Reuters reported last week that the Israeli Air Force quietly decommissioned late year two of its four attack helicopter squadrons. Two squadrons with a total of 33 AH-1S Cobras are gone, leaving two squadrons with a total of somewhat more than 40 AH-64 Apaches. (The IDF isn’t very forthcoming about its end strength, so Wikipedia’s contributors have made some reasonable estimates, citing several sources.)
Living in a tough neighborhood, with sworn enemies to the north and south, the Israelis can be thought to take a very practical about force structure and technology. The Syrian Army will be in no shape, for a very long time, to make any more against Israel, so the utility of another two helicopter squadrons against an invading armored division is being downplayed. The title of the Reuters story reveals the objective: "drones gain ground in Israel after Cobra helicopters cut”. With armed, fixed-wing Hermes drones available to carry out airstrikes against the Gazans, the rather older and maintenance-intensive Cobras could be withdrawn to save money.
It’s worth asking whether this move has any relevance to others’ force structure decisions. The immediate case, of course, is the A-10C question for the USAF. The Israelis do not maintain dedicated, fixed-wing, jet-powered attack aircraft—only the Americans and the Russians do—so the analogy is inexact. But the thinking may have a parallel.
The USAF will probably retain over 200 MQ-9 Reapers, simply because they’re in such demand worldwide for whacking fleeting enemies. The US Army has been planning to buy 150 MQ-1C Grey Eagles, and even with force structure cuts, will probably still aim for at least 100. The US may be taking, in the words of Jeremiah Gertler of the Congressional Research Service, a “strategic pause” in combat drone procurement, but that’s largely because the technology for a leap ahead is still in the labs, and today’s force is doing its work very well in those small wars around the globe.
Even with the retirement of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, the Army and the USMC will still have about 980 Apache and Cobra attack helicopters in their respective fleets. That’s arguably a large force for American needs in a big war.
So, if Israeli Defense Ministry feels safe cutting its manned ground-attack fleet in half, is it reasonable for the Pentagon to cut its manned ground-attack fleet by about a quarter? I am not herein specifically arguing for the retirements of the old attack aircraft. After all, I have written elsewhere that 283 A-10Cs would be would be rather more useful to the US in most fights than 350 F-16As. But I am asking advocates of the A-10C to describe the stressing scenario in which the those aircraft would be gravely missed.