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Analysis

Air Force Leaders Defy Congress’s A-10 Mandates

(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO, Photo: US Air Force / Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The A-10 Warthog is the most effective, robust, combat-proven close air support aircraft the world has ever seen. A-10 pilots have saved hundreds of lives over the past 30 years. The aircraft is famous for being one of the most survivable in history, able to take multiple hits and still bring the pilot safely home. That is why members of Congress have taken decisive action to preserve the A-10 at least five times since 2014 by adding provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that either specifically prohibit the Air Force from retiring aircraft or that increase funding to keep the fleet flying.

The United States doesn’t have a replacement that can do the job, so without it the United States risks effectiveness and troops’ lives. But Air Force leaders see things differently. They are often more interested in operating faster long-range aircraft on missions led by themselves and have repeatedly decided to rid themselves of an aircraft that principally benefits other services — and they’ve done this by strictly following the letter of the law but at the same time defying Congress’s directions by essentially sabotaging the fleet in an attempt to render it useless.

The Project On Government Oversight recently obtained a copy of a March 31, 2022, briefing delivered by Pam Lee, the A-10 system program manager at Hill Air Force Base, which clearly shows that Air Force leaders understood full well the wishes of Congress and the American people, but that they pressed forward with their plans to retire the fleet anyway.

The brief, a Technology Acquisition and Sustainment Review, details how Air Force leaders starved the A-10 fleet of needed upgrades to include new wings and an updated computer. They also took maintenance resources away from the fleet causing a massive backlog of repair work. The fleet is by no means beyond redemption, but the briefing makes it clear that Congress needs to do more than to just save aircraft from the boneyard. The fleet needs resources to counter years of Air Force sabotage.

At the same time Air Force leaders were starving the fleet of resources, they simultaneously deployed squadrons overseas multiple times. This served to accelerate the fleet’s deterioration, helping Air Force leaders make their case that the A-10 should be retired because of its poor condition. By doing so, in an ironic twist, Air Force leaders actually made the case for the A-10’s continued relevance by showing how effectively it operated in Syria. A-10s have also been sent back to Europe in recent years as a show of force following Russian aggression in Crimea, and even demonstrated their ability to operate from abandoned highways in Estonia.

It’s no secret that most of the Air Force brass has never liked the A-10. It is the only aircraft designed from the start to perform the close air support mission. Air Force leaders generally prefer fast, high-flying aircraft capable of bombing targets far behind enemy lines in the mistaken belief that doing so can win wars without troops fighting on the ground. One hundred years of military history have shown that military forces are much more effective when working in close cooperation. The A-10, flown by pilots dedicated to the close air support mission, was built to fill this role.

Demolition by Neglect

When the owner of a building wants to demolish the structure to build something new but is prevented from doing so by zoning regulations or preservation laws, a strategy some owners use is to simply stop maintaining the structure and allow it to decay to the point where tearing down the structure becomes the only viable option left. The briefing shows Air Force leaders have chosen this course of action with the A-10 fleet, since Congress has correctly thwarted their retirement efforts.

In perhaps the clearest statement possible in a government document, the full effects of the Air Force’s campaign against the A-10 are laid bare in the slide’s conclusion: “[The Air Force] resourced A-10 to divest yet flew it like an enduring fleet, rapidly accelerating decline toward today’s hollowing fleet.”

Page 3 of A-10 Divestiture Planning Briefing
Contributed to DocumentCloud by Dan Grazier (Project On Government Oversight) • View document or read text

The program isn’t hollow because it can’t do the mission. It’s hollow because there’s a mission for the A-10, but the Air Force just chose to neglect it despite being told not to by Congress.

The briefing includes a clear acknowledgement that Air Force leaders understood Congress’s intent regarding the A-10 fleet. It speaks to the five full or partial A-10 divestitures proposed by the Air Force, which were “all unsuccessful.” Air Force leaders attempted to retire the entire A-10 fleet in the 2015, 2016, and 2017 budget cycles. They attempted two partial retirements in 2021 and 2022. Congress intervened in each case.

The briefing also clearly shows that Air Force leaders had already made up their minds about the A-10’s future before Congress had a chance to weigh in on the matter by saying, “decisions ahead of FY15 [President’s Budget] devastated fleet” before listing several challenges that are currently hobbling the program.

The A-10 production ended nearly 40 years ago, so the fleet is aging. Despite that and the Air Force’s efforts to hobble the fleet, the A-10 still outperforms many newer aircraft in key performance metrics. The A-10 fleet has a higher mission capable rate (72.54%) than the F-16C (71.53%) and far higher than the F-22 (50.81%).

One of the biggest challenges from a structural standpoint is the aircraft’s wings. The entire fleet of 281 A-10s should have received new wings by now, since the need for them had been identified years ago. Air Force leaders awarded the Boeing Corporation a $2 billion contract to build new wings for 242 A-10s in 2007. One of the decisions made by Air Force leaders prior to the 2015 budget cycle canceled the re-winging effort. Air Force leaders allowed the contract with Boeing to lapse in 2016 after only 171 wing sets had been delivered. The Air Force awarded Boeing with a second contract in 2019 to build new wings for the remaining aircraft in the fleet, but deliveries are not keeping up with demand. The briefing shows that, across both contracts, only 173 new wing sets have been delivered so far.

