The U.S. Needs to Build More A-10s, Not Retire Them

RAR2009_-_Front_A-10_Warthog-e1424997120575.jpg

Death, taxes, and the A-10 getting the axe in the most recent U.S. budget proposal. You can almost set your watch by it. The United States Air Force is trying to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II, better known as the Warthog, for the umpteenth year in a row. But the USAF's case to retire the A-10 is taking on water, and they've recently been shown to have "cherry-picked" data to make the A-10's performance in the Middle East look bad.

Yet, in the same breath, they sent A-10s to the Middle East to help combat ISIL in October of last year, and now they are sending a few more back to Eastern Europe in case the Russians get too frisky with Ukraine.

As this article on Foxtrot Alpha declares in no uncertain terms, the USAF's case for retiring the A-10 is:

"...total bulls**t and both the American taxpayer and those who bravely fight our wars on the ground should be furious."

Tyler Rogoway has gone so far as to declare it "sabotage." And he's right. The A-10 is, contrary to what the Air Force wants you to believe, a cheap and deadly multi-role aircraft that can do the jobs that nothing else can do.

http://youtu.be/eCnjWmtfvFo

This is par for the course for the Air Force brass, who cannot make a halfway logical procurement decision if it meant saving their own lives. Retiring the A-10, so they say, will save the USAF $4.7 billion over five years - $4.7 billion that could go to bringing the F-35 along, as though that's all it would need.

Avenger Cannon A-10

First flown in 1972, and introduced into service in 1977, the A-10 is unquestionably the greatest close support attack aircraft ever produced. So great is the A-10 at its job that, nearly 40 years after its service introduction, it still flies in front-line service, and has outlived its original manufacturer, Fairchild-Republic.

That, the Air Force says, is the problem. They want to shut down the last 315 Warthogs still flying to clear room in the budget for their beloved and problematic F-35 jobs program Joint Strike Fighter.

Truth is, the USAF is right. The A-10 is approaching 40 years old. There is only so much upgrading the Air Force can do to a four-decade-old airframe before the airframe itself is simply done. It does need to be retired.

But here's the issue: What the Air Force needs to replace the A-10 is...wait for it...more A-10s.

The F-35 can't do what the A-10 does

YA-10A

Fairchild-Republic built 716 A-10s. It was the last production military aircraft built by the storied stable that also produced the P-47 Thunderbolt, F-84 Thunderjet and F-105 Thunderchief - all tough aircraft that were built to get dirty and help the grunts on the ground. The A-10 was the next logical step in that evolution, and embodied everything that Republic stood for from World War II on.

Now that we're in 2015, there have been a number of technical advancements that the A-10 has simply missed out on. What has held up over time is its legendary toughness, maneuverability, and the deadly accuracy and hitting power provided by its GAU-8 Avenger cannon.

But the aircraft the USAF wants to replace the Warthog with - the problematic F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the A-10:

  • Being a stealth aircraft, it's designed to evade radar detection. Where the A-10 flies, among the weeds and behind hills, the concept of radar evasion is irrelevant.
  • The A-10 was built around its gun and a titanium "bathtub" in which the pilot sits. The F-35 doesn't have that armor.
  • The F-35 is designed to be supersonic. The A-10 most certainly was not. In fact, its lack of speed is an asset, in that it is a stable platform to aim its weapons from.
  • The A-10 is highly maneuverable, with its long, straight wings and dual tailplane. The F-35's high wing loading reduces its maneuverability to a point that air-to-air tests are showing it's a serious problem.
  • The A-10 costs $18.8 million per copy in 2004 dollars. A single F-35A - the Air Force version - costs $114 million per copy.
  • The A-10 has 11 external hardpoints, which can carry up to a maximum of 16,000 pounds of ordnance, although usually it carries less than that. The F-35 can carry 18,000 pounds max, but on only six hardpoints, plus two internal bays, so it can carry heavier loads, but not as much stuff in one go.
  • The A-10 has two engines arranged on pylons at the rear, such that it can get home on one of them if the other gets blown up. The F-35 has one engine, so if you knock that out, you knock out the whole plane.

If the USAF decides to replace the A-10 with the F-35, it will be a multi-billion-dollar mistake. It's already shied away from it once because the F-35 couldn't "generate enough sorties" to replace the Warthog. So what the hell good is a front-line close support aircraft that can't get into the air enough when things go sideways?

