For years the Air Force has tried to retire the A-10 program. Time after time, Congress has clearly required the Air Force to maintain the A-10 fleet as is because they realize no other aircraft provides the same level of support to the troops on the ground — not even the flawed but favored F-35.
The iconic A-10 is the first, and so far only, aircraft designed from the very beginning specifically for the close air support mission. Air Force leaders generally prefer aircraft that fly high and fast to bomb targets deep within enemy territory in the mistaken belief that doing so can win wars independent of ground forces. But over one hundred years of military history has shown that military forces are much more effective when working in close cooperation, which is the exact purpose of the A-10.
Because of this, Congress has included several provisions in federal law to prevent A-10 retirements. Yet sources have told the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) that, despite these provisions, Air Force leaders have pursued a de facto retirement of the fleet through a starvation campaign.
A chart obtained by POGO shows the success of this campaign. As of February 2020, the Air Force had a fleet of 281 A-10s. 133 were non-deployable, and they anticipated that to rise to 146, meaning that more than half of the A-10s in service today cannot deploy.
To better make their case to retire the A-10, Air Force leaders have done everything they can to hobble the fleet to make it appear too old and incapable of providing useful service. Over the course of several years, Air Force leaders have slow-rolled an effort to build new wings, diminished the capacity to conduct needed overhauls, and refused to provide the necessary parts by allowing supplier contracts to lapse. A source within the A-10 community says that many of the flight-worthy aircraft can’t shoot their iconic GAU-8 cannons because the squadrons can’t get needed replacement parts. The same source says the fleet’s current struggles are the result of the contempt Air Force leadership has for civilian oversight.
Congress has come to the rescue of the A-10 at least five times since 2014, adding provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to either specifically prohibit the Air Force from retiring aircraft or to green-light projects that keep the fleet flying.
- Congress included a clause in the 2015 NDAA prohibiting the Air Force from using any authorized funds from even preparing to retire any more A-10s.
- Members included a similar provision in the 2016 NDAA, and they also mandated an independent study to determine the military’s future close air support needs for an eventual A-10 replacement.
- Congress went a step further in 2017, not only prohibiting any A-10 retirements but also preventing the Air Force from reducing the personnel levels within the A-10 community.
- Members added $132 million to complete a project to build new wings for the A-10 fleet.
- Congress has again drafted language for the 2022 NDAA to prevent the Air Force’s latest efforts to send 63 A-10s to the boneyard.
The project to build new wings for the A-10 serves as an excellent example of how Air Force leaders are deliberately attempting to hobble the fleet to better make their case for its retirement. Back in 2007, the Air Force awarded the Boeing Corporation a contract to build new wings for 242 A-10s. But Air Force leaders allowed the contract to lapse after purchasing only 173 new wing sets — 70% of those required — and after spending $1.1 billion of their $2 billion contract. Questions about the whereabouts of the $900 million balance for the original A-10 re-wing project went unanswered by the Air Force.
After letting the contract lapse, Air Force leaders tried to make the case that restarting the production line would be prohibitively expensive, since the contract would have to be re-bid. Members of Congress ordered the Air Force to buy the new wings anyway, but the effects of the delayed wing project can be easily seen on the Air Force’s A-10 Wing Management Plan. The last of the originally contracted wings were installed during fiscal year 2018. Since then, no new wings have been delivered while the production line restarts. Deliveries under the new contract will not begin until fiscal year 2023.
In the meantime, without new wings, some of the aircraft face a kind of de facto retirement, grounded when inspections show signs of metal fatigue or when the current wings have too many flight hours. According to the A-10 wing management plan, by 2023 the number of A-10s that are expected to be non-deployable will grow to 177. That means that 63% of the total A-10 fleet would not be able to deploy to protect ground troops.
“Part shortages for the cannon are so acute that at one squadron there are anywhere between three and eight aircraft that can’t shoot at any given time.”
