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Going Down Low

Few military aviation missions generate the spectrum of passions associated with close air support. Fighter-bomber pilots have typically performed such ground-attack missions with some reluctance, knowing that by flying low and slow they’re more vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. For ground-pounder specialists, whose job during wartime is to eliminate enemy targets that pose a threat to both air and ground assets, it’s all in a day’s work. Regardless of who delivers the ordnance, grunts on the ground view these pilots as angels sent to save them from destruction.

The history of close air support stretches back to World War I, when the Germans developed the first armored biplanes in an attempt to protect their low-flying trench-strafers (see “The First Ground-Pounders,” November 2014 issue). The first of these, the AEG J.I (see “Extremes,” November 2014 issue), was little more than a two-seater reconnaissance airplane with steel plates bolted to the forward fuselage, but by the end of the war Junkers had introduced a ground-up design, also designated the J.I, featuring all-metal construction and incorporating an integral “armored bathtub” to protect the crew, engine and vital controls.

In “The Warplane Nobody Wanted,” Stephan Wilkinson examines the checkered history of what by all accounts is the most deadly close air support plane ever built, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, better known as the Warthog. The homely Hog is currently in the midst of the toughest battle of its nearly 40-year career—a political fight for its very survival. Faced with $20 billion in budget cuts under sequestration, the U.S. Air Force earlier this year reluctantly proposed that the remaining A-10 fleet be retired in 2015, a move expected to save approximately $4 billion. The proposal set off a firestorm of protest among the Warthog’s many admirers, not to mention members of Congress with Air National Guard units in their states that fly A-10s.

In May, as part of a $600 billion defense spending measure, the House Armed Services Committee voted to block the A-10’s retirement, but in June the House Appropriations Committee signaled its agreement with the Air Force plan by voting to cut off funding. Then the full House overrode its own appropriations committee by passing a defense bill that included an amendment preventing the Department of Defense from using appropriated funds to divest the A-10. Not surprisingly, the amendment’s sponsor, Michigan Rep. Candice Miller, represents a district that’s home to Selfridge Air National Guard Base and its 107th Fighter Squadron Warthogs.

In July the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a 2015 defense bill that included continued funding for the A-10 through the next fiscal year. But on August 1 the Senate went into its five-week recess without voting on the bill, and at presstime it was unclear when the vote will take place.

Regardless of where this political ping-pong game ends, it would seem the Warthog’s days are numbered. Even if it’s funded through 2015, in these budgetary belt-tightening times, an aging single-mission airplane such as the A-10 is an easy target for politicians and sophisticated anti-aircraft systems alike. Odds are it won’t be long before this beloved ground-pounder goes to Hog heaven.