A-10 Saved by Congress but Operating on Borrowed Time

Picture of the A-10 Thunderbolt II
A-10 Thunderbolt II from the 47th Fighter Squadron

One of the bright spots in both the House and Senate defense authorization bills is a requirement to maintain A-10s in the inventory until initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) of the F-35 is complete. In doing so, Congress codified the necessary steps to ensure our ground troops have the close air support they need on today’s battlefields. But the Air Force still needs to be watched closely to make sure it is held accountable for this mandate.

Although Air Force leadership has temporarily withdrawn their request to retire the A-10, they persist in other efforts to undermine the combat effectiveness of the fleet. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) recently sent a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force questioning why the manning of the division charged with testing has been allowed to decline “to levels that endanger the division's ability to fulfill its mission.” Manning for the 422 Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) A-10 Division is so low, she wrote, that tests to validate capability upgrades have to be halted.

These efforts are only the latest in the Air Force leadership’s sustained campaign to undermine the A-10’s combat readiness. Operational testing has been critical to the A-10’s development and to fielding the most capable ground attack plane available today. Yet Nellis Air Force Base has seen a reduction of A-10 test sorties in excess of 50 percent. Losing 30 top maintainers and slashing the number of test pilots were significant contributing factors. Senator Ayotte’s most recent letter notes that both the lack of inbound pilots and the departure of others has driven the end of testing, since the 422 TES will only have one pilot left. “I appreciate that the Air Force is confronting significant shortfalls in fighter pilot manning,” Senator Ayotte wrote. “However, with A-10 pilots serving in staff positions around the Air Force, there is no excuse for allowing the 422 TES A-10 Division pilot staffing to decline to this point.”

A National Guard priorities document provides more details about the upgrades being delayed by the Air Force, including:

  • A high-resolution center display to help pilots “positively identify friendly forces while aiding in the search, identification, surveillance, and tracking of enemy personnel”
  • Integrated noise-cancelling, three-dimensional cockpit audio systems
  • Anti-jam embedded Global Positioning System (GPS)

At this point testing required to advance tactics development has been delayed for two years. Upgrades to sensors and targeting pods are also being undermined. Air Force leadership’s continued efforts are reckless, and moreover, as Senator Ayotte points out, in violation of the law.

Wing replacement is also key to maintaining the A-10s. Air Force leadership has dragged its feet on that as well. Boeing has offered to extend its open contract to replace the wings, retired A-10 pilot Lt. Col. Thomas “Tom-Chuck” Norris told KQTH radio, only to be rebuffed. “The Air Force strategy is to merely run out the clock. So on the basis of flying each aircraft about 300 hours a year eventually those aircraft without the wings being refurbished or replaced will be grounded,” said Norris. “So they can comply with Congressional mandate to not divest airplanes and yet the airplanes are going to be sitting on the ramp grounded and unable to fly.”

There is increasing evidence that Norris is right about the Air Force trying to run out the clock. As predicted by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), the Pentagon’s top acquisition official recently admitted that IOT&E will slip six months to 2018. Delays to the F-35’s IOT&E translate into delays to its fly off against the A-10, which is part of IOT&E. The F-35 program head, General Chris Bogdan, blamed the delay on retrofits needed to upgrade F-35 aircraft hardware and software to be “production representative.” But another likely contributor is the discovery of additional problems. In its annual report to Congress, DOT&E found the newer hardware and software was sometimes in worse shape than its previous versions. As we wrote at the time:

The testing office originally planned for 514 baseline testing points. During the baseline testing, another 364 additional “discovery” testing points were identified. This means that during testing, 364 additional tests had to be added to try to fix newly discovered problems in a system that was already supposed to work and only had added a new computer. For example, DOT&E reported the unacceptable “instability” (that is, frequent crashing) of the Block 2B computer-based radar. In fact, Block 3i radar performance was found to be “less stable” than Block 2B. The 3i radar now crashes 7.5 times more often than the earlier version.

Congress has granted the A-10s a reprieve from retirement, but it’s clear that Air Force leadership is willing to put our close air support capabilities at risk to preserve their favored program. We hope that Congress will continue to protect real close air support capability and consider the pressing the needs of our forces fighting ISIL by providing the funding necessary to keep the A-10s flying. Senator Ayotte calls for the Air Force to correct these shortfalls immediately, and we couldn’t agree more.

Photograph of Mandy Smithberger

By: Mandy Smithberger, Director, CDI Straus Military Reform Project

Mandy Smithberger is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.

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