Air Force Col. Martha McSally was leading a squadron of A-10 attack jets over Afghanistan when they encountered U.S. forces engaged in a desperate fight against Islamist insurgents.
One of the embattled troops signaled his unit’s location with a small mirror that reflected sunlight upward. McSally, the first American woman to fly in combat, and the other pilots flew to the light and opened fire with the seven-barrel Gatling cannons nestled in the A-10s’ noses.
“We had Americans on the move in difficult terrain,” McSally recalled in a recent interview. “They didn’t have time to figure out the eight-digit coordinates of the enemy or to put a laser spot on the target because they were on the run with their lives in danger.”
The A-10 fire, at 65 rounds per second, devastated the enemy. The surrounded Americans lived.
A decade later, McSally is in her first year in Congress and on a different sort of rescue mission: She’s trying to save the A-10 Thunderbolt II, whose former pilots and other supporters affectionately call it the Warthog, from being sent out to aviation pasture.
The Arizona Republican belongs to a bipartisan group of lawmakers – they include Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, Johnny Isakson and David Perdue of Georgia, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Tom Tillis of North Carolina, among others – who are resisting an Air Force push to retire the 283 A-10 aircraft from military service and hand off their core mission of close-air support for ground troops to a handful of other models of U.S. fighter jets.
The A-10 caucus received a jolt of good news last month when the Pentagon unexpectedly announced that it was moving a dozen of the aircraft to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, from where American warplanes have been launching raids against the Islamic State since August.
The surprise move came 10 days before President Barack Obama said he was sending “fewer than 50” special operations troops to Syria to help Arab and Kurdish fighters combat Islamic State militants.
Sim Tack, a defense analyst with Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based group that sells geopolitical intelligence to government agencies and corporations, believes that the dispatch of the special operators to Syria may be tied to the arrival of the A-10s at Incirlik.
“These would be exactly the type of guys who would be able to make full use of the A-10s by providing (targeting) coordination from the ground,” Tack told McClatchy. “And the A-10 would be a very capable aircraft to provide them with close air support as they are operating inside Syria.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, welcomed the new assignments.
“As the United States and our coalition partners take the fight to ISIL, the A-10’s ability to provide air support is very important,” McCaskill said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “Its pilots are making an invaluable contribution to our multipronged campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.”
The plane was built to show up on the battlefield, loiter, take hits and survive.
Rep. Martha McSally, former A-10 pilot
Despite the recent Incirlik mission, Pentagon officials say the A-10 flies too low, moves too slow and, in its fourth decade of service, must give way in the coming years to sleeker, faster jets that can drop precision-guided munitions on enemy targets with pinpoint accuracy and from greater heights.
“While no one, especially me, is happy about recommending divestiture of this great old friend, it’s the right military decision,” Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, then Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said at another hearing that an A-10 had once rescued him in combat. He extolled it as “the ugliest, most beautiful aircraft on the planet” – but said its time has come.
The Pentagon wants to replace the A-10 with the F-35, the futuristic Joint Strike Fighter that has endured numerous production delays and is now projected to be fully deployed across the Air Force, Navy and Marines by 2019.
Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said that even before the F-35 is widely available, U.S. military leaders have plenty of existing options to provide close air support.
“Low-flying aircraft like the A-10 are at risk from anti-aircraft artillery, MANPADS (portable air-defense systems) and other ground threats,” he said. “We have a large inventory of other capabilities which can do that mission, including rotary-wing aircraft, drones, bombers and fighters.”
For three years, the Pentagon has removed funding for maintaining the A-10 fleet from the National Defense Authorization Act; each year, Congress has put the money back.
President Barack Obama vetoed the most recent measure Oct. 22, in part over lawmakers’ attempt to protect the A-10. On Nov. 5, the House passed a modified version of the bill, with the A-10 funding intact, by a 370-58 margin, more than enough votes to override a second Obama veto, and the Senate approved it Tuesday, on a vote of 91-3, another unassailable margin. The White House said Obama would sign it.
Against this backdrop, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters last month that a dozen American A-10s would be replacing six or so F-16s at Incirlik. He called it part of “a regular rotation that was planned.”
The Pentagon wants to replace the A-10 with the Joint Strike Fighter, the futuristic F-35 jet whose full deployment has been pushed back to 2019 after multiple production delays.
But the disclosure raised questions about why the Pentagon had bypassed any one of a dozen or more other types of military aircraft for the key Turkish base, choosing instead a 30-year-old attack jet slated for retirement. The A-10s’ home is Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, but they were brought to Incirlik from an undisclosed location in the Middle East.
“The president proposed to retire the A-10 aircraft,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican, told the Brookings Institution in Washington on the day of the Pentagon announcement. “Well, it turns out they are sending A-10s into the Middle East today and relying on them.”
Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. anti-Islamic State campaign, tried to downplay the move in a video briefing from Baghdad the next day.
“These A-10s are replacing some F-16s that were rotating out,” he said. “There is nothing special or magical about the actual platform. It’s the ability to conduct (air) strikes. A-10 is just another platform.”
But for Warthog supporters, the rotation was anything but routine, and the A-10 is not just another plane. While it was originally designed to destroy Soviet tanks rolling across the plains of Europe, the partisans say the jet is proving its mettle in the current campaign against the Islamic State.
“It’s showing its unique capabilities in the fight against ISIS,” McSally said. “You need to fly low. You need to have a big weapons load because if there’s a significant fight going on and you run out of ammo in the middle of it, people are going to die. And you need to be survivable in that kind of environment.”
With its cockpit surrounded by a titanium tub and the plane reinforced with layers of armor, the A-10 has spawned legendary tales of pilots returning from combat in badly wounded planes that were full of holes and missing an engine, but still flying.
“The plane was built to show up on the battlefield, loiter, take hits and survive,” McSally said. “It’s amazing. We can lose a lot of our hydraulics, all of our electronics, lose one engine and have flight-control damage, yet still fly back to friendly territory.”
Almost a quarter-century ago, after McSally graduated from the Air Force Academy and got her wings, she was given her choice of fighter jets to fly, thanks to her class rank and training performance. She did a lot of research, talked with a number of experienced military pilots – and chose the A-10.
McSally would fly 325 combat hours in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them in the A-10, before retiring in 2005.
“I totally love the plane,” she said.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story contained a quote from Rep. McSally that was removed because its use incorrectly combined an experience that she had recounted with a separate A-10 incident.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014, @jamesmartinrose