Air Force leaders have also restricted investments into needed upgrades for the fleet. The prime example is the aircraft’s computer, called the Central Interface Control Unit (CICU) which manages the A-10’s avionics, graphics, and communications. This shortens the “kill-chain,” making it easier for the pilot to gather targeting information from the ground controller, place sensors on the target, and then launch and track the weapon. Development on the current unit began in 2005, and Air Force leaders have refused to spend any funds since at least 2015 to upgrade the system. An A-10 is not allowed to fly without a functioning CICU. The briefing shows that the computer is the most needed replacement component in the fleet.

The A-10’s software, called Operational Flight Program, has also become the victim of neglect. When Air Force leaders decided in the years before 2015 to retire the fleet, they put all aspects of the program in “sunset” status, meaning they would not invest any resources for upgrades. That in turn placed the software into sustainment status. When Congress prevented retirements, it took three years just to restore funding to normal levels. The software should be upgraded at least every other year, so the upgrading process has fallen behind. The briefing shows that it would take at least seven years to field up-to-date software.

All of this neglect has had a devastating effect on the fleet. More than half of the 281 A-10s in service today could not deploy now if they were called to do so. According to a source inside the A-10 community, Air Force instructions sent to squadrons as part of their deployment preparations say that any aircraft to be assigned need to have enough remaining useful flight hours to cover a six-month deployment at combat rates. In the case of the A-10, each aircraft needs to have at least 1,200 remaining hours before any scheduled major maintenance action like a wing replacement or structural overhaul to be eligible for an overseas deployment. The briefing shows that 145 A-10s now are non-deployable.

The aircraft can be replaced. The institutional knowledge and the attack pilot’s culture of dedication to true combined arms would take a generation to recreate.

The briefing also includes a blatant falsehood. Lee claims that there has been a “perpetuated 10-year drought” of A-10 modernizations. That is not true. The Air National Guard and Reserves has a small modernization budget, and some of that money has been put to good use in the A-10 fleet. Since 2012, this money has been spent to add a Helmet Mounted Integrated Targeting System, Jam Resistant GPS, and a 3D Audio System, all of which is at least as good as the systems in newer aircraft. The Jam Resistant GPS is better than any similar system in the Air Force today.

This funding has also been used to integrate new weapons. Recent press reports show the A-10 flying in a “bomb truck” configuration carrying multiple Small Diameter Bombs. Those upgrades only happened because the National Guard took the lead and funded their development.

The Real Value of the A-10

The A-10 can’t fly forever. No serious person would suggest otherwise. Preserving the A-10 now is a stopgap measure until a new dedicated close air support aircraft can be fielded. So far, Air Force leaders have demonstrated little interest in such a program, unfortunately. They are far more interested in continuing to spend untold billions buying highly complex aircraft they claim can fly deep over enemy territory to strike targets far behind the front lines in their false assertions that doing so alone can win wars. More than 100 years of military history puts the lie to those claims, yet even today prominent airpower advocates continue to make their ridiculous claims that airpower can win wars without ground troops.

If Air Force leaders are allowed to continue defying Congress and deliberately sabotaging the A-10 fleet, the American military will quickly find itself without an effective close air support capability.

Success in combat requires the full integration of all arms. A-10 pilots understand this better than most people serving in uniform today. Three generations of A-10 pilots have dealt with the abuse heaped upon them from their own leaders because they understood only too well how much their mission mattered to the soldiers and Marines on the ground. That’s why preserving the A-10 fleet matters now: The aircraft can be replaced, but the institutional knowledge and the attack pilot’s culture of dedication to true combined arms would take a generation to re-create.

The leading flyers of their day in both the Air Force and its precursor institutions dismissed and outright ignored the close air support mission in the years before the major wars of the 20th century. When the United States entered three of those wars — World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam — the Air Force lacked a capable close air support force. It was only through wartime improvisation that such forces were created as each war progressed, and only after many troops on the ground died needlessly. In the case of Korea, the newly liberated Air Force never did manage to provide effective close air support and essentially ceded the mission to Navy flyers.

In its own way, that was an impressive feat for the Air Force because its World War II predecessor organization had excellent tactical aviation units that worked well with the American armies by the time U.S. forces were storming across northern Europe.

The lone exception to this pattern was the 1991 Gulf War. Even though the Air Force was well into the process of retiring the A-10 fleet as Saddam Hussein’s forces crossed the border into Kuwait in August 1990, a sizable force remained and was pressed into service for the conflict that ensued. That war was America’s first in which the military possessed an effective close air support force on the first day.

If Air Force leaders are allowed to continue defying Congress and deliberately sabotaging the A-10 fleet, the American military will quickly find itself without an effective close air support capability and future soldiers and Marines will suffer accordingly the next time we go to war. Air Force leaders are fond of saying that close air support is “a mission, not a platform.” This is true, but the mission can only be performed by people who have trained extensively for it. As history shows, Air Force leaders are loath to devote the time and resources necessary to adequately train for a mission that doesn’t benefit them.

Saving the A-10 now is as much about saving the mission as it is about saving the platform. It’s the culture of the A-10 pilots that needs to be preserved. If Congress fails to hold Air Force leaders accountable now by intervening, to not just prevent the fleet from being retired but also ensure it receives the resources necessary to rehabilitate it, the attack pilot culture that grew up around the aircraft will vanish quickly and young Americans fighting in a future war will die because they won’t have the air support they need and deserve.