Chop the Chopper
The Army's Apache attack-helicopter had a bad war.
The Key West Agreement specified that one mission of the Air Force would be close air support for Army troops on the battlefield. However, it soon became clear that the Air Force generals—enamored of the A-bomb and then the H-bomb—had no interest in this task. To their minds, the next war would be a nuclear war. Armies would play no serious role, so why divert airplanes to giving them cover?
The Army realized it would have to provide its own air support. Blocked from building its own fixed-wing planes, it built rotary-wing planes (or, in civilian parlance, helicopters). And it built thousands of them.
During the Vietnam War, the Air Force's reluctance—at times refusal—to provide close air support became a grave problem. Congressional hearings were held on the lack of any airplane dedicated to that mission. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara briefly brought a wing of the Navy's late-'40s A-1 fighter bombers out of mothballs to take up some of the slack.
Finally, the Army got bold and began research and development on a hybrid aircraft, a bizarre-looking fixed-wing helicopter called the Cheyenne.
McNamara killed the Cheyenne before it got off the ground, but meanwhile, an Air Force general named Richard Yudkin was furious about the Army's maneuver. He saw it as an infringement of the Key West Agreement and a raid on the Air Force's share of the budget. In response, he initiated the Air Force's very first dedicated close-air-support attack plane called the A-X, which grew into the A-10.
Yudkin was a bit of a rebel within the Air Force. The establishment generals (who, by the early '70s, were still dominated by the nuclear-bomber crowd) hated the idea of the A-X for the same reason they hated the close-air-support mission: It had nothing to do with the Air Force's bigger, more glamorous roles. Yudkin couldn't even get the Air Force R & D directorate to work on the project, so he set up his own staff to do it.
The A-10 rolled onto the tarmac in 1976. The brass still hated the thing. It survived only because of pork-barrel politics—it was built by Fairchild Industries in Bethpage, Long Island, home district of Rep. Joseph Addabbo, who was chairman of the House appropriations' defense subcommittee. The plan was to build 850 of the planes. By 1986, when Addabbo died, Fairchild had built just 627, and the program came to a crashing halt. No more A-10s were ordered, and 197 of those in existence were transferred to the Air National Guard and allowed to rot.
When the first Gulf War was being planned in 1990, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the chief of U.S. Central Command, had to fight the Air Force to send over a mere 174 A-10s for his use. Yet in the course of the war, those A-10s knocked out roughly half of the 1,700 Iraqi tanks that were destroyed from the air, as well as several hundred armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery guns. They also conducted search and rescue operations, blew up roads and bridges, and hunted for Scuds.
Even the Air Force brass had to admit the planes had done a good job, and they kept them in the fleet. (They had planned on replacing all of them with modified F-16s.) Though the statistics aren't yet in, the A-10s seemed to do well in Gulf War II, especially now that the Army, Air Force, and Marines are more inclined to coordinate their battle plans.
The A-10 is an unsightly, lumbering beast of a plane. (It's commonly called the Warthog.) It flies low and slow, but its cockpit is made of titanium; it can be shot up very badly, all over, and still not crash. It was the only plane that the Desert Storm air commanders dared fly at under 15,000 feet. Its GAU-8 gun can fire 3,900 rounds of 30 mm armor-piercing ammo per minute. It can also fire Maverick air-to-ground missiles.
So here's a suggestion for Donald Rumsfeld: Deep-six the Apache, and restart the A-10.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.