Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

The A-10 Warthog and Close Air Support

The Warthog and the CAS Debate
The Warthog and the Combat Air Support Debate
(Douglas Campbell)

How the Air Force succeeded in spite of itself, when it built the ugliest warplane of the past half-century!

Airplanes fly CAS (close air support) when they're used to attack an enemy unit that in turn is attacking friendly troops. It seems like a simple definition, but it's caused no end of trouble over the past fifty years. The U.S. Air Force has always resisted it, at least when it involves purpose-built planes. At the same time, the air force has always tried to prevent the army from operating CAS aircraft of its own, at least when those aircraft aren't helicopters.

Most combatants in World War II concluded that dedicated "attack" planes couldn't survive against opposing interceptors, so the better course was to hang bombs from a fighter plane, which then could meet enemy aircraft on equal terms. Much the same was true of the Korean War, even though the ground attacks was usually carried out by piston-engined WWII left-overs--notably the P-51 Mustang and the F4U Corsair--while jet fighters provided air superiority. By the Vietnam War, however, jets had become so fast and so thirsty that the preeminent CAS aircraft was still a piston-engined plane from 1945: the Douglas A-1 Skyraider. The air force, however, insisted that Vietnam was an anomaly--that the war it must prepare for was World War III, in which the U.S. would fight Russia on the plains of Europe.

For fear of losing the CAS role to the army, the USAF finally developed the improbable A-10, a plane so ugly that it was promptly named the Warthog, or Hog for short. The A-10 went into service in the mid-1970s, just as North Vietnam overwhelmed the south in a frontal assault across the demilitarized zone. Pilots loved it, but the brass never did, and its demise was announced so often that in his encyclopedia Warbirds, John Fredricksen wrote in 1999 that it had been "phased out of active duty in favor of the General Dynamics F-16." That would come as a great surprise to the Taliban that were hit by the A-10 in Afghanistan in 2001 and the Republican Guards who faced it in Iraq in 2003.

Douglas Campbell flew A-7s for the navy and A-10s for the air force. No surprise: he's a strong believer in the notion of a dedicated CAS aircraft. Even if an all-purpose jet like the F-16 could fulfill the CAS role, he argues, the air force wouldn't be able to handle it adequately because, without fail, CAS would have the lowest priority while pilots trained instead to combat enemy fighters. So when war came and American troops found themselves in trouble on the ground, the F-16 pilots would never perform as well as the A-10s pilots who had trained for nothing else. The Iraq war was over in three weeks--a situation utterly different from WWII, when American pilots had four years to get it right.

A good study of a contentious issue, and especially of the Congressional infighting that accompanied it. Combat aficionados may be disappointed in the short shrift given to the wars in which the Warthog participated, and especially that the publication schedule gave Mr. Campbell no opportunity to include the 2003 Iraq war in his text.

Below: an A-10 Warthog of the 75th Fighter Squadron returns to its Saudi base after taking heavy damage over Baghdad.

Warthog just back from Baghdad

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