The AC-130 isn’t a functional replacement for the A-10C, but could it be a political one?

This past Monday, Lt. Col. Paul Darling of the Alaska Army National Guard wrote an editorial in Defense News arguing—and as an infantry officer—that the USAF’s A-10C should indeed be retired. The savings, he said, should be reinvested in two programs: a replacement for the soon-to-be-retired O/AH-58 Kiowa, and a lot more KC-130 Harvest HAWK (Hercules Airborne Weapons Kit) tanker-to-gunship modifications. Any infantrymen, he believes, should prefer the support of anything like an AC-130 to that of an A-10C. And while the K(A)C-130 (excuse my kludged terminology) doesn’t have all the capabilities of the AC-130U, it carries lots of Hellfire and Griffin missiles, and it will eventually be getting a 30 mm Bushmaster II cannon. So what’s the problem?

Well, some of the comments under the article were rather harsh. Some of the comments I read on Facebook were yet harsher. Fairly, the AC-130 is not an A-10C. But if the former is not a functional replacement for the latter, it could serve partly as a political one. The USAF, after all, has shown a real affinity for its gunship fleet for decades. And the prospect of that substitution may say something about the evolving culture of long-range American military plans.

Colonel Darling writes with the explicit assumption that close air support (CAS) doesn’t happen without air supremacy, and that the US won’t fight without it. Thus, he suggests that the survivability of CAS aircraft isn’t a significant issue. Along the way, he omits mention that threats to aircraft sometimes come from ordinary ground fire. Specifically, he omits mention of the worst incident, which shows why gunships might not be suitable in every clime and place. During the Battle of Khaji, early on the morning of 31 January 1991, an AC-130H with call sign ‘Spectre 03’ was destroyed by a lone Iraqi with a shoulder-fired Strela-2 missile. The gunship had lingered over the battlefield, just as dawn was breaking, to attack a 9K52 Luna-M rocket launcher—a high-prioirity target in any war since that time. Fourteen of the 31 USAF fatalities in that war came from this singular loss.

In a book just out from Texas A&M University Press—Night Hunters: The AC-130s and Their Role in US Airpower—William Head summarizes comments by CENTAF commander Chuck Horner acknowledging this, but also lauding the AC-130 for its lethality:

     The AC-130 problem was it is vulnerable to ground fire, and of course, we lost Spectre 03 with the people on board… On the other hand, its ability to find targets at night and strike them with precise fire, through primarily its 105 howitzer, was critical to stopping the establishment of particularly air defenses as the Iraqi forces came forward. It was blowing them away before they could get set up… There is no getting around the effectiveness of AC-130s’ 105 howitzer firing into vehicles coming down that coastal road. I think those were probably our most effective munitions during the Battle of Khafji.

(For more, see Night Hunters, p. 197, citing Daniel R. Clevenger, Battle of Khafji: Air Power Effectiveness In The Desert, Volume 1, Air Force Studies & Analysis Agency, 1996, Appendix B.)

In summary, sending in the gunships into the big war is a strategy embracing volatility: it’s high-reward, but it’s also high-risk.

Along these lines, let me relay two comments by Council member Byron Callan, in an essay prompted by Eric Cantor’s primary defeat, that address two long-range questions for the US armed forces. While these were not completely related to one another in his note, they seem aptly together here:

  1. We’ve thought that DoD would not have the fight it does on A-10 if it was able to offer up a light attack aircraft to replace A-10s, instead of more expensive F-35s.
  2. Affordability is not aiming for ten percent cost savings through a multi-year.

As they’re hardly light, the several variants of Hercules gunships carry a range of armaments rivaling that of the A-10C. I strongly suspect that ATK’s 30 mm and Bofors’ 40 mm cannons can easily puncture any BTR-80. I am also confident that Lockheed’s Hellfire missiles can dispatch any T-72 they might impact. General Dynamics’ GAU-12 25 mm gatling gun works like a lawn mower against infantry formed up to attack. (I saw the movie, Two-Niner Savoy.) So the suite of weapons that the AC-130s bring would highly effective against any range of opponents, from the technicals of ISIS to the tank columns menacing eastern Ukraine. But threats of the latter type are often backed by real air defenses, and the gunships won’t always catch them setting up. Gunship pilots also tend to be as predictable as NASCAR drivers: it’s hard to avoid ground fire when your attack runs are frequently in the form of a constant turn to port.

Then there’s that issue of cost. Darling did also express some disbelief that the gunships cannot be made more widely available beyond Special Operations Command. In a sort of after-action report from Afghanistan in 2002, the current commandant of the Army’s field artillery school wrote that “every light infantry division needs an AC-130 squadron.” (See Christopher F. Bentley, “Afghanistan: Joint and Coalition Fire Support in Operation Anaconda,” Field Artillery, September-October 2002.) But as a Marine friend of mine points out, AC-130s are national assets, if mostly because new ones cost about $200 million each. There’s really that much electronic content in its sensor, signals, and jamming gear. Losing one of those to a guy with a shoulder-fired weapon is almost like losing a frigate. In a big war, losing a squadron could feel like losing a carrier.

In summary, investments in helicopter gunships (or just retention of the remaining Apaches and Cobras) might plausibly make up for the retirement of A-10Cs, but investments in fixed-wing gunships may not be meant for the same functional military purpose. Whether the full-up gunships or kitted-out tankers, those aircraft wouldn’t be replacements for A-10Cs, as they’re not meant for the same war. AC-130s could crush ISIS—presuming the Qataris haven’t slipped the the jihadis too many surplus Stingers—at a time when drone strikes might not be quite enough. But one would hesitate before sending the gunships after Russians. As William Head relates in his book, the experience over Khafi has left a lasting impression, and throwing into the fray would give the air marshals pause.

Still, investments in fixed-wing gunships might achieve a political purpose. Buying several squadrons of AC-130Us, multiyear or not, is just not in the budget. Buying several squadrons of Harvest Hawk or very similar MC-130 Dragon Spear kits could be. At slightly more than $20 million each, and with hundreds of C-130s available, finding the resources shouldn’t be too challenging.  That’s not the same as buying a hundred A-29 Super Tucanos, but a light turboprop attack aircraft is probably too offensive a concept to the USAF’s way of thinking. At least as importantly, the price of the gunship kits would be roughly the same, and the marginal operating costs less. At the same time, such a procurement strategy would admit that the United States is more likely to bomb ISIS than bomb Russia, or any other country with a big tank fleet, the logical target of an A-10 fleet. At least in the short run, it might convince some people that the Air Force really does care about CAS.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.