Air Force Reluctantly Upgrades A-10s After Congress Complains

Strongly-worded letter preserves attack jets … for the time being

The Air Force is in a dilemma. It’s committed to buying hundreds of troubled and expensive stealth fighters just as it runs low on money. To make up the difference, the flying branch is trying to retire the A-10 Warthog, a slow but tough—and devastating—ground-attack aircraft.

Now the A-10 might be around for a little while longer, after a tough-talking senator compelled the Air Force to keep the attack jet’s software up to date.

On Feb. 12, the Air Force’s top civilian official directed the service’s Air Combat Command to continue developing a new software upgrade for the A-10 after a complaint from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican.

“In response to your concerns, I have directed that Suite 8 development continue in Fiscal Year 14,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James wrote in the letter to Ayotte. “As we continue with FY15 budget deliberations, I look forward to discussing the A-10 with you at greater length.”

In a Jan. 24 letter to James, Ayotte expressed concerns the Air Force may be violating language in the FY14 National Defense Authorization Act, which prohibits the service from taking any steps to retire the A-10 fleet until Dec. 31, 2014.

“It has come to my attention that the Air Force may be taking steps to prepare to retire the A-10 in violation of current law,” Ayotte wrote in her Jan. 24 letter to James.

Ayotte pointed out that the Air Force had issued orders to cease development of a package of software updates for the A-10 called Suite 8.

The Suite 8 software package includes a new transponder system known as Identification Friend or Foe Mode 5. For an A-10 pilot, this technology is crucial, as it allows other friendly aircraft and ground units to identify your aircraft as friendly.

An A-10's 30-millimeter Gatling gun over Afghanistan on Aug. 18, 2011. Air Force photo

“Without IFF Mode 5, combatant commanders will be unlikely to allow the A-10 to operate in contested areas,” Ayotte wrote.

Further, Ayotte asserted that without the new software, new subsystems could not be integrated into the A-10. Effectively, that would eventually turn a capable plane into an obsolete plane, retroactively justifying the program’s termination in favor of stealth fighters like the F-35.

Ayotte has led a caucus of senators and congressmen from both parties urging the Air Force to maintain the already heavily-upgraded A-10. For its part, the Air Force wants to kibosh the A-10 fleet because many within the service believe it will not be useful in future conflicts.

“I would dearly love to continue in the inventory because there are tactical problems out there that would be perfectly suited for the A-10,” Gen. Mike Hostage, ACC commander, told Defense News.

“I have other ways to solve that tactical problem,” Hostage said. “It may not be as elegant as the A-10, but I can still get the job done, but that solution is usable in another level of conflict in which the A-10 is totally useless.”

Hostage said that the Air Force has no choice but to cut all 340 A-10s currently in service, because the alternatives are far worse.

“They are still cutting the budget so I have to do something, and, unfortunately, the something that is left is worse than cutting the A-10 fleet,” Hostage told Defense News. “It is far worse for the nation if I have to keep the A-10 and cut a bunch of other stuff because they will not give me enough money to keep it all.”

Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.