Literally for decades—since well before the 1991 Iraq war—the U.S. Air Force has been trying to get rid of the A-10 Warthog close air support aircraft. The A-10’s spectacular performance in four wars in Iraq—twice—plus Kosovo and Afghanistan has frustrated these efforts.
In those conflicts, the A-10 outperformed all other U.S. aircraft in killing tanks and other vehicles and supporting infantry engaged in combat-at both very short—“danger close”—and longer ranges.
The A-10 has also excelled in combat search-and-rescue for downed pilots—such as for the pilot of the F-117 stealth fighter shot down in the Kosovo war—and in battlefield interdiction against conventional forces with modern air defenses, as well as the destruction of those enemy air defenses and shooting down enemy helicopters.
Official Air Force cost data show the A-10 to be the cheapest combat aircraft in its inventory to operate, notwithstanding an expensive program to give the A-10 new wings and electronics to remain viable until 2030.
And yet, the Air Force command has persisted, deciding in 2013 that it would exploit the threat of sequester to “divest” the entire inventory of 283 active and reserve A-10s.
Wanting to examine the issue in more depth, Congress put those plans on hold for 2014. And now for 2015, responding to a groundswell of support from ground troops, forward air controllers and pilots, Congress has added money or language—or both—to each version of its defense authorization and appropriations bills in both the House and Senate to retain the entire A-10 force in 2015, including both pilots and maintenance personnel.
In the face of this explicit instruction in four different versions of the House and Senate defense bills, the Air Force has concocted a new pretext to continue its longstanding divestiture campaign—retaining the A-10 will slow down the already years-behind-schedule F-35 stealth fighter.
The Air Force’s logic, if that is what you want to call it, is interesting—the F-35 program must have the A-10’s maintenance personnel. If the F-35 force does not get them, the “initial operational capability” for a single 12-plane squadron of the 99 F-35As delivered to the Air Force will have to be delayed to past the December 2016 date the Air Force promised to Congress last year.
Therefore, the Air Force has started to argue, at least 72 A-10s must be retired in 2015, with all the rest being retired immediately thereafter.
To avoid the F-35 IOC slippage, the Air Force insists it must have 800 maintenance personnel who can only come from the A-10 force.
They cannot come from other aircraft such as 19 B-1Bs that are not being modernized and are flyable only on a restricted basis. They cannot come from the 70 F-15C single-mission fighters, the 33 decades-old U-2 spy planes, the 119 obsolete Predator drones and the 20 other electronic support aircraft the Air Force plans to cull from the force.
They cannot come from any of the routine F-35 contract modifications the Air Force makes with Lockheed Martin, which could hire additional civilian maintenance support—and they cannot come from Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve maintenance personnel who could be mobilized for the task.
In short, it is not convenient for the Air Force to acquire these maintenance personnel from any place but the A-10 force.
It’s an odd assertion.
The story gets stranger still. On Oct. 27, 2014, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan briefed the secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James, on the status of the F-35 program. The briefing covered many issues. They included the F-35’s recent engine failure—and consequent program delays—plus other delays in new aircraft deliveries.
The reasons for the delays include software problems, the need for new funding to pay for the F-35’s nuclear capability, a report on F-35 noise levels, the failure to achieve projected F-35 mission availability for test and training operations, changes in the schedule of deliveries of F-35s to Canada, and—finally—the status of the effort to achieve that IOC date of December 2016.
Nowhere in the two pages of the briefing devoted to the IOC schedule does the briefing assert the need to absorb the A-10’s maintenance personnel in 2015.
In fact, on slide 13, which is specifically devoted to threats to the December 2016 IOC deadline, the briefing states “maintainer training—on track,” and the color/alphabet coding for this item in the briefing’s chart specifically does not show the red—danger—color, or qualify for the characterization “doesn’t meet-or-action req’d.”
Moreover, while the briefing does show the overall training, for both pilots and maintainers, in a yellow—“risk to meeting”—category, it also shows six other subject areas in that same yellow IOC-date “risk” category.