The A-10 fleet is missing more than new wings. A-10 squadrons are also missing central interface computer units, integrated flight and fire control computers, radios, hydraulic actuators to control flight surfaces, and all replacement parts for the 30mm GAU-8/A cannon. Part shortages for the cannon are so acute that at one squadron there are anywhere between three and eight aircraft that can’t shoot at any given time. The parts are missing because Air Force leaders have not renewed contracts with the suppliers, according to a source within the A-10 community.
The delay caused by the lapsed wing contract and the Air Force’s earlier schemes to mothball the fleet have had a cascading effect within the program. During earlier efforts to retire the A-10, Air Force leaders had begun the process of shutting down the vital A-10 maintenance depot facility at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, restarting it only when Congress intervened to save the program.
By then, significant damage had already been done. The A-10 fleet, like all aircraft programs, needs a lot of maintenance work. Limited resources meant the depot couldn’t continue to function at the volume needed to properly sustain the fleet — or the workforce needed to support 281 aircraft. Many of the most experienced A-10 maintainers have reportedly found new jobs due to their concerns about the program’s future.
The Air Force needs to send 57 A-10s through the facility for repairs, overhauls, or complete rebuilds every year. At present, the A-10 depot has the capacity to handle only 31 aircraft a year. And until the A-10 program receives the parts it needs in the right quantities, it will be difficult to entice the maintenance crews back.
The Air Force’s starvation effort may be having the desired effect. One congressional staffer said he saw an A-10 at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base that appeared much the worse for wear, which made him more inclined to support the Air Force’s plan to trim the fleet.
“Many of the most experienced A-10 maintainers have reportedly found new jobs due to their concerns about the program’s future.”
But since it entered service in the 1970s, the A-10 has repeatedly proven its worth. It can’t fly forever, but if Congress compels the Air Force to properly maintain the fleet in the near-term, it can fly long enough until a dedicated close air support replacement program can be put into service. The original A-X program took seven years from the initial close air support study to a contract to build the A-10. A new program based on the same basic design requirementscould be fielded before the current fleet’s updated lifespan expires in the 2030s. A future A-10 replacement should still be survivable close to the ground, nimble at low speeds, able to carry heavy ordnance loads, and capable of generating a high sortie rate from austere fields close to the front lines.
The A-10 needs to keep flying until that aircraft is ready. There may come a day soon when troops on the ground will need the capabilities the A-10 brings to the fight. Arguments that the A-10 isn’t relevant for a potential war with China are based on a false premise. They presume that A-10s will be flown deep into enemy territory beyond ground troops into heavily defended airspace. But when A-10s are employed with ground forces, the air and ground units mutually support each other. Ground force commanders plan for suppression of enemy air defense missions to protect their supporting air units as a matter of routine.
But that’s only one reason the program needs to be preserved until a replacement is in place. The ultimate value of the A-10 program is not the aircraft itself — it’s the dedicated community of pilots specializing in the close air support mission that grew up around it. If the Air Force brass have their way and are allowed to retire the A-10 without a dedicated replacement, that community will be lost. Based on conversations with current and former A-10 pilots, many serving today do not want to fly anything else and will leave the service if the fleet is retired. Those who stay in uniform will be spread out across other aircraft programs. Their specialization will be diluted in the multirole morass and will subsequently vanish in just a few short years.
“The troops on the ground will pay a terrible price if this critical capability disappears.”
The old Army Air Forces struggled in the first years of World War II to develop close air support techniques and build up a cadre of skilled pilots and ground controllers. Those specialized units were disbanded after the war. When the Korean War began less than five years later, the new Air Force was unable to support the soldiers fighting on the ground. The Air Force was similarly unprepared for Vietnam. The Air Force was prepared to support ground troops for Desert Storm and the wars that followed because of the A-10. Without it or a dedicated replacement program, the military runs the risk of going into the next war unprepared. The troops on the ground will pay a terrible price if this critical capability disappears.
Pierre Sprey contributed to this investigation. This issue was one of several topics he and the author discussed at length the evening before his death on August 4, 2021.