghan drug trade. Colonel Derek Oaks, retired commander of the U.S. Air Force 23rd Fighter Group and a former A-10 pilot, explained in an interview with OpsLens. Col Oaks is the co-author with his father, USAF General Robert Oaks, of “Rising Above” due to be published this month.
Colonel Derek Oaks, USAF (Ret.)
“The A-10, and more importantly, the A-10 community of operators, is perfect for the conflict in Afghanistan. Unlike the other assets, the A-10’s range, loiter time, weapons load, point and shoot capability combined with the precision strike capability that it has with LGBs and JDAMS make it ideal for a directed attack type of environment. It is also ideal for a patient hunting expedition of people who have expressed a desire to leave this earth early.”
Colonel Oaks went into more detail. “All pilots love the A-10. It’s a pilot’s dream. It doesn’t have the range or speed of the F-16 or the F-15E, but it can hang out forever, watching movement on a road where the pilot can see certain triggers and decide to take [a target] out. No other aircraft can do that.”
“Troops on the ground love them because it’s a visible asset. You can come over a target area at 100 feet of altitude, and throw out 30 flares. There’s no place for the enemy to hide. The A-10 isn’t loud, like the F-16, but it’s certainly visible. And it’s agile – a pilot can find and fix individuals in his targets.”
“The most important part of the plane, however, is the pilot, his mentality and how he’s been trained. It’s about how you feel about protecting the 18 year old troop on the ground, and about not killing civilians.” During his time in Afghanistan, Col. Oaks said, his squadron made over 2500 flights – over 10,000 hours flying time – and deployed weapons countless times with “friendlies” in close proximity to the enemy, but they didn’t have a single inquiry about a misplaced bomb or civilian casualties.
Hollowed Out Capacity
Another significant advantage the A-10 has over other aircraft is the cost per flying hour, which is about a fourth of that for the F-22, the B1B, or the B52. And the A-10C was renovated, and has upgraded digital capabilities, laser guided rockets, and smart bombs. “It’s a big flying gun that also has smart bombs and can hang out at 20,000 feet,” said Col. Oaks.
“Yes, it’s true that the A-10 needs to be replaced, but the replacement should look a lot like the old A-10.”
There is a good reason for the Pentagon’s reluctance to redeploying the A-10s, however, and that is capacity. 25 years ago, the Air Force had seven active duty A-10 squadrons, 2 Reserve, and 6 Air National Guard. That represented about 400 total A-10s. That force has slowly been cut down to only four active duty squadrons, one Reserve, and four Air National Guard – about 280 aircraft.
The existing aircraft also are in need of renovation. The Congress mandated wing replacements for part of the fleet several years ago, but about a third of the planes currently in operation are suffering from wing fatigue. Congress is currently debating whether or not to fund 100 additional wings, to bring the rest of the fleet up to standards. It is expected that the measure will pass, but not yet certain.
The Secretary of the Air Force, former Congresswoman Heather Wilson, expressed enthusiasm for the A-10 in testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee. “I happen to be kind of a fan of the A-10 myself,” she said.
Congress should share that enthusiasm, and not only fund the new wings, but also fund a new generation of Warthogs. As Colonel Oaks observed, “Yes, it’s true that the A-10 needs to be replaced, but the replacement should look a lot like the old A-10.”