They include retrofitting fixes to already-delivered airframes and engines, fixing the “ALIS” computerized maintenance system, software schedule problems, continued helmet mounted display system testing, other testing and weapon certification continuations and prolonged support equipment purchasing.
Nonetheless, just three days after the date of this briefing to James, Bogdan appeared at an afternoon press briefing on Oct. 30 that was largely focused on the F-35 program’s need for A-10, and only A-10, maintenance personnel in order to meet its December 2016 IOC deadline. The other threats to the IOC date were explained away or not mentioned at all.
One would think that if the need for the A-10 maintenance personnel were truly as compelling as Bogdan described to the press, the matter might have been worthy of a mention to the secretary of the Air Force immediately before the general went public.
That it was not raises the possibility that the A-10 maintainers “solution” was concocted to fortify the Air Force’s failed attempts to convince Congress of the need to divest the A-10.
Indeed, the other issues surrounding the F-35 and A-10 reinforce the impression that the A-10 maintainer selection was, as Sen. Kelly Ayotte—a New Hampshire Republican—told the press on Nov. 2, a “false choice.”
The Air Force was on notice for more than a year that Congress was strongly disposed toward keeping all A-10s in the Air Force inventory. The Air Force took more than a year to suddenly decide that sacrificing the A-10 in 2015 is the only way to preserve an F-35 deadline in late 2016.
That suggests an Air Force leadership that is outrageously ponderous and stubbornly oblivious to external events.
At the same time, the Air Force asserts it is only divesting the A-10 because its budget cannot afford it. However, Pentagon spending—even under the dreaded sequester of additional funding under the Budget Control Act—will be at levels approximating Pres. Ronald Reagan’s defense spending peak, which was, in its time, a post-World War II high.
Shortages of funding are not the Air Force’s problem. Decisions in favor of unaffordable purchases, such as the under-performing, $1.4-trillion F-35, surely are.
In another, equally concocted, argument, the Air Force asserts that the A-10 is expendable because it is a single-mission aircraft, not as versatile as its other multi-role aircraft. That ignores the A-10’s actual performance in four different conflicts in at least five different roles.
The most serious consequence of the Air Force’s tendentious decision-making is that it will strip away the A-10 force at a time when its unmatched capability is most needed—unfortunately for the foreseeable future—in combat in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
Those are precisely the kind of conflicts for which the A-10 is better suited, more effective, and cheaper to operate than any other aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory.
Meanwhile, the Air Force circles its wagons for an aircraft that struggles to achieve a cosmetic-only declaration of “initial operational capability” in December 2016. In truth, even if all goes perfectly for the F-35, it will finish its combat-realistic operational testing only in 2019 — the tradition point for declaring IOC and a criterion the F-22 had to pass in December 2005.
Moreover, even in 2019 the F-35A will not be equipped to perform its very limited close air support abilities. That date will only come in 2021, when weapons most appropriate to the close support mission will be available, tested and certified for the F-35. As with the F-22, it will be many years after the Air Force says the aircraft is ready for combat before the F-35 can actually go to war.
The simple truth is that the Air Force does not think the close support mission for troops in combat is a prime responsibility. It never wanted to buy and operate the A-10 in the first place, and it protests that other — unsuitable—aircraft are good enough for the job.
Other missions, especially what the Air Force likes to call “strategic” or “global strike” bombing miles away from any battlefield, are the real object of the Air Force’s desire — and the vast majority of its budget.
Consequently, the Air Force has tried multiple times over the decades to unload the A-10 despite its vastly superior performance in the dirty wars we have actually fought. Continuing its obsession, the Air Force eagerly grasps today any pretext it can concoct to dissuade Congress from keeping the A-10.
The Air Force’s war against the A-10 is one war it should lose. That “loss” will save American and allied lives. Only our enemies hope the Air Force’s plans prevail.