In another example of budget-driven strategic choices, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James this week dumped cold water on a reasonable plan bruited by senior Air Force officers to retire and replace the venerable A-10 Warthog.
The cash-strapped Air Force has tried several times to retire the aircraft, despite the A-10’s playing a vital close air support role for clearing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Close air support is a unique and dangerous mission in which pilots must coordinate intimately with friendly forces on the ground in close contact with the enemy.) This year, the service submitted a compromise plan to delay the Warthog’s full retirement until 2022, with squadrons beginning to stand down in 2018.
In response, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees included a provision in their 2017 defense policy bills to prevent any A-10 retirements until 2019, when the A-10 and F-35 will duke it out in a test likely to be tilted in the Warthog’s favor.
The Air Force’s primary reasons for calling for the retirement of the A-10 are twofold. First, the A-10 is not survivable in high-end conflict against Russia, China, or Iran. It does not possess adequate defenses against modern surface-to-air missiles. Its Russian equivalent, the Su-25 Frogfoot, for example, has been downed by such missiles in both the 2008 Georgia War and eastern Ukraine. Second, keeping the A-10 is increasingly expensive, and every dollar used to pay for A-10 upgrades and maintenance further delays the F-35 fighter program. Over the next five years alone, the Air Force will spend $3.4 billion to maintain a shrinking A-10 fleet. The Air Force will pay that bill by delaying another 45 aircraft from the F-35A program, already 149 aircraft short of its fielding target as a result of defense budget cuts.
Yet the military also desperately needs to determine how best to provide fire support to soldiers and marines on the ground, and cost-effective close air support aircraft will likely factor into any future mix. While the F-35 will be capable of conducting close air support in a potential conflict against Russia or China, using such an expensive aircraft for missions in low-threat environments (think Iraq or Afghanistan) is highly inefficient. Dedicated close air support aircraft, remotely piloted aircraft, or artillery could all fulfill the same function at lower cost.
New brainstorming by senior Air Force officers envisions buying an existing “Warthog-lite” for permissive environments (Afghanistan) and developing a more robust A-10 replacement in the early 2020s capable of operating in partially permissive areas (Iraq/Syria). Since close air support increasingly hinges more upon payload (munitions) than platform (aircraft), the A-10’s replacements needn’t boast remarkable technologies. Simple, reliable, and flexible airframes can ably replace the A-10 and cut its $20,000-per hour flying cost by at least half over the long haul.
There’s rank distrust between A-10 advocates and the Air Force, but there’s also a cost-effective way out of this dilemma. The Air Force can gradually retire the A-10 to allow F-35 purchases to ramp up, even as it buys a new “Warthog-lite” off the shelf and commits to develop a real A-10 replacement in the 2020s.
Without such a compromise, the Air Force will waste both energy and cash, shortchanging the F-35 in the near term and the close air support mission in the future. Air Force leadership could move to allay congressional concern by announcing a formal program of record and an analysis of alternatives to sketch out the specifications of the A-10’s replacement.
This first appeared in Aeideas here.
Image: Creative Commons.