The initial announcements about the Air Force’s budget created the impression that Pentagon headquarters saw the writing on the wall and finally decided to take a break from their persistent campaign to destroy the A-10. But recent scrutiny from Congress has revealed that the Air Force’s campaign to kill the close air support mission is still alive and well.
The Warthog has not only been essential in our war against the Islamic State, but is in heavy demand to deter Russian aggression in Europe. “[W]e’re pushing off the A-10’s final retirement until 2022 so we can keep more aircraft that can drop smart bombs on ISIL,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the House Appropriations Committee in his written testimony. “As 2022 approaches, A-10s will be replaced by F-35s only on a squadron-by-squadron basis as they come online, ensuring that all units have sufficient backfill and that we retain enough aircraft needed to fight today’s conflicts.”
Secretary Carter’s comments obfuscate the Air Force’s plan to begin getting rid of A-10 squadrons well before 2022, actually starting in 2018. Retiring A-10s in 2018 flies in the face of the reality that, even if the F-35A could perform close air support, it will not be able to do it effectively until 2022 at the earliest. That is the soonest we can expect the operational test report that assesses whether or not the F-35 can be safely and effectively used in support of embattled troops on the ground—and whether it performs the mission at least as well as the Warthogs it is intended to replace. In particular, the tests of the most crucial F-35 close support weapons—the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB II) and the gun, both essential for moving targets—cannot be completed until the end of 2021.
But while we’re waiting until 2022 to find out whether the F-35 is even capable of replacing A-10s, it’s likely the Hogs will become combat-ineligible much sooner. The Air Force is not releasing the funds to complete the ongoing wing replacement contract, a structural replacement urgently needed because of the high operational tempo of A-10 ops in Syria, Iraq, and Eastern Europe. If these wings aren’t replaced, A-10s may not be suitable for combat as soon as 2018.
The wing issue is only one of many ways that the Air Force persists in shrinking the number of combat-ready A-10s. At a recent hearing Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) asked why the Air Force is destroying stored Warthogs at a rapid rate, scrapping about 44 A-10s in 2014 and 38 in 2015 at a cost of $15,500 per chopped up A-10. “Are there no parts on those aircraft that were destroyed that could have been used to support the A-10s that are being deployed now?” she asked Air Force Chief of Staff General Welsh. “Isn't that why we keep—one of the reasons that we keep them in the boneyard?”
During the same hearing, General Welsh contradicted the Secretary of Defense, saying the F-35 program’s progress isn’t connected to the service’s plans for the A-10 because “the mission capability [of the] A-10 will not be replaced by the F-35.” As we’ve noted before, General Welsh and the F-35 program office itself have gone back and forth on the issue, claiming that other platforms would fulfill the mission more effectively and efficiently, even though the A-10 continues to demonstrate in combat that it is both the most effective and lowest cost close air support platform in US inventory.
This contradiction on whether the F-35 will replace the A-10 to perform the close air support mission isn’t just a matter of rhetoric. At issue is whether we will have a significant capability gap in the wars we’re fighting now. If the F-35 is going to replace the A-10, as the program office and the Air Force adamantly intended in the past, then clearly the Air Force should not divest any A-10s until the F-35 proves it can provide close air support at least as well as the A-10—an unlikely outcome, as the Program’s Executive Officer has publicly admitted. This means the Air Force needs to start planning an A-10 follow-on yesterday.
The Air Force’s 65-year history of animosity towards the close air support mission is central to Congress’s skepticism. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator John McCain (R-AZ) wasn’t having any of General Welsh’s excuses. “You haven't got a replacement for [the A-10], General,” he said at the hearing. “For you to sit here and say that you do [, it] absolutely flies in the face of the facts.”
CDI Military Advisory Board member retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Tony Carr hits the nail on the head in his column on this public dressing-down of a chief of staff. “[General Welsh] can’t admit in open court that [A-10 divestment is] tied to [the] service’s desire to free itself of traditional Close Air Support, which it views as a costly luxury falling outside the core of what it does (or wants to be doing) for the nation’s defense,” wrote Carr. “When times get tight, it’s the first thing to go. Before staff cars, personal servants, bands, show choirs, bloated VIP fleets, and new headquarters buildings … it’s the first thing the Air Force wants to kill. Every. Time.”
Former A-10 pilot Representative Martha McSally (R-AZ) similarly questioned the Air Force’s priorities this week, particularly regarding complaints that they don’t have the manpower to support the A-10. “If we really had a manning crisis, from my perspective, we would really tell people to put down the tuba and pick up a wrench or a gun,” she said.
A recent survey confirmed—yet again—the A-10 remains by far the most highly valued platform for those in ground combat. But the fight for the A-10 isn’t about a particular platform. It’s about the need to deliver effective close air support to troops in danger. And as that survey revealed, what is most valued by those on the ground is pilots who are highly skilled, combat-experienced, and committed to the mission. The largest concern among those surveyed “is whether the Air Force’s move towards multi-mission platforms [and multi-mission pilots] in general is a deliberate shift away from supporting ground troops with an exclusive platform, meaning [close air support] as we know it could retire with the A-10.”
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, shared those concerns about training. "It's not just a platform issue, it's a training issue," General Dunford said in response to questioning from Representative McSally. "As the advocate for close-air support and joint capabilities, I absolutely believe we need a transition plan, and there needs to be a replacement for the A-10 before it goes away."
Without a dedicated close air support platform and without pilots trained solely for that mission, the Air Force is betraying ground troops. And any new close air support plane must be more combat-effective than what we already have. A number of recent articles speculating about lightweight, converted training planes that supposedly could replace the A-10 seem to be missing this point. Like the B-52 and the C-130, one reasonable alternative is to refurbish and upgrade the A-10s for another 20 to 40 years—certainly a better and cheaper investment than new, marginally effective armed trainers. But there is no question that today’s technology allows us to build an A-10 replacement that is more lethal, far more survivable, and far better suited to flying from hasty strips close to engaged troops. Clearly, decades ago we should have—and could have—developed and fielded that replacement for the A-10. In fact the Pentagon’s “fighter mafia” designed and briefed such a program in the mid-eighties, but that effort was promptly quashed by Air Force leadership.
This summer a new Air Force Chief of Staff will be sworn in. Among the new Chief of Staff’s top priorities should be reversing 65 years of Air Force Headquarters hostility to supporting troops on the ground. Launching a program to build a far better A-10 for those troops would be a historic act of leadership and patriotism.