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.