The Air Force Is Quietly Killing Off the A-10—Over Congress’s Protests
Politicians resisting sneaky efforts to ground legendary attack plane
A bipartisan group of senators and congressmen is fighting back against the U.S. Air Force’s move to prematurely retire all 350 of its A-10 Warthog attack planes between 2015 and 2018.
But the flying branch is already strangling the A-10 force with budget cuts, upgrade cancellations and a reduced contingent of new pilots.
The battle is intensifying in Washington, D.C. over the legendary warplane, which was originally meant to destroy Soviet tanks and has flown thousands of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, saving scores of American lives with its overwhelming firepower.
“The A-10 plays an essential role in helping our ground forces and special operators accomplish their missions and return home safely,” reads a Nov. 14 letter from the group, addressed to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“We oppose any effort that would divest the A-10, creating a CAS [close air support] capability gap that would reduce Air Force combat power and unnecessarily endanger our service members in future conflicts,” the letter continues.
Thirteen senators and 20 congressmen from both parties signed the missive, which was drafted by the office of New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
In proposing to retire the 1980s-vintage Warthogs, which are slow but heavily armed, the Air Force appears to be operating on the premise that the nation will not fight another low intensity conflict like Iraq or Afghanistan, for which the gun-equipped, twin-engine attack planes are best suited.
Moreover, the flying branch insists that precision-guided munitions and advanced sensors should allow newer, speedier warplanes such as the F-15E, F-16 and B-1B to replace the A-10 without degrading the service’s ability to support troops on the ground. Until recently, the Air Force hoped to replace the A-10 and most of its other fighters with the stealthy F-35.
Amid the controversy, the Air Force maintains that discussions about the retiring the A-10 fleet are just that—discussions. No final decisions have been made. “This question is predecisonal and will be addressed during the Fiscal Year ‘15 budget rollout in February of 2014,” the service said in response to a series of questions submitted by Ayotte’s office.
But the flying branch does propose in its responses to Ayotte’s questions that multirole fighters and bombers can perform the CAS role adequately.
Save my plane
Some Warthog pilots disagree. “It scared me,” one experienced A-10 flier says of the Air Force’s justification. “I knew that the Air Force was clueless about close air support. But after reading through their answers, not only are they clueless, they are completely inept at it. I’m surprised we do as well as we do downrange given these types of responses.”
While other planes such as the B-1 bomber might be able to perform some of those roles—particularly where these some distance between friendly forces and the enemy—there are some missions only the tough and low-flying Warthog is able to perform, the pilot explains.
Perhaps the most important of these is supporting ground troops in “danger close” situations where A-10 pilots might fire guns within 25 feet of those soldiers—sometimes under heavy cloud cover. The A-10 has “way better” metrics than other aircraft while performing in such close quarters, the pilot says.
“What is really going on over there most of the time is good old conventional, old-school close air support and that was the A-10,” says retired Warthog pilot Lt. Col. Robert Brown. “One of the things that has created that mirage is that they don’t understand the nature of the mission.”
Brown says that what the B-1s and F-15Es have been doing is not CAS in the truest sense. Those aircraft typically rely on controllers on the ground to designate their targets for them while dropping weapons from high altitude. “That is not typically close air support,” Brown says.
In giving up the Warthog, the Air Force seems to be assuming that in the future America will only fight in high-tech wars against heavily-armed foes—circumstances that don’t favor the slow-moving A-10. But today and in the recent past, low-intensity conflicts have been most common.
“All of OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] has become preoccupied with preparing for the least likely, most draconian, most grave part of the conflict spectrum to the exclusion of the most likely, least grave scenarios,” Brown says.
But Brown does acknowledge that the Pentagon must be ready to deal with those high-end threats as an “insurance policy.”
The counter-point to the Brown’s argument is that while aircraft like the A-10 are great for their relatively narrow mission set, the Pentagon needs to retain forces that can operate across the widest spectrum of conflict. In other words, the Air Force should prioritize planes that can do lots of different things adequately, rather than planes that do only one or two things really well.
One F-15E pilot expressed his skepticism over the need to keep the A-10. The fast, flexible F-15E, he argues, has performed the CAS mission over both Iraq and Afghanistan. And while it may not be able to certain aspects of the mission as well as the A-10, it can do other things better.
The F-15E has enormous endurance and payload and can operate across a wider area because it is able to get to trouble spots much more quickly. Plus, the supersonic fighter has a two-man crew, which is a huge advantage during particularly complex scenarios.
“They’re just trying to save their plane,” the F-15E pilot says of A-10 advocates. “Pilots love their aircraft.”
Kill the Warthog
As the fight over the A-10 escalates, there are signs everywhere of the Air Force’s stance against the ungainly plane. Recently, the service moved to cut three squadrons of Warthogs at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, Spangdahlem in Germany and in Fort Smith, Arkansas. A squadron in South Korea has reportedly been targeted, too.
And the flying branch has been neglecting Warthog upgrades, the A-10 pilot says. Air National Guard and Reserve A-10s actually have better avionics and mission systems than their active-duty counterparts because the active aircraft are low on the service’s priority list. And the situation is getting worse, he says.
The Air Force has cut the budget to keep the A-10’s operational flight program software up to date, slicing $22.5 million from the usual $30-million annual expenditure. Upgrades to subsystems such as targeting pods have to be integrated into the flight software. That’s impossible if the code isn’t current.
The effect of the reduced funding is that fewer and fewer changes can be made to the Warthog, the A-10 pilot says.
Already many software engineers are leaving the A-10 program for other projects as the work dries up. “Everyone at our system program office at Hill Air Force Base [Utah] for the A-10 is looking for work because they have been told this is over,” the pilot says.
However, one Air Force official notes that many programs across the service have had their budgets reduced due to shrinking military spending and the automatic “sequestration” cuts. The A-10 is not necessarily being singled out, he notes.
The A-10 pilot also says that the training pipeline for Warthog pilots has been scaled back. In fact, some A-10 pilots believe that the current crop of students will be last group of new aviators trained to fly the Warthog.
That is, unless Congress can save the A-10.