February 2, 2012

12 in '12: USAF to cut 5 A-10 Squadrons; Block 30 Global Hawk is cut


Continuing our eye on Aviation Week's 12 stories to watch in 2012, the first aviation casualties in the dwindling defense budget have been announced. Several news stories are announcing that 5 A-10 squadrons are to be cut. One Active Duty Squadron, One AF Reserve Squadron, and Three ANG Squadrons. Which squadrons will be deactivated or transitioned to a new aircraft are not outlined. The stated objective is to replace these aircraft with the new F-35 JSF, as it is believed that this aircraft has a larger multi-role capability than the current A-10.

Additionally, the article above, reports that the Block 30 GlobalHawk UAS is also going to be placed on the chopping block, in favor of a more agile military force. Aviation week, however, is reporting that the Air Force is completely cutting the GlobalHawk program in favor of extending the U-2. WAFO will continue to monitor these and other stories to bring you the final results.

Commentary:
Lets start with the A-10. Its a mistake because the aircraft is already incredibly versatile and has proven itself in combat several times over. Like the Air Force's current fighter fleet, the aircraft was designed with a Soviet-style menace in mind; notably as a counter to Soviet or Warsaw-Pact tanks crossing the Iron Curtain in Germany. As it turns out, however, the aircraft is also really good at killing terrorists and insurgents. Additionally, the aircraft has been configured for, and successfully tested or demonstrated, a number of additional roles including (but not limited to):
  1. Forward Observation and Patrol
  2. Disaster Recovery Operations
  3. Reconnaissance
  4. Air-to-Air Combat
As a versatile aircraft for CONUS-based units, it's already on-par with the F-35, and much cheaper to maintain when compared to the already-over-budget JSF. Sure, it will likely loose in a dogfight against an air superiority fighter. Realistically, however, the Guard and Reserve will likely only use Air-to-Air in CONUS in the event of another 9/11 where shooting down a hijacked airliner may be necessary. In-theater, guard and reserve units will have the benefit of active-duty squadrons watching their backs and providing the necessary Air-to-Air capabilities that are needed. Guard and Reserve missions in CONUS will likely be more on the lines of Katrina/Rita recovery, requiring an aircraft that can fly efficiently at low altitudes and carry a multitude of sensors. The A-10 has already demonstrated this.

We should also remember that this has all happened before. The A-10 is neither sleek, nor sexy, nor stealthy, meaning that it doesn't fit the image that the Air Force has of itself. It's designed for close air support of US forces on the ground instead of either air superiority or supply. The aircraft was supposed to be phased out in both the 1980s and the 1990s, but each time the Army decided it wanted the aircraft, forcing the Air Force to keep it in its roster. Hopefully, this gets changed either congressionally or by the Air Force itself.

Regarding the GlobalHawk, I can understand why the Air Force wants to cut at least the Block 30 model. Afterall, an internal USAF study found that the aircraft in its current form is "unable to completely and reliably perform the high-altitude imagery and signals intelligence collection missions for which it is designed". I would rather focus on my current aircraft, and continually upgrade them until they can perform the mission. But, since we don't have the SR-71 anymore, real-time reconaissance capabilities will be lacking if placed solely on the U-2. (The only reason the SR-71 flew so high and so fast was to avoid it being shot down and their pilots captured, with an unmanned system we don't have that worry). This was discovered during the first Gulf War when General Norman Schwarzkopf had a lack of reliable intelligence, only to find out later an SR-71 could have performed the job and given him what he needed. Global Hawks or an equivalent system supplementing the U-2 is the right way to go.

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