Reopen the lines

The Air Force should not buy the F-35 to replace the A-10. Instead, it should re-open the production lines and buy more A-10s.

TR-1A

This is not unprecedented. The U-2 was initially produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When the USAF needed more U-2s, they asked Lockheed to re-open the lines to produce two new variants, the TR-1 (later U-2S) and U-2R. Production ended in the mid-1980s, 25 years after the first U-2s rolled off the line at the Skunk Works.

There is only one snag in doing the same with the A-10: The original manufacturer, Fairchild-Republic, no longer exists. Currently, Northrop Grumman is the owner of all A-10 assets, having purchased them from the dying firm in 1987.

A new A-10 variant - let's call it a Northrop Grumman A-10D Super Warthog - as speculated in this article from War is Boring, would retain the A-10's rugged survivability and performance, while adding these new things the pilots want:

  • Upgraded engines from the old and tired TF34 turbofans. Currently, the A-10 has a hard time taking off with a full modern weapons and fuel load. A little more speed always helps too.
  • Better avionics and weapons equipment, like infrared sensors, cockpit displays, and as suggested, Northrop-Grumman's own LITENING II targeting equipment.
  • Better defensive systems, like missile warning and electronic warfare equipment.

Should a new A-10D variant come on line, it should have these and more and still remain under $20-25 million a piece. If it did, the Air Force could save the taxpayers a lot of money and re-focus the development of the F-35 to replace just the F-16 instead.

In addition, there could be some new customers.

An A-10 for the Marines

If the Marines had waved a magic wand in the early 1970s and said, "Give us an attack aircraft," they would have gotten the A-10.

They probably wouldn't have gotten the AV-8B Harrier II, which, despite its remarkable ability to take off and land without a runway, is highly vulnerable and occasionally unreliable.

But the Harrier's best advantage is that it can operate very close to the battlefield and from ships, like the Marines' Wasp-class amphibious assault carriers.

Cherry-Point-F35-F18-Harrier1

Now the Marines want their own variant of the F-35, the F-35B, complete with weight-costly and vulnerable STO/VL technology, to replace the Harrier. For a service hell-bent on reliability and toughness, the F-35B sure looks like it's full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

The F-35B is also slated to replace the F/A-18 in Marine service, and perhaps it can as a lightweight multi-role fighter. But for close air support, again, what the Marines need is their own version of the A-10.

Marines F-35B

Let's say we re-opened the lines again for a Marines version of the A-10. It should be just as tough as the USAF version, but let's see if we can do something really fun: make it carrier-capable.

The message board folks have already speculated about it on occasion, but let's think about it seriously. A theoretical A-10E Sea Hog close support carrier-capable aircraft would require more than a few modifications:

  • Folding wings for storage on a carrier.
  • Heavily strengthened undercarriage to handle violent carrier landings and take-offs.
  • Arresting gear to land on the carrier.
  • It might be interesting to see if an A-10 could take off from a carrier using a ski-jump (like the British and Russians) with a full load and without a catapult. The Marines do not have ski-jumps on their carriers for the Harriers, even though the Royal Navy does.

This image is not real. But if it were, it would be very cool:

A-10 Warthog Carrier Landing

As it is, if the USAF doesn't want their remaining A-10Cs anymore, the Marines should take them off their hands. Heaven knows they'd be all too happy to do so.

Could there be room for the A-10B?

YA-10B Warthog

In 1979, The USAF converted one A-10A with a second seat, as the YA-10B. The plane was designed as a Night/All-Weather attack aircraft. Trials were successful, but Congress did not fund production of the A-10B, so the program was abandoned.

But now would be an interesting time to resurrect the A-10B concept. While night and all-weather chores can be handled by single-seaters thanks to the march of technology since 1979, a two-seat A-10 might be a useful prospect in areas like the Middle East, where forward air control and counter-insurgency aircraft would be needed. In addition, the A-10B would also be a useful tool in the Air Rescue Escort role, a-la the old 'Sandys', the A-1 Skyraiders, in Vietnam.

The A-10 now

All of this is speculation and wishful thinking. For the moment, the A-10 will remain in service until at least 2019 if retirement is to commence, but if Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona, a former A-10 driver, gets her way, the Warthog will be around until 2028.

