No Country for
Old Wart Hogs?
By Barry Manz Editor
When federal agencies propose budget cuts, trade-offs are inevitable. The latest example comes from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who on February 24 recommended among other things to mothball the venerable fleet of Air Force A-10 “Warthog” close-air-support aircraft and the legendary U-2, while reducing the number of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) from 52 to 32.
This goal is to ensure that funding will be available for the new long-range bomber and aerial tanker and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The U-2 (Figure 1) is a truly ancient platform, having first flown in 1957 and ceasing production in 1989. There’s no question that it’s time to “move on”, and its demise has been a foregone conclusion as the future of airborne surveillance lies in unmanned aircraft that embody modern technology, are far less costly to maintain, and require no one at the controls. The U-2 is arguably the most storied aircraft in military history and has earned a well-deserved retirement.
As for the A-10 (Figure 2), it would also be difficult to argue with putting down a 36-year-old aircraft even though it has been massively upgraded over the years, except for the fact that the Air Force doesn’t have anything to directly replace it. Opponents of keeping the A-10 in service say that aircraft dedicated to a single mission such as close-air-support are no longer viable in today’s debt-laden world, that at 300 kt. (350 mph) the A-10 is slow and vulnerable to modern threats, and is too old to maintain, among other things. Proponents, mostly veteran A-10 pilots and the people who used the aircraft to good effect from Vietnam through Iraq and Afghanistan believe that its unique capabilities are still needed and that the F-35 (which would among its many roles perform close air support) doesn’t come close to fulfilling them.
Wart Hog Indeed
The latter position may or may not be viable, but the A-10 is nevertheless one nasty piece of hardware. It was basically designed around General Electric’s 30-mm GAU-8/A Avenger Gatling gun that delivers up to 3,900 rounds of depleted-uranium rounds per minute (50 to 70 rounds per second). The gun takes 500 ms to reach full “speed” and can place 80% of its rounds in a 40-ft. circle from 4,000 ft. away. In addition to two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, other munitions can include the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missile as well as cluster bombs, Hydrarocket pods, laser-guided bombs, and the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). The ALQ-131 ECM pod provides self-protection.
It is also built to take punishment. The A-10 can (and has) survived direct hits from armor-piercing and high-explosive projectiles of up to at least 23 mm, has a double-redundant hydraulic flight system and a manual mechanical system. When forced to operate in “manual reversion” mode (i.e., without hydraulics), the aircraft has been able to return to base with only one of its two engine in service, one tail, one elevator, and half a wing missing. In one celebrated case, Lt. Col. Kim Campbell was flying an A-10 over Baghdad in 2003 when the plane was extensively damaged by anti-aircraft fire, disabling one engine and causing its hydraulic system to fail. As Campbell later stated, “When you lose all the hydraulics, you don’t have speed brakes, you don’t have brakes, and you don’t have steering.”
Lt. Col. Campbell manually operated the stabilizer and flight controls and kept the plane flying for an hour and landed safely, a feat for which she was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ground inspection revealed that in addition to the engine failure and loss of redundant hydraulic systems and horizontal stabilizer, there were hundreds of holes in the airframe and that large sections of the stabilizer and hydraulic controls were missing (Figure 3).
The cockpit and critical parts of the A-10’s flight-control system are protected by 1,200 lb. of titanium that has taken hits from 57-mm rounds without destruction. The fuel tanks are located inboard and are separate from the fuselage so that only if the aircraft skin is breached and the shell still has enough punch to make it through the tanks is there a risk of explosion. And even then each of the four tanks has self-sealing capabilities as well as foam liners on the outside and inside, keeping fuel and debris from spreading. The engines are shielded from the rest of the airframe by firewalls and fire extinguishing equipment. If fuel from all four main tanks is lost, two self-sealing sump tanks have enough fuel to allow the plane to continue flying for up to 230 miles.
So yes, the A-10 is an old, slow aircraft that based on its age alone make continuing it questionable. However, does it make sense to abandon this proven, versatile, comparatively inexpensive aircraft, at least right now, when it has been significantly upgraded and was until 2007 proposed to remain in service until 2028 or even beyond? Logic seems to dictate (at least to me) that this platform has a role to play until “something” better comes along. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t matter.
The overarching goal of DoD, from cognitive radars with EW functionality to ships and aircraft, is to reduce redundant platforms through use of multi-mission replacements. In the case of fighter aircraft this comes down to the F-35. This concept brings to light the logic of relying on a single platform. There will still be F-15, F-16, F-18, and F-22 fighter aircraft in service for a long time, but ultimately there will be only the F-35. Owing to the rapid advancements in unmanned aircraft it is very likely that the F-35 will be the last manned fighter that DoD ever builds. In short, the question of whether or not it makes sense to keep the A-10 in service is a moot point as it doesn’t fit within DOD’s one-size-fits-all concept.
LCS: Shallow Thinking
The Pentagon’s decision to reduce the number of Littoral Combat Ships to “only” 32, makes sense only in the most superficial sense, for several reasons, as it is arguable (and many have said so) that the ship should never have been built in its current form, and thus 32 is probably 30 too many (two have already been delivered). The concept of the LCS (Figure 4) and others in the DD(X)-class of ships, was to be a fast, highly-maneuverable, multi-mission platform that could replace minesweepers and other single-purpose platforms at comparatively low cost.
