The A-10 is very popular with combatant commanders—a fact that has been inconvenient for the Air Force's ongoing campaign to scrap the plane. The plane continues to perform daily with striking effectiveness in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Syria, Air Force headquarters claimed the A-10 couldn’t be used due to the country’s air defenses, only to later confirm that Central Command (CENTCOM) used A-10s in Syria against the Islamic State. Similarly, in Ukraine, Russia’s saber-rattling prompted urgent requests from European Command (EUCOM) for A-10s to return to Germany. In all of these instances, the requests overrode Air Force headquarters’ reluctance to deploy the Warthogs.
Now a letter signed by ten Senators (published below) reveals the Air Force has taken a number of actions to undermine the A-10 fleet’s readiness to deploy, appearing to violate the law and the intent of Congress. The cumulative—and apparently deliberate—effect of these actions is that there may soon come a day when a combatant commander requesting A-10 support will not be able to get it: the Air Force will simply not have the aircraft available to send.
The letter on this backdoor retirement, led by Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), shows the Air Force has a three-pronged approach to undermining the readiness of the A-10 fleet:
- Cut Funding. Between fiscal year 2014 and fiscal year 2015 the Air Force cut A-10 depot maintenance funding by 40 percent. As a consequence of this cut and reductions in A-10s cycling through essential depot-level repairs, the Air Force admitted that fewer A-10s would be available to be deployed. The Senators note that the Air Force’s request for depot funding and entries in its most recent budget request still fall short of projected combat, deployment, and training requirements. Congress prohibited the Air Force from retiring the A-10 (Sec. 133), including manning support, leaving 283 flyable A-10s. If the Air Force is allowed to continue these kinds of depot cuts, however, projections show that only approximately 89 A-10s would be deployable next September. Additionally, the Air Force transferred the top 30 A-10 maintainers at Nellis to F-16 squadrons, crippling essential A-10 operational testing and evaluation (more on that below).
- Move More A-10s Closer to Mothball Status. In the final days of the 113th Congress, a “compromise” heavily pushed by the Air Force was tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2015. The “compromise” allowed the Air Force to move A-10s into virtually retired “backup active status.” The Air Force expeditiously moved 18 A-10s into backup status in February, as allowed by the law. But what was not authorized was the Air Force moving these 18 A-10s into “XJ” status, as the Senators say they did in May. In backup active status, planes must be flown periodically to maintain their combat readiness—similar to how one occasionally drives an infrequently used car; in XJ status, planes are deemed “excess to requirements.” They aren’t flown, and are only one step from being mothballed.
- Reducing Combat Effectiveness. The Nellis operational test squadron conducts the testing necessary to keep the A-10’s electronics and weapons completely current and effective for the plane’s ongoing combat deployments. Over the last twenty years, this operational testing has been critical to the A-10’s development and fielding of the most capable plane for ground attack of any aircraft today. The two squadrons at Nellis have already been decimated, including the shifting of 30 of their most skilled A-10 maintainers, and now Air Force headquarters has furthered that deterioration by including 3 of Nellis’s planes in the 18 that have been moved into XJ status. Depriving these squadrons of these planes and maintainers, along with cutting the number of operational testing pilots to 2, has reduced the number of test sorties by over 50 percent. This is significantly below the testing needed to keep the A-10 fully ready to use the latest Air Force weapons and to be fully combat effective in the face of evolving threats.
By defying Congress’s mandate to keep 283 A-10s fully supported and flyable, Air Force headquarters is undercutting the ability of our combatant commanders to carry out their missions. By cutting the A-10’s upgrade and operational testing and evaluation funding, the Air Force brass is slowing the modernization and effectiveness of the few A-10s available. As War is Boring points out, this is a repetition of the Air Force’s depriving the A-10 of needed maintenance and modifications in the 1990s. Taxpayers footed the bill for the additional costs of deferred maintenance while American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered the costs of inadequate close support—just as they are likely to again if Air Force headquarters persists in this backdoor mothballing of the A-10 fleet.
In the letter, the Senators request that the Air Force provide a plan to increase maintenance to meet congressional law and intent, as well as that the Air Force provide an explanation for why 18 A-10s were deemed to be in excess of requirements and therefore taken out of flyable status.
"The Air Force should plan its A-10 depot level maintenance funding for the Future Years Defense Program based on the assumption that Congress will continue to prohibit the divestment of A-10s until an equally capable close air support aircraft achieves full operational capability," the Senators wrote. Despite the protests of pilots and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, and three years of broad, bipartisan congressional rejection of the Air Force's plan to retire the A-10, headquarters’ senior officers still persist in their schemes to get rid of the world’s most effective close support force.
Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh has complained that he resents the portrayal of the Air Force as not supporting the close air support mission. But the ongoing actions by Air Force headquarters provide stark and compelling evidence of that portrayal. The only way for General Welsh to prove Air Force critics wrong is by providing Congress a plan and a budget for fully supporting the A-10 and the future of effective close air support for American troops.