Key Point: A-10s are anti-tank planes but they also have a great anti-ship role.
It doesn’t necessarily take the resources of a major nation-state to challenge U.S. Navy warships. China for instance is building up a large navy and invests in long-range, ship-killing missiles. Iran can’t build a large navy but it does invest in swarms of small missile boats.
Like a swarm of insects, a swarm of boats can pose a threat as a larger, far more expensive warship might not be able to swat them all — and a single missile with enough punch can be devastating.
So the U.S. military is practicing with ways to defeat such a potential threat with tank-killing A-10 Warthogs.
On Feb. 6, 2017, the low- and slow-flying Warthogs together with Canadian CF-18 Hornets carried out simulated attacks on dozens of boats in Florida’s Choctawatchee Bay. The planes didn’t drop any ordnance, however, as the boats were being piloted by local captains hired by the Air Force.
These were simply mock attack runs. An Air Force news release also noted that the civilian sailors practiced “realistic swarm attack formation maneuvers” with mocked-up machine guns fitted to their boats.
The 1980s-vintage Warthogs — built around a 30-millimeter rotary cannon and capable of carrying a variety of bombs and missiles — did fire inert rounds on unmanned boats at a different time during the exercise. The munitions expended during that other phase of the exercise also included delta-wing AGM-65 Maverick missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs.
“We evaluate precision guided munitions against realistic targets with realistic enemy defenses,” Lt. Col. Sean Neitzke of the 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron said.
“There are plenty of places in the world where low-tech adversaries can mount 50-caliber machine guns and rocket launchers on small boats for use against us. They could also use other types of shoulder launched weapons, all of which could be a threat to American assets.”
The Air Force had been trying to kill its A-10 attack planes for years — the branch prefers stealthy fighters and bombers — but pressure from Congress and continued relevance in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have kept the Warthogs flying. Perhaps stopping a boat swarm from overwhelming an American cruiser or destroyer might keep them going for a bit longer.