The Hog that Saved the Grunts

ATLANTA - The Air Force is planning to give the A-10 Warthog an ignominious homecoming from the Persian Gulf.

In early April, Maj. Gen. David Deptula of the Air Combat Command ordered a subordinate to draft a memo justifying the decommissioning of the A-10 fleet. The remaining eight active duty A-10 squadrons (in 1991, the number was 18) could be mothballed as early as 2004.

This is a serious mistake. The A-10 was one of the most effective, lethal and feared weapons of the Iraqi war. Its absence will put troops on the battlefield in grave danger. The decision to take this aircraft out of service is the result of entrenched political and cultural shortsightedness.

About the same time that the general's order was issued, a crucial battle of the Iraqi war was unfolding. The United States Army had arrived at a Tigris River bridge on the edge of Baghdad to find Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers positioned at the other end. A deadly crossfire ensued. A call for help went out, and despite heavy clouds and fog, down the river came two A-10's at an altitude of less than 1,000 feet, spitting out a mix of armor-piercing and explosive bullets at the rate of 3,900 rounds per minute. The Iraqi resistance was obliterated. This was a classic case of "close air support."

The A-10 was also the most storied aircraft of the first gulf war. It flew so many sorties the Air Force lost count. The glamorous F-117 Stealth fighter got the headlines, but Iraqi prisoners interrogated after the war said the aircraft they feared most were the A-10 and the ancient B-52 bomber.

To understand why the corporate Air Force so deeply loathes the A-10, one must go back to 1947, when the Air Force broke away from the Army and became an independent branch. "Strategic bombing," which calls for deep bombing raids against enemy factories and transportation systems, was the foundation of the new service branch. But that concept is fundamentally flawed for the simple reason that air power alone has never won a war.

Nevertheless, strategic bombing, now known as "interdiction bombing," remains the philosophical backbone of the Air Force. Anything involving air support of ground troops is a bitter reminder that the Air Force used to be part of the Army and subordinate to Army commanders. For the white-scarf crowd, nothing is more humiliating than being told that what it does best is support ground troops.

Until the A-10 was built in the 1970's, the Air Force used old, underpowered aircraft to provide close air support. It never had a plane specifically designed to fly low to the ground to support field troops. In fact, the A-10 never would have been built had not the Air Force believed the Army was trying to steal its close air support role - and thus millions of dollars from its budget - by building the Cheyenne helicopter. The Air Force had to build something cheaper than the Cheyenne. And because the Air Force detested the idea of a designated close air support aircraft, generals steered clear of the project, and designers, free from meddling senior officers, created the ultimate ground-support airplane.

It is cheap, slow, low-tech, does not have an afterburner, and is so ugly that the grandiose name "Thunderbolt" was forgotten in favor of "Warthog" or, simply, "the Hog." What the airplane does have is a deadly 30-millimeter cannon, two engines mounted high and widely separated to offer greater protection, a titanium "bathtub" to protect the pilot, a bullet- and fragmentation-resistant canopy, three back-up flight controls, a heavy duty frame and foam-filled fuel tanks - a set of features that makes it one of the safest yet most dangerous weapons on the battlefield.

However, these attributes have long been ignored, even denied, because of the philosophical aversion to the close air support mission. Couple that with the Air Force's love affair with the high technology F/A-22 ($252 million per plane) and the F-35 fighter jets (early cost estimates are around $40 million each), and something's got to give.

Despite budget problems, the Air Force has decided to save money by getting rid of the cheap plane and keeping the expensive ones. Sacrifices must be made, and what a gleeful one this will be for the Air Force.

The Air Force is promoting the F-35 on the idea that it can provide close air support, a statement that most pilots find hilarious. But the F-35's price tag means the Air Force will not jeopardize the aircraft by sending it low where an enemy with an AK-47 can bring it down. (Yes, the aircraft will be that vulnerable.)

In the meantime, the Air Force is doing its utmost to get the public to think of the sleek F-16 fighter jet as today's close support aircraft. But in the 1991 gulf war and in Kosovo, the Air Force wouldn't allow the F-16 to fly below 10,000 feet because of its vulnerability to attack from anti-aircraft guns and missiles.

Grunts are comforted by the presence of a Hog, because when they need close air support, they need it quickly. And the A-10 can loiter over a battlefield and pounce at a moment's notice. It is the only aircraft with pilots trained to use their eyes to separate bad guys from good guys, and it can use its guns as close in as 110 yards. It is the only aircraft that can take serious hits from ground fire, and still take its pilot home.

But the main difference between those who fly pointy-nose aircraft and Hog drivers is the pilot's state of mind. The blue suits in the Air Force are high-altitude advocates of air power, and they aren't thinking about muddy boots. A-10 drivers train with the Army. They know how the Army works and what it needs. (In combat, an A-10 pilot is assigned to Army units.)

If the Air Force succeeds in killing the A-10, it will leave a serious gap in America's war-fighting abilities. By itself, air power can't bring about victory. The fate of nations and the course of history is decided by ground troops. The A-10 is the single Air Force aircraft designed to support those troops. For that reason alone, the Air Force should keep the A-10 and build new close support aircraft similar to the Hog, demonstrating its long-term commitment to supporting our men and women in the mud.

Robert Coram is author of "Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War."