Also coming to the aid of the Warthog are numerous veterans, who say they owe their lives to the A-10 and its pilots.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rGcn2XGr48

Ultimately, the truth is that the USAF doesn't have a replacement for the A-10. The F-35 can't do it. And for that matter, the F-35 cannot do what the Marines want it to do either, at least not in comparison to existing hardware, like the Harrier or the A-10 itself.

As we said above, the only realistic replacement for the A-10 is the A-10, and it will continue to remain so until the chiefs either come up with a cheap alternative, or take the not-unprecedented step of re-opening production of the Warthog.

The Lost Designations: Republic F-96 Thunderstreak

This is the first part in a series I'm doing on designations of aircraft that should have been, but were not, for whatever reason. Conveniently, the first three happen back-to-back-to-back in the U.S. fighter series. The first one is arguably the most successful in terms of aircraft produced. If you've never heard of the Republic F-96, that's okay. The fact is that the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak, arguably the most successful variant of the venerable F-84, initially had - and should always have carried - an entirely new designation. Ironically, the initial F-96 prototype had a lot more in common with its straight-winged forebears than it did with the swept-wing machines it presaged.

Almost as soon as the first Republic XP-84 Thunderjet made its initial flight on February 28, 1946, Alexander Kartveli and the team at Republic knew it was outdated.

Republic XP-84 Thunderjet

Data recovered from captured research facilities and scientists in Nazi Germany at the end of World War II indicated that designers there found advantages from swept-back wings, particularly at high speed. With the F-84B already in production by late 1947, Republic were now having to scramble to save the straight-winged Thunderjet from a short service life.

Republic YF-96A Thunderstreak

Republic developed several variants of the F-84 with various aerodynamic and propulsion upgrades in desperate attempts to keep the Thunderjet project alive for the USAF. However, by 1949, it was clear that a swept-wing aircraft would have to be developed if republic were to remain competitive with the likes of North American with their F-86, McDonnell's F-88, and Lockheed's F-90 - all of which employed swept wings.

Alexander Kartveli approached the problem from the simplest angle possible: Take a standard F-84E fuselage, and attach 38.5-degree swept wings and tailplane. This approach was an efficient one - It enabled quicker production due to not having to re-tool the factory (the new plane would have 55% commonality with the F-84E), and permitted the possibility of modifying existing straight-wing machines to the new standard.

As is custom, the Air Force provided Republic with a new designation for the aircraft - F-96. Republic dubbed it 'Thunderstreak.' The first was ready for flight in June of 1950.

The YF-96A, s/n 49-2430, made its maiden flight on June 3rd, 1950. Performance turned out not to be up to the levels Republic was hoping for. The YF-96A topped out at 693 mph, while the straight-winged F-84E had a top speed of 613 mph. In addition, like its predecessor, the YF-96A's performance died as it climbed, with a ceiling under 40,000 feet. Compared to the F-86 Sabre, which was capable of breaking the sound barrier in a dive, the F-96 looked headed for cancellation.

Then, on June 25th, 1950, everything changed. On that day, North Korea invaded South Korea, and the Korean War was on. With it came drastically expanded military funding, which had floundered in the draw-down after World War II. And with it, the YF-96 had new life, if its technical shortcomings could be solved.

The main drawback was the engine. The YF-96A was powered by the same Allison J35 engine as the F-84E. The swept surfaces did allow for some additional speed, but to reach the heights hoped for, the type needed a more powerful engine.

The Air Force asked Wright Aeronautical to build the British Armstrong-Siddely Sapphire turbojet engine under license in the U.S., under the designation J65. this engine, which already powered the Gloster Javelin and Hawker Hunter, could crank out more than 7,000 pounds of thrust, compared to the J35's 5,500 pounds. This new engine would be installed in the new Thunderstreak.

But there was a problem. The J65 was slightly larger than the J35, and required a greater volume of air than the F-96's circular nose intake could provide. The lack of air to the engine resulted in drastically inferior power and performance, despite the type's first flight with it in February 1951. So Republic had to go back to the drawing board. Kartveli's solution was to add a seven-inch length-wise plug into the fuselage, giving it a fatter, ovular cross-section.

As a result, most of the tools that Republic hoped to re-use to build F-96s would have to be tossed out, resulting in massive production delays. Consequently, the commonality factor with the straight-winged F-84s was dramatically reduced from 55% to just 15%. Two more prototypes were ordered, each with its own revised design to accommodate the new power plant.

Re-designation to YF-84F

By now, Congress was getting impatient with the F-96 program. It had staved off cancellation with the outbreak of the Korean War, but enthusiasm still waned. So Kartveli decided to play salesman.

