As budget pressures force the Defense Department to rethink long-term spending plans, Air Force officials are openly admitting that their venerable fleet of A-10 Warthogs could be on the chopping block because the heavily armed planes simply do not top the priorities list.
The biggest strike against the A-10 is that it has only one job — to protect ground troops taking fire. And while considered critical by Army and Marine Corps combat units, close-air support has never been a favorite mission for Air Force pilots — who typically prefer high-flying sleek and stealthy aircraft to the slow-moving and aptly named Warthog.
“The A-10 is not a sexy airplane,” said Gordon Adams, a defense analyst at the nonpartisan Stimson Center who oversaw national security budgets during the Clinton administration. “It just happens to be a highly functional one for its mission.”
Indeed, the venerable A-10, which first entered the Air Force fleet in 1975, does its job so well — and at a relatively low cost compared to more modern fighters — that Air Force leaders will have a tough time selling Capitol Hill on any plans to divest themselves of these “tank-buster jets.”
Air Force officials stress that they have not made any decisions on the fate of the A-10 fleet, which currently numbers 326 planes. But Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, who has spent thousands of hours in the cockpits of A-10s, recently admitted to the House Armed Services Committee that single-mission aircraft are at the greatest risk of retirement as the Air Force tries to reduce its budgets.
“I think there’s some logic to this that’s hard-pressed to avoid no matter how much I happen to love the airplane,” Welsh said.
The service’s priority is the multi-mission F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a stealthy jet that the Navy and Marine Corps are also buying to replace older fighters in their inventories. The most expensive program in Pentagon history, the F-35 is entering the height of its pricey procurement phase just as projected defense spending comes down, forcing number-crunchers within the department to shift dollars to keep the program as intact as possible.
The A-10, it appears, is one likely casualty in the Air Force’s plans.
An Air Combat Command chart that has been circulating on Capitol Hill in recent weeks shows long-term plans for the whole fighter fleet, including phasing out the Warthogs in fiscal 2015, just as F-35 procurement takes off.
Leading the charge for the Warthog on Capitol Hill is Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican whose husband flew the A-10 in combat missions in Iraq.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.