This kind of firepower, coupled with its 30mm cannon, titantium armor plates and built-in redundancy for close-air-support, makes the A-10 a valuable platform for potential larger-scale mechanized, force-on-force type warfare as well. The A-10 has a unique and valuable niche role to perform in the widest possible range of combat scenarios to include counterinsurgency, supporting troops on the ground in close proximity and bringing firepower, protection and infantry support to a large-scale war.
Air Force officials have told Scout Warrior that the current approach involves a three-pronged effort; the Air Force may consider simply upgrading the existing fleet of A-10s in a substantial way in order to extend its service life, acquire an off-the-shelf existing aircraft or develop a new close air support platform through a developmental effort.
“We are developing that draft requirements document. We are staffing it around the Air Force now. When it's ready, then we will compare that to what we have available, compare it to keeping the A-10, compare it to what it would take to replace it with another airplane, and we will work through that process,” Lt. Gen. James Holmes, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, told reporters last year.
Holmes went on to explain that the service was, broadly speaking, exploring ways to achieve, preserve and sustain “air superiority” in potential long-term, high-end combat engagements. He added that considerations about a close-air-support replacement aircraft figured prominently in the strategic calculus surrounding these issues.
As a result, the Air Force will be looking for the “optimal” type of close-air-support platform by weighing various considerations such as what the differences might be between existing aircraft and future developmental platforms.
Cost and affordability will also be a very large part of the equation when it comes to making determinations about an A-10 replacement, Holmes explained.
“The question is exactly where is the sweet spot as we talked about between what's available now and what the optimum CAS replacement would be. We are working along that continuum to see exactly what the requirement is that we can afford and the numbers that we need to be able to do the mission,” Holmes added.
Several industry platforms, such as Raytheon’s T-X plane and the A-29 Embraer EMB Super Tucano aircraft, are among options being looked at as things which could potentially be configured for a close-air-support plane.
Having the requisite funds to support this would be of great value to the Air Force; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers that, despite the prior plan, the service did not want to retire the A-10.
Prior plans to retire the fleet of A-10s were purely budget driven, senior Air Force leaders have consistently said.
“I don’t want to retire it,” Welsh told a Congressional Committee in early March of last year. Now, the Air Force is keeping it.
Air Force leaders had previously said that the emerging multi-role F-35 would be able to pick up the close-air-support mission. With its sensor technology, 25mm gun and maneuverability, there is little question about whether the F-35 could succeed with these kinds of missions. At the same time, there is also consensus that the A-10 provides an extremely unique set of battlefield attributes which need to be preserved for decades.
Many lawmakers, observers, veterans, analysts, pilots and members of the military have been following the unfolding developments regarding the Air Force’s plans for the A-10. Citing budgetary reasons, Air Force leaders had said they planned to begin retiring its fleet of A-10s as soon as this year. Some Air Force personnel maintained that other air assets such as the F-16 and emerging F-35 multi-role stealth fighter would be able to fill the mission gap and perform close air support missions once the A-10 retired.
However, a chorus of concern from lawmakers and the A-10s exemplary performance in the ongoing air attacks against ISIS – has lead the Air Force to extend the planned service life of the aircraft well into the 2020s. Despite the claim that other air assets could pick up the close air support mission, advocates for the A-10 consistently state that the platform has an unmatched ability to protect ground troops and perform the close air support mission.
Now, the Air Force has a begun a three-pronged strategy to replace or sustain the A-10 which involves looking at ways to upgrade and preserve the existing aircraft, assessing what platforms might be available on the market today or designing a new close-air-support airplane.
Sending the close-air-support aircraft to the bone yard would save an estimated $4.2 billion over five years alone, Air Force officials previously said.
The overall costs of the program including life cycle management, sustainment and upkeep had made the A-10 budget targets for the service, however many lawmakers pushed back on the plans.
There have been many advocates for the A-10 among lawmakers who have publicly questioned the prior Air Force strategy to retire the aircraft. Last year, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. and Sen. John McCain have been among some of the most vocal supporters of the A-10.
On several previous occasions, Ayotte has challenged the Air Force decision to retire the plane.
“The A-10 has saved many American lives, and Senator Ayotte is concerned that the Air Force might prematurely eliminate the A-10 before there is a replacement aircraft—creating a dangerous close air support capability gap that could put our troops at risk,” an Ayotte official said last year. McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed the news that the A-10 might remain longer than the Air Force had planned.
“I welcome reports that the Air Force has decided to keep the A-10 aircraft flying through fiscal year 2017, ensuring our troops have the vital close-air support they need for missions around the world. Today, the A-10 fleet is playing an indispensable role in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and assisting NATO’s efforts to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe,” McCain said in a statement last year.
Also, the A-10 has been performing extremely well in ongoing attacks against ISIS, creating an operational demand for the durable aircraft and therefore reportedly informing this Air Force decision.
“With growing global chaos and turmoil on the rise, we simply cannot afford to prematurely retire the best close air support weapon in our arsenal without fielding a proper replacement. When the Obama Administration submits its 2017 budget request in the coming weeks, I hope it will follow through on its plan to keep the A-10 flying so that it can continue to protect American troops, many still serving in harm’s way,” McCain added.
Although the continued existence of the A-10 is assured well into the next decade, the debate about what, if anything, might be able to replace it is quite likely to continue.
This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.
(This first appeared in 2017.)