In late 2013 the U.S. Air Force let slip its plan to retire all 340 of its A-10 Warthog attack planes between 2015 and 2019—a move the flying branch said would save $3.5 billion and protect funding for new bombers, aerial tankers and the F-35 stealth fighter.
Congress thwarted that plan … temporarily. Now the flying branch is trying again to bury the Warthog. And lawmakers are mobilizing to block this second attempt.
The twin-engine, 1970s-vintage A-10 specializes in destroying enemy tanks and ground troops with its 30-millimeter gun and Maverick missiles. But upgrades have expanded the thickly-armored plane’s capabilities. It protects Special Operations Forces, escorts helicopters and, in 2011, even shot up and sank enemy patrol boats during the international intervention in Libya.
Last year, A-10 pilots, ground troops and certain key U.S. legislators objected to the Air Force’s plan. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, led the effort to preserve the Warthog in the 2014 defense spending authorization. But the bill’s language prevented the Air Force from retiring the A-10 only in 2014—something the flying branch never actually intended to do, anyway.
Ayotte also sponsored a separate law—“S. 1764: A bill to limit the retirement of A-10 aircraft”—that would require the Air Force to keep its A-10s until there are enough so-called “Block 4A” F-35s in front-line service to fully replace the Warthogs. The Air Force doesn’t anticipate getting its first Block 4A stealth fighters until some time in the early 2020s.
The Air Force’s proposed budget for 2015 reasserts the earlier plan to gradually decommission all the A-10s in the active-duty Air Force, the Air Force Reserves and the Air National Guard. A-10s received new electronics and wings in recent years, extending their useful life into the 2030s or later, provided the military actually wants to keep them.
But the Air Force is eager to dispose of older airplanes, regardless of their combat- and cost-effectiveness. An A-10 costs just $17,000 an hour to operate, compared to a projected $30,000 or more per hour for an F-35.
The Air Force’s priorities reflect a disputed theory of air warfare. Expensive stealth warplanes “can better survive in contested environments,” budget director Maj. Gen. Jim Martin said while defending the plan to retire the A-10. But the Navy, for one, does not assume stealth always works, and emphasizes electronic jamming and effective teamwork between manned and robotic planes in order to win future air battles.
The Air Force honored the letter of the 2014 authorization and retained its A-10s. But it violated the spirit of the law by cancelling the routine software upgrades that keep the Warthog flightworthy. Ayotte called foul, and with sternly-worded correspondence forced the flying branch to reinstate the upgrades.
But the 2015 budget, as proposed, supersedes the 2014 authorization and allows the Air Force to legally dump the A-10s. Rushing a third time to the Warthog’s defense, Sen. Ayotte has gained at least one new co-sponsor for her 2013 “save the A-10” bill.
That proposed law is slowly winding its way through a Congressional committee. It could be the instrument for preserving the Warthog—or Congress’ 2015 defense authorization could do the job. Either way, the Air Force has a fight on its hands.