So after almost forty years of service and near constant combat over the last decade, just now Air Combat Command got the bright idea to clear the A-10 for combat operations with an external fuel tank. The A-10 often ferries itself around with a giant 600 gallon “bag” hung off its centerline stores station and finally someone got the bright idea to see if this same tank can be used in actual combat. How on earth did this take so long? You would think that after decades of meticulously operating and testing a combat aircraft like the A-10 someone would have said, hey can we fly this thing with a centerline tank so that I can give the guys on the ground support and/or over watch for another hour or so? Mind boggling to think of all the crazy and wasteful USAF programs and aircraft upgrades that have come and gone since the A-10 entered service and just now the A-10 testers are giving this idea a shot. Mind-blowing…

Okay, I guess the excuse that the A-10A was supposed to survive over the forests of Europe by flying low and jinking its way through enemy fire to deliver its dumb munitions and cannon rounds on the foreheads of the enemy may make hanging a big tank like this off the jet’s centerline not an ideal solution, but then again maybe not. For well over 25 years the A-10 has employed, from medium altitude, the AGM-65 Maverick air to ground missile as its primary weapon system. For search and destroy missions, such as those seen in Desert Storm, I think an increase in loiter time provided by an extra 600 gallons of fuel would have been a no-brainer. Fast forward to the past decade and the emergence of the A-10C Precision Engagement Package which allowed the Hog to employee guided munitions, during day or night, from above medium altitude, and the idea of not certifying an external fuel tank for combat seems not only dumb and un-aligned with this new capability, but also in some ways almost reckless, both in terms of human life and economics. Then factor in the nature of the wars in Iraq and especially Afghanistan and it seems almost mind-boggling that this fairly simple upgrade was not an absolute priority!

How much money has the US tax payer thrown down the toilet over the years, especially over the last half decade or so that A-10C has been deployed, on ridiculously expensive aerial refueling and wasted airframe time because nobody within ACC made this a priority. In fact the lack of that extra 55 minutes or so of loiter time that this tank, already in inventory in large numbers, could provide snowballs down the “cost mountain” at an alarming rate.

The reality is that a commander requires so many aircraft, in so many places, at so many times. Take into account that each aircraft can loiter for a given period of time, amongst other factors, and you have a figure of how many aircraft you will need available to accomplish a mission. By adding an extra hour of unrefueled flight time to the Warthog and you need less aircraft to accomplish said mission or missions. Then take into account the airframe hours and maintenance costs in having to supply more jets to accomplish a single objective. Furthermore, include the ridiculous price of fuel pumped off a tanker (when you factor in the costs of tanker operations etc) which is somewhere between $25 and $40 a gallon depending on who you ask, and you begin to realize just how much ACC’s idiotic reluctance of not deploying a combat certified centerline tank for the A-10 has cost us over years of constant combat operations.

Finally, you have the human element. The A-10’s bread and butter is backing up our troops on the ground, and it does so in a notoriously efficient manner. Many soldiers on both sides of the A-10’s wrath have commented on the almost sinister beauty of how effective this aircraft is at its core mission set. So when you have only so many A-10s available, and they can only loiter so long, you have to leave troops on the ground to go get some gas from an orbiting tanker, or you have to breakup the section or division of jets in order to tank and maintain overhead persistence, which leaves less firepower and tactical flexibility over the troops on the ground. Or even worse, as the A-10s get low on gas they would have to pass off their close air support duties to a lessor platform, which in effects leaves the guys on the ground with inferior capability to vanquish potential aggressors. All this could mean lives lost on the battlefield. In other words, getting the A-10 more gas in combat is a very serious and relevant matter.

The good news is that finally getting a combat capable external fuel tank on the Warthog is a good thing. Better late than never as they say. But, this issue is still yet another example of the USAF’s continued carefree reliance on aerial refueling, even when less expensive alternatives are literally hanging on the wings of their aircraft. This story is also yet another glaring and sad example of the USAF’s historic reluctance toward treating the A-10 like the indispensable fire-breathing close air support dragon that it is. The Hog has always been the “Iron Nosed Step Child” of the USAF, after proving its relevance, and even its versatility and adaptability, over and over again. One would have to wonder if the US Army were allowed to have bought and operate the A-10 from its inception if these tanks would not have been a fixture on this aircraft long, long ago. The USAF has hated the A-10 because it has straight wings, its slow, lacks an afterburner and is built to deal death like a sledgehammer instead of a throwing star, so one can sadly see why the powers that be have kept anything off of it that may slow it down a bit more or pull a little less G, no matter how relevant it may be.

The same mindset that brought you an A-10 with no combat certified external fuel tank also brought us over a decade of fighting an enemy carrying rusty AK-47s and living in mud huts with mach two capable pointy nosed and extremely expensive multirole fighters. Oh and these are also the same folks who scream at the top of their lungs about an impending “fighter gap” and the rapid aging of their own forces’ airframes who have been battered to hell after years of fighting a war they were highly unsuited to fight. The USAF’s constant contradictions of its own mission requirements, general hypocrisy, constant playing of favorites, selfish monopoly of capabilities it does not even want, its total lack of economic control and overall vision is so disappointing. The tankless and thankless Hog is just one more example of all this.

