War Over the Warthogs

Air Force and Congress fighting over plan to ground soldiers’ favorite warplane

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Air Force photo

A snarling A-10, complete with its seven-barrel 30mm Gatling gun under its snout.

It’s old, it’s slow, it’s ugly, and—unlike a Swiss army knife—the Air’s Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt II can only do one thing: help grunts on the ground. So think of it as the military equivalent of Grandma’s tarnished turkey-carving knife that only comes out at Thanksgiving. It does a fine job on the old bird, but can a cash-strapped Air Force afford to keep the A-10 flying when its sole mission is to save the lives of U.S. troops in trouble?

As the Pentagon’s budget vise squeezes the Air Force, it is considering a decision to ground its 326 A-10s forever to save money, including $3.5 billion between 2015 and 2019. The idea has triggered a dogfight between the Air Force and A-10 backers on Capitol Hill.

Ground-pounders are caught in the crosshairs. “As an Army guy, I will tell you, the A-10s are very close to the Army, and we’re wondering what will do that mission,” General Frank Grass, the National Guard chief, said Tuesday. “But when the nation cannot afford the force it has today, something has to go.”

The notion is painful to the Air Force’s top officer who spent 1,000 of his early flight hours piloting A-10s. “If we have platforms that can do multiple missions well, and maybe not do one as well as another airplane…the airplane that is limited to a specific type of mission area becomes the one most at risk,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in September. “I think there’s some logic to this that’s hard for us to avoid, no matter how much I happen to love the airplane.”

While soldiers love the airplane they call the Warthog, they’ll get over it, the Air Force’s top warfighter believes. “If a bad guy goes away,” said General Mike Hostage, chief of Air Combat Command, “the Army’s not going to argue about how it went away.”

The Air Force would eventually fill much of the A-10’s troop-support mission with its new F-35 fighter, which has been plagued by problems and cost overruns. “The Air Force is growing increasingly desperate to eliminate competition in its force structure to the F-35,” says weapons-watcher Winslow Wheeler, who spent 30 years monitoring Pentagon procurement on Capitol Hill and at the Government Accountability Office, and now runs the nonprofit Straus Military Reform Project. If the Air Force prevails, “the biggest cost will be in the Defense Department’s ability to support soldiers and Marines engaged in close combat on the ground—a mission no aircraft can perform as well as the A-10.” Other Air Force planes that the service says could be tapped to help ground troops include the AC-130, F-15E, F-16, B-1 and B-52.

In contrast to the F-35’s woes, the A-10 stands as a poster child on how the nation should buy its weapons.

“Close attention to key mission characteristics (lethality, survivability, responsiveness, and simplicity) allowed the concept formulation and subsequent system design to result in an effective close-air support aircraft, and design-to-cost goals kept the government and contractor [Fairchild Republic] focused on meeting the critical requirements at an affordable cost,” a candid 2010 Air Force report said. “The A-10 did not meet all its cost goals, but it came much closer to them than most major defense development programs did in that time frame or since then.”

General Electric GAU-8/A

National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

The A-10’s GAU-8 gun alongside a Volkswagen.

The A-10’s titanium-clad cockpit and self-sealing fuel cells protects its lone pilot. Manual flight controls back up its hydraulic system. These give the A-10 pilot the confidence to fly low and slow to take out enemy armor or troops with the eye-watering seven-barrel GAU-8 Gatling gun protruding from under its nose.

It made its combat debut in the 1991 Gulf War, where it flew more than 8,000 sorties while destroying a big chunk of the Iraqi military: 987 tanks, 926 artillery pieces, 501 armored personnel carriers, and 1,106 trucks. Only six A-10s were lost. It has since flown in action over Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, again. Tales like this have made it the grunts’ best friend.

“The A-10 was somewhat forced on a reluctant Air Force by the needs of the Army,” that 2010 Air Force report said. “The Air Force believed that fighters that were not otherwise engaged could take on close-air support when needed.” The Army disagreed: it “needed an aircraft that could carry a great amount of ordnance, loiter in the area for some time with excellent maneuverability, and had the ability to take hits from enemy ground fire.” Ultimately, the Air Force agreed to field the A-10, many experts believe, “to keep the Army from taking over the close-air support mission.”

Last week, 35 lawmakers told Pentagon leaders they would “oppose any effort” by the Air Force to ground its A-10s beginning next fall because it would “unnecessarily endanger our service members in future conflicts.”

One of the leaders of the effort is Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a member of the armed services committee. “Many soldiers and Marines are alive today because of the unique capabilities of the A-10, as well as the focused close-air support training and dedicated close-air support culture of A-10 pilots,” the lawmakers’ Nov. 13 letter said. Ayotte should know: her husband, Joe Daley, flew A-10s in the first Gulf War.

In some ways, the F-35’s woes could be the A-10’s salvation. Ayotte is readying an amendment that would order the Air Force to keep its A-10s flying until its F-35s are fully operational. That’s currently slated to happen in 2021.

The Air Force, apparently, isn’t taking any chances. On Tuesday, the Northrop Grumman Corp. announced it had landed Air Force contracts totaling $24 million “required to keep the A-10 weapon system viable through 2028 and beyond.”