He submitted to the Air Force that the XF-96A be re-designated YF-84F, hoping that selling Congress that this was a new sub-type of an existing aircraft would be more palatable than buying a completely new aircraft, despite the fact that the new type was only 15% similar to its predecessors. Congress fell for it, and the Thunderstreak was ordered into production as the F-84F.

In the meantime, Republic also pitched and got an order for an improved straight-win F-84 variant, the F-84G, to be produced quickly while the F-84F was ironed out. More than 3,000 F-84Gs would roll off the line at Republic - the most of any F-84 model.

The first YF-84F, s/n 51-1344, with its ovular cross-section, was flying by the end of 1951.

YF-84F Thunderstreak

The second YF-84F, s/n 51-1345, represented a radical redesign. Instead of the nose intake, this machine was completed with wing root-extension intakes and a needle nose. However, the new intakes did not allow enough air to get to the engine as was needed, and power losses were dramatic compared to the nose-intake model. So the F-84F would go into production with a nose intake.

F-84F intake

However, at this time, the Air Force was looking for a swept-wing upgrade from its straight-winged Lockheed RF-80 Shooting Star reconnaissance aircraft. Although the F-84F had lackluster performance for a fighter at high altitude, its low-level performance was rock solid in ground attack roles, and by inference, the type would make an excellent choice for low-level reconnaissance.

YF-84F Republic

YRF-84F Thunderflash

The solid-nosed variant also permitted the installation of cameras. So a new prototype was ordered, s/n 51-1828, with an enlarged, aardvark-esque nose section to accommodate camera packages. The first pre-production YRF-84F flew for the first time in February 1952.

RF-84F Prototypes

YF-84J Thunderstreak

Republic attempted one last push with the F-84F design in its YF-84J. The F's fuselage was enlarged once again, along with the nose intake, to accommodate the General Electric J73 engine, which produced a maximum of 9,500 pounds of thrust. This development finally achieved the performance that Kartveli had envisioned for his swept-wing fighter, as one YF-84J broke the sound barrier in level flight in April of 1954. But the cost of converting the existing F-84Fs to F-84J standard, coupled with the coming emergence of the Century Series fighters like the North American F-100 Super Sabre, spelled the end of the F-84J project.

YF-84J

FICON Prototype

There was one last task for the original YF-96A prototype to undertake. In preparation for the FICON project, 49-2430 was modified with aerial coupling gear and a drooped horizontal stabilizer in order to be mated with a B-36 mother plane to test the concept. The tests with the B-36 proved that the system could indeed work for roles including aerial reconnaissance and even nuclear strike. 25 RF-84Fs were ordered to be converted to RF-84K standards, with coupling gear and anhedraled tailplanes, to be paired with 10 modified GRB-36D mother ships. After service with SAC's 99th Strategic Reconaissance Wing (B-36s) and 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, the project was suddenly abandoned in April of 1956. While the difficulties in operating parasite aircraft operationally were unquestionably a factor, it should also be noted that the U-2 spy plane entered service with the CIA and SAC in January of that same year.

Convair GRB-36F coupling in flight with the modified Republic YRF-84F (49-2430), formerly the YF-96A. (USAF Photo)

The original YF-96A (described as the YRF-84F FICON) sits on display in the Research and Development Galler at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. It is the only one of the swept-wing F-84 prototypes to still exist. All the others have been scrapped.

YF-96A YRF-84F FICON USAF Museum

Ultimately, given how much of a departure it was from the original F-84, the F-84F probably should have kept its original F-96 designation. Indeed, the original prototype's sleek form represents the highest refinement of aesthetics for a plane that had the unflattering nickname of 'Groundhog.'

Should-have-been equivalent designations:

  • F-84F - F-96A (21 different sub-types)
  • RF-84F - RF-96B
  • YF-84J - YF-96C
  • RF-84K - RF-96D
  • XF-84H - XF-96E

But Alexander Kartveli's decision to fold the plane's number in with the original type likely enabled it to become the great plane that it was, rather than being relegated to history's boneyard. It was a bold and cunning decision, but one that surely helped keep him, and Republic itself, in good stead with Air Force leaders heading into the mid-1950s, and the development of the F-105, which would prove troublesome. In this respect, Kartveli's genius as a businessman, in addition to a designer, cannot be overlooked.