Congress Bucks Air Force Again, Keeps A-10 Flying

For the third year in a row, lawmakers defy the Air Force’s recommendation to retire the A-10 jet.

Two American A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft taxi toward the end of the Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada runway for a training mission, December 10, 2010
Two American A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft taxi toward the end of the Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada runway for a training mission, December 10, 2010 (USAF/Michael R. Holzworth)

The A-10 close support aircraft, better known as the “Warthog,” is one of the most prized planes for veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The jet — which has the ability to fly low to the ground, loiter over a target for a considerable period of time, take hits from enemy ground fire and coordinate rescue missions for downed airmen — is one of the more versatile in the United States Air Force. Countless lives were undoubtably saved thanks to the unique capabilities of the A-10, particularly in Afghanistan where troops were often stationed in hard-to-reach, rural, mountainous terrain close to or surrounded by insurgent territory.

Washington’s spending problems have gotten so bad, however, that the Air Force is attempting to get rid of the A-10 fleet altogether.

For the third year in a row, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and the Defense Department have argued that the Warthog is too expensive to maintain and not suited for the current operational environment overseas. Tens of thousands of American forces are no longer deployed in the Middle East and tasked with performing street patrols in insurgent-invested neighborhoods. Rather, they are locked behind big bases performing missions that are largely focused on training, advising and equipping local security forces to do the fighting against insurgent and terrorist groups themselves.

“It’s not about not liking or not wanting the A-10,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said earlier this year. “It’s about some very tough decisions that we have to make to recapitalize an Air Force for the threat ten years from now.”

The problem, in other words, is money. Sequestration, which mandates artificial cuts in all defense and domestic spending, is forcing the armed services to make some difficult decisions. Getting rid of the A-10 and making room for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is seen as a much better investment for the warfighter of the future.

Members of Congress disagree. Despite the Air Force’s request to retire the Warthog fighter, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have insisted on keeping the plane flying for three years in a row. The National Defense Authorization Act that was passed by the House last month and approved by the Senate several weeks ago prohibits the Air Force from using any money to “retire, prepare to retire, or place in storage or on backup aircraft inventory status” any A-10 jet.

Under the legislation, manning levels and crews for the A-10 fleet are kept at their present level and the Air Force is required to keep at least 171 of the planes available for combat missions on short notice.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, argues that it makes little sense to cut an aircraft that is currently in service in the Middle East. The majority of Congress appears to agree.

Whether or not the Obama Administration will be able to convince Congress to acquiesce in the A-10 drawdown will depend in large measure on the ability of the Air Force to field a replacement. The F-35, a fifth-generation fighter aircraft that is capable of doing close air support missions, is supposed to be the replacement. But this expensive new weapons system has experienced its fair share of setbacks.

From a wargame that showed the F-35 rendered ineffective against Chinese and Russian fighters, to mishaps with the engine and deficiencies in the software program, the F-35 program has caused a lot of concern among members of Congress and government watchdogs which are quick to call out the initiative’s soaring cost overruns. If the F-35 was scheduled to be operational in a short period of time or was already operational, then the A-10 community would probably lose some of its influence and power. But this isn’t the case.

As long as the F-35 struggles to get off the ground and the A-10 continues to perform well, Congress will likely buck the Air Force and keep funding the fleet. But that also means budgeters in the Pentagon have to go back to the drawing board to determine where they can find the billions of dollars in savings that same Congress mandated them to make.