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.
Ayotte, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, believes the A-10s provide such a critical capability for the military that she is holding up the confirmation of Deborah James to be the next Air Force secretary over it.
Ayotte plans to continue her hold until the Air Force answers a list of 32 questions related to the A-10, including how service officials plan to carry out the close-air support mission if the Warthogs are retired by fiscal 2015.
“The issue I am deeply concerned about is what airframe will perform [the] important function of close-air support, particularly to our ground troops,” Ayotte said in a recent interview. “That’s why in the past the Army and Marines have said, ‘Let’s keep the A-10.’”
The F-35 will be capable of doing close-air support. But Ayotte worries there will be a gap between when the Air Force stands down the A-10s and when the F-35s begin populating the fleet.
“I’m a supporter of the F-35. I’m glad we’re going to do a fifth-generation fighter. We need to,” Ayotte said. “But we can’t eliminate airframes and capacity and the ability to protect our troops before we even have the F-35 operational.”
Several former military leaders and defense officials seem to agree.
Last week, the Stimson Center released a report signed by big names in the defense community, including former Air Force Chief of Staff Norton A. Schwartz, that offered a plan for the Defense Department to get its budgets below the mandatory caps that are currently law.
The report included a litany of short-term spending cuts, including slowing purchases of the F-35, a move that would save $4 billion in fiscal 2015 alone and give the Defense Department additional time to sort out problems with the program before ramping up production.
“Because of the greater time available for more careful development and more complete testing that would be possible before committing to larger procurement quantities, we also would expect additional savings in the total cost of the program over time,” the report states.
The A-10, however, was spared, labeled in the report as one of the “cheapest and oldest fighter aircraft” in the military’s inventory.
Adams, who signed the report, questioned the cost savings of standing down the A-10 fleet. The Air Force isn’t buying new jets, nor are there any expensive modernization programs under way to upgrade the A-10s.
Essentially, money spent on the A-10 is the cost of operating and maintaining the fleet, which is a bargain compared to other platforms, including projected costs for keeping the F-35 flying.
The A-10, Adams predicted, will live to fly another day.
“The Army likes it and there’s a constituency for the Army. And Ayotte likes it, and she matters,” he said. “I think it survives.”