At least after almost four decades of the USAF brass’s attempts at tanking the A-10 program, the mighty but dwindling hog fleet may get a tank of its own…

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  1. Dainon says:

    It’s hard to secure a post-retirement “consulting” career, if you keep requisitioning the cheap stuff.

    Give it to the Army, let them put a bunch of 11B-turned-warrant officers in the cockpits; maybe even let amputees not ready to leave service take this job. Build them into division level MTOEs, letting them park them close to the action (in Baghdad, both BIAP and Taji could have easily operated them, considering both have 10km airstrips, and Warthogs don’t even need blacktop), making air tasking REALLY easy, as opposed to the 48 hour lead time sometimes required to get fixed wing support my battalion went through.

  2. Todd Frohwirth says:

    I’d be curious to know your thoughts on Syria, you always seem to have a unique take.

  3. Dainon says:

    The more I think about it, this could a great chance to show just how military aviation is made too expensive in every aspect.

    I’m no fan of the college-degree requirement for commissioning (it’s arcane; literacy is easily testable, and a college degree is no longer proof one has mastered even the lowest level of logic or critical thinking). As a result, I’m not a huge fan of either direct commissioning (essentially enlisting to be officer) nor of ROTC. Regardless, the college degree requirement isn’t going anywhere. That said, there is no need for pilots to be commissioned, as they aren’t officers in the traditional role. Rather, they are technicians with a high standard for pre-selection, which is exactly the role for which warrant officers are meant to be deployed.

    Why spend 120,000 dollars on an ROTC scholarship on the HOPES a kid will become qualified to enter two years of training to become a pilot? Further, once a service member is made a commissioned officer, a whole host of other constraints is placed upon him. Aside from staff officer time and very long advanced school requirements, commissioned officers are subject to both up-or-out promotion shake-outs and removal from flight duty upon a certain promotion level.

    Even before you consider that most pilots just want to fly (I’ve inferred this from the fact that EVERY military pilot I’ve know really only wants to fly, wanting as little to do with the other aspects of the job as possible), it seems like a lot of money to spend upfront on an asset with an artificially constrained useful life (the same thing happens with 18As, and as a result, many I’ve known have resigned their commissions as soon as they’re faced with leaving the ODA level). Using warrants (even making it such that one must complete a full, or mostly full, enlistment before being admitted into the training pipeline) allows pilots to retire while stepping out of the cockpit from their last flight, while still enjoying promotions concomitant with their increasing skills and time in service, maximizing the return on investment for these assets.

    Using warrants would provide the maximal return for the least risk to the services, AND the system has already been vetted by the success of warrant officers flying rotary wings.

  4. Amicus Curiae says:

    I am willing to guess that using external tanks as one of the combat configurations was brought up many times in the past 40 years, and each time it was concluded it did not offer enough pros with the cons. I can tell you that during investigations aimed at saving A-10 production, re-engining proposals always required external tanks to maintain utility. There was no end to criticism of that. External tanks had many drawbacks beyond parasitic drag. For instance, it is unusual to have a 5000 lb store station capable of the full maneuver envelope, and the A-10 depends on violent jinking as one of its survivability techniques. I suppose unrestricted maneuver pylons could be retrofitted, but it will add to empty weight and therefore eat into other desireable combat performance features. Special tanks must be designed for the same reason, which are also heavier. Any configuration that used up store stations with anything but weapons was considered a mark against it. I think external tanks were incompatible with the unique A-10 low and slow vulnerability/surviviability rules too. Last, but not least, it takes time and money to engineer, manufacture and test a fully capable external tank. The A-10 was struggling to stay in the inventory and adding mod costs was always problematic. I’m not saying your criticism is without merit, but I suggest it is not the no-brainer you promote either.

  5. Dainon says:

    “For instance, it is unusual to have a 5000 lb store station capable of the full maneuver envelope, and the A-10 depends on violent jinking as one of its survivability techniques.”

    So, why not a smaller fuel tank? Why not a jettison policy (like interceptors used, when moving from patrol to attack mode)?

    “Last, but not least, it takes time and money to engineer, manufacture and test a fully capable external tank. The A-10 was struggling to stay in the inventory and adding mod costs was always problematic.”

    This is a begging the question, leading to circular logic issue. Everybody supported by the A-10 mission wanted to keep the A-10. Why the USAF wanted to get rid of it is like trying to answer why the Kardashians are famous; they’re famous because they’re on TV, which they’re on because they’re famous. The A-10 has been on the chopping block because it’s unwanted, and it’s unwanted because it’s on the chopping block.

    The A-10 is the perfect tool for one of the USAF’s primary missions, supporting ground troops. If the USAF doesn’t want the mission, they’ve always been free to give it to someone else. Claiming modification cost is an issue on a fully depreciated airframe is strange; the A-10 has already paid for all its fixed costs and is still fully viable.

    How much cost would need to be put into any form of A-10 modifications? Two F-35s? Three F-35s?

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