First, the LCS is anything but a “combat” ship because it cannot and in fact was never designed to fight. This is a difficult concept to grasp as its mission is to get in close to the action in shallow water and thus presumably close to the enemy. Even a report from the DoD’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation notes that the “LCS is not expected to be survivable in high-intensity combat.” That is, it is inherently vulnerable to the same threats it’s likely to face, which is a pretty damning comment.
The LCS also cannot survive more than one threat at a time nor can it defend itself against anti-ship cruise missiles that are commonly employed in the littorals. Only when outfitted with what’s called the surface warfare package can the LCS even boast minimal armament. That is, once again quoting from the report, it does not “possess significant offensive capability.” In addition, in keeping with the “one-size-fits all” paradigm, many LCS potential capabilities are provided by optional single-function packages such as counter-mine, anti-submarine, and surface warfare (an approach that is being reevaluated).
A key element in this strategy is DARPA’s Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program, itself a multi-mission platform whose goal is to make it easier, faster and less expensive for DoD to deploy ISR and strike capabilities almost anywhere in the world. TERN is designed for small ships like the LCS and includes medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft (UAVs) that can carry a payload of 600 lb. to an operational radius of 600 to 900 nm. When deployed, presumably in 2017, TERN would have advantages over helicopters that can only operate over short distances and times and manned and unmanned fixed wing aircraft that require significant support infrastructure.
As the LCS program progressed, it didn’t take long for the critics to emerge from the woodwork. A 2012 report by Navy Rear Admiral Samuel Perez noted that the LCS is “ill-suited for combat operations against anything but” small, fast boats not armed with anti-ship missiles and that the excessive width of the trimaran hull might pose a “navigational challenge in narrow waterways and tight harbors”.
Another report from the Navy in 2013 noted that the LCS would be vulnerable to strike fighters and maritime patrol aircraft equipped with standoff anti-ship missiles and that a “solution” could be a “Super LCS” with space to install the required armaments to complement the ship’s 57-mm main gun which it called “more suitable to a patrol boat than a frigate”. In response, the Navy said that as the LCS concept was never intended to have the capabilities of destroyers or conventional warships but rather, as they are extremely agile and can reach at speed of 40 kt. (45 mph), to get in and get out of dangerous shallow-water areas.
At a high level the LCS concept certainly makes sense, as the missions these ships are designed to perform are essential and are not likely to diminish. If they could be realized in one or two ship variants and not current single-mission platforms, there would be significant benefits not just in cost savings but in the relative ease with which they could be maintained and upgraded. Unfortunately, initial LCS efforts (of which there are two variants) do not achieve these goals, so why would DoD need 32 more? If 52 were built they would equal one-sixth of the Navy’s entire fleet.
In the coming years, it’s likely that if the LCS survives it will not be in its current form as the only ship in memory without the formidable abilities of the AN-SPY1 Aegis Combat System and with a “plug-n-play” array of modularity. The Navy is currently exploring alternatives that could turn the LCS into what it should have been at the start. Proposals range from a 1,650-ton corvette to a 3,500-ton frigate, the latter with a vertical launch system and AN/SPY-1F radar and the smaller with a CEAFAR active phased-array air search radar. Another proposed addition includes both diesel and gas-turbine propulsion for 28-kt., 9,200 mile range, and 60-day operating schedule, a vertical launch system, AESA air-search radar, X-and S-band surface search radars, torpedo tubes, and hull-mounted and towed-array sonars.
Another alternative would be to revive the stealthy DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer (Figure 5), also part of the DD(X) ship family, that is totally different than the LCS, weighing 14,000 tons and measuring 600 ft. long, that nevertheless can still make 30 kt. (35 mph) and operate in relatively shallow water. It also has the distinction of being the only military ship with all-electric propulsion, making it uniquely suited for powering laser and rail gun weapons systems.
It is a highly-capable platform but….was cancelled after the first three ships because of its $3.5 billion to $5 billion cost, the appearance of new land-to-sea cruise missiles from which the DDG-1000 could not defend itself, and the overall superior cost-benefit ratio of current DDG-51 Zumwalt destroyers.
So what’s currently on offer are the LCS in its current form that cannot fight, the DDG-1000 that is a technical marvel (like the F-35) but too expensive and susceptible to being blown up by emerging threats, and a “new LCS” that fits somewhere in between.
No Easy Answers
When money is not the driving decision factor, it has been “tolerable” to build ships and aircraft and then kill them off or reducing their number (as with the DDG-1000 and LCS)”) after revelations that they are fundamentally flawed. That paradigm now being obsolete, a new concept must prevail and current DoD thinking is that the Swiss Army Knife approach is that concept. Unfortunately, this may ultimately produce fewer systems and platforms that serve many missions, some of which it will perform poorly and perhaps some not at all. Sometimes it just makes sense to make the best use of what works rather than throwing technology at the wall. Reviving the A-10 is not an ideal solution but the aircraft has nevertheless proven itself a formidable adversary, and the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyer may not be super stealthy and have electric propulsion, but it cost half as much and is less likely to be lost.