Defense Media Network

Air Force May Scrap Entire A-10 Fleet

Will the U.S. Air Force shed an entire fleet of aircraft to cope with the budget-cutting process known as sequestration?

Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said in September the service may need to dispose of one of three fleets – 326 A-10C Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, 214 F-15C Eagle fighters or 59 KC-10 Extender tanker-transports – if the sequester remains in effect. Air Force leaders don’t want to divest themselves of any aircraft, but say that unless funding restrictions are removed they can’t continue flying everything in inventory.

A-10 fires 30mm

An A-10 Thunderbolt II from the 81st Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, fires ammunition during a training mission over Novo Selo Training Range, Bulgaria in 2009. While the Air Force may want to retire the Warthog, ground troops love it. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Bill Gomez

In September, press reports focused on the KC-10, a military version of the Douglas DC-10 airliner that serves primarily to refuel other planes in flight but also hauls cargo. Officials now acknowledge that references to the KC-10 fleet amounted to a trial balloon – a way of calling attention to issues of Air Force operating costs.

Although Air Force officials insist their work is “pre-decisional,” several acknowledge that the A-10, which troops call the Warthog or the Hog, is their intended target for removal from duty.

An Air Force document from earlier in the year lists per-hour flying costs of the three aircraft:

  • $17,716 for the A-10
  • $21,170 for the KC-10

Mission capable rates (MCRs) are:

  • 75 percent for the A-10
  • 74 percent for the F-15C
  • 87 percent for the KC-10.

All of these MCRs are considered good, and none of these aircraft have any structural or fatigue issues that would prevent them from serving longer.

 

Trial Balloon?

The KC-10 reports, though, have taken second stage to a vigorous and active discussion in Washington about the future of the A-10.

Although Air Force officials insist their work is “pre-decisional,” several acknowledge that the A-10, which troops call the Warthog or the Hog, is their intended target for removal from duty. The twin-turbofan, twin-tail A-10 has a powerful 30mm nose cannon and the ability to carry a diverse range of bombs and rockets; built to fight tanks, it has proven a valuable close air support platform.

“In a perfect world, I’d like to have 1,000 A-10s I could do close air support with,” Hostage told a group of reporters.  “But I can’t afford it. I can’t afford the fleet I have now.”

American ground troops hold the A-10 in high regard. Other platforms like the B-1B Lancer can provide close air support using satellite-guided munitions dropped from high altitude, but the A-10 is known for fighting at low level, its pilot eyeball-to-eyeball with rapid changes in a battlefield situation. Both Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Gen. Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command, say they love the A-10, but may be forced to give it up.

A-10 trio

A three-ship formation of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs depart Oct. 14, 2010 from Saylor Creek Range in Idaho after competing in Hawgsmoke 2010. Originally designed as a dedicated tank-buster, the A-10 has become a versatile close air support aircraft. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeff Walston

“In a perfect world, I’d like to have 1,000 A-10s I could do close air support with,” Hostage told a group of reporters.  “But I can’t afford it. I can’t afford the fleet I have now.”

The term “pre-decisional” doesn’t cut any ice with Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) Like many in Congress, Ayotte is unhappy about talk of putting the A-10 out to pasture. Ayotte placed a hold on the nomination of Deborah James to become the next Air Force Secretary. After the Pentagon provided further information to her office, Ayotte said she is still not satisfied and – as any senator is permitted to do under the rules – is keeping the hold on the James nomination.

Ayotte first expressed concern about cutting the A-10 fleet during James’ initial Senate hearing Sept. 19. “What makes me concerned is that there has already been a decision made on the A-10,” Ayotte said, referring to what Air Force leaders called a “pre-decisional” document. She said that in July, “sixty soldiers were saved in Afghanistan because of the important close air support provided by the A-10.”

“What makes me concerned is that there has already been a decision made on the A-10,” Ayotte said, referring to what Air Force leaders called a “pre-decisional” document.

Ayotte’s husband Joseph Daley is a former A-10 pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq.

 

The Senate and the Secretary

Air Force officials had hoped that James could win Senate confirmation before the U.S. government entered a new fiscal year on Oct. 1 and, as many expected, government and the budget process were thrown into turmoil. A Senate staffer told Defense Media Network that the upper house would not take further action on the James nomination until issues involving the government shutdown and the debt ceiling were resolved. [Update: Ayotte said on October 17 she would drop her bid to block James' nomination after reviewing information Ayotte received from the Air Force. This will enable the Senate Armed Services Committee to approve the nomination after the Senate returns from recess October 28. The subsequent vote on the Senate floor, likely in November, is considered a formality.]

Even with gridlock in Washington, Air Staff officers in the Pentagon are working on their portion of the administration’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, which covers the period beginning Oct. 1 of next year. This is the first cycle in which planners are taking sequestration into account in their planning. Although no decision has been made yet, it appears the five squadrons of A-10s on duty today are on the chopping block.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...