The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a preliminary report that challenges the Air Force’s efforts to mothball the venerable A-10. The Air Force had two primary arguments for retiring the A-10: retirement would save money, and it wouldn’t negatively impact our capability to protect ground troops. The GAO report calls both into question.
The report, written in response to a provision included in the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, says the Air Force’s estimates of savings which would result from the retirement of the A-10 are incomplete.
More importantly, the report states that by retiring the A-10, the United States would find itself with a potential gap in the critical mission of close air support (CAS). The GAO also refutes Air Force claims that such a gap would be made up by introducing F-35’s into the fleet. This report confirms the F-35 is several years away from being ready to provide the CAS vital for American troops on the ground to succeed in combat. All of this verifies what has been repeatedly said by pilots and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), even in the face of Air Force attempts to intimidate those who speak to Congress.
The report goes on to point out that divesture of the A-10 could also degrade the military’s CAS capabilities by reducing training opportunities for all the troops involved. CAS is a highly specialized mission. It requires close coordination between pilots, JTACs, and the troops on the ground to ensure effective attacks on enemy targets without resulting in friendly fire. By reducing the number of available CAS platforms, the report confirms the Air Force could create a critical skills gap for pilots and JTACs.
While this report is a definite victory in the fight to maintain a proper CAS capability, Air Force efforts to rid itself of an aircraft and a mission it has long been hostile to will continue. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, in a response included in the GAO’s report, referenced a Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) analysis which states the “early retirement of the A-10 is the most effective alternative to meet near term needs and enables the Air Force to provide the core capabilities of air superiority and global strike into the future.” The CAPE analysis is classified, but former A-10 pilot Representative Sally McSally (R-AZ) called it a “rubber stamp” for a backdoor attempt at divestment in March.
The Air Force only gave token consideration to cost-saving options beyond retiring the A-10. According to the GAO, “without a reliable cost estimate, the Air Force does not have a complete picture of the savings it would generate by divesting the A-10 and does not have a reliable basis from which to develop and consider alternatives to achieve budget targets or assess the impact on other missions such as air superiority or global strike.”
To date Congress has agreed. This week the Project On Government Oversight sent a letter to the House and Senate conferees for the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act urging them to preserve this capability for the future and save troops’ lives.