By Bijan Razzaghi
The US Air Force for the longest time has been seeking a replacement for the A-10 in the close air support and attack role. The A-10 is among the longest serving combat aircraft still in US service aside from the B-52. The Air Force for the longest time rejected the idea of the A-10 and preferred to leave close air support for the Army’s Cobra’s and now Apaches. Despite those concerns the A-10 has remained in service for the last 40 years. The aircraft has performed particularly well in close air support as long loiter time and slow speed handling allow the aircraft to fly low enough to spot enemy troops and concealed targets for sustained period of time. While existing F-16s and F-15E Strike Eagles can only perform a few passes before having to refuel or return to base. That capability has always been unique to the A-10 despite that the Air Force prefers fast and high flying aircraft.
The latest decision by congress puts the A-10s retirement at 2022, and with the current battle against ISIS and other terror groups the need for close air support aircraft is ever present. Originally the A-10 was to be replaced by the F-35A Lightning II, despite it being a very capable stealthy strike fighter and packs an extra punch with a more powerful 25mm cannon the aircraft still does not possess the long loiter time of the A-10 or its slow speed handling at lower altitudes as a result the Air force decided the F-35 is not the ultimate solution for replacing the A-10 even though it does possess more attack capability’s that the existing F-16s and F-15Es might lack in regards to the 25mm cannon that F-35s have. Despite this the F-35 needs a light slower smaller aircraft to back it up in the role of close air support. The Air Force already has the Reaper, which has the Hellfire missile and can also employ Paveways and JDAMs while have high loiter times the aircraft lacks a gun and is unmanned. The four manned options that can be considered are the A-29 Super Tucano, the AT-6 Taxon, the Scorpion from Textron Air Land Systems and a possible attack derivative of the T-X project.
The A-29 is a possible option the US already has ordered them from Embraer Defense for Afghanistan. The US has been pleased with the A-29s performance and has considered it to fill the cap for close air support and Counter Insurgency. The A-29 is currently a viable and ready option is priced at around $9 to 14 million and is easy to train pilots at a relatively fast paced if the Air Force chose the Tucano they could be operational within months to a year. The Tucano has to internal 12.7 mm machine guns but has provisions to carry 20mm gun pods as well as Paveway laser guided bombs or AGM-65 Maverick missiles giving the aircraft a tank killing capability as well as the ability to hit hard targets. The Machine guns might not be as powerful as the A-10s gun but has power in number multiple guns can be significantly useful against infantry as well as Improvised Fighting Vehicle’s and VBEDS while anti tank missions can be performed by Reapers and F-35s who as they are easier targets than today’s insurgents and can be spotted by easily by their sensors. The A-29 is centrally a good option instead of completely replacing the A-10 itself it allows F-35s to conduct tank killing and certain close air support against hard targets while A-29s can get the harder to reach targets and stay over ground forces for longer periods of time while F-35s refuel and return.
The next option is the Beechcraft AT-6 based on the existing Air Force T-6II Texan used to train pilots. The option is a completely American option as Beechcraft is manufacture in the United States. It offers a lot of the same capabilities as the Tucano yet does not feature internal guns instead all weapons are carried on pods given the Aircraft was originally a trainer. The AT-6 is also available and can be in service in a matter of months if needed the aircraft is priced at $4-5 million per plane making it economically viable.
The third potential option is the Scorpion the aircraft priced at $20 million is the most expensive aircraft among our options but is the closest to the A-10. It is a Jet aircraft and has a similar payload of up to 6300ibs externally and 3000 ibs internally. The plane has no gun but provisions can be made for gun pods and the Scorpion has a built in Flir IR signal giving the aircraft great situational awareness and allows it to function as a ISR platform allowing it to spot and direct aircraft onto targets. The Scorpion also can loiter for long periods of time as its subsonic like the A-10. The Scorpion is a relatively new aircraft and is still undergoing trials unlike the A-29 Super Tucano and the AT-6B the Scorpion might not be available right away but it is likely the Aircraft will be ready in time for the A-10s retirement in 2022. The Scorpion is a viable option as it can completely replace the A-10 in the close air support role and is not just limited to counter insurgency like the prop driven aircraft.
The final option is to convert the chosen T-X trainer as the next attack aircraft. The two choices are the Raytheon T-100 based on the M-346 Master or the Lockheed Martin T-50 based already in service with South Korea in both training and in attack as the F’A-50. The M-346 has undergone attack trials while the T-50 has an operational attack variant, which is available now. Despite their success as potential trainers these aircraft go more in the direction of the F-35 as they are lead in trainers and are capable of supersonic speed. The Air Force in many ways likes the idea of a high thrust to weight ratio aircraft conduction attack missions yet they would function more as cost effective fighters then closer air support aircraft.
As a result of the four possible options to replace the A-10 it is likely we might see a move for the prop driven aircraft which can go after lighter targets while F-35s or F/A-50s go after harder targets or we might see the Scorpion take over the A-10s role completely, yet again there is also the possibility of the Air force using Reapers and AC-130s along with F-35As for the close air support role. Regardless of which is the best option it is likely the defense department will use a risk-based analysis given the current economy and choose a combination of the most economically viable yet capable and efficient option.