The top civilian in charge of the U.S. Air Force’s A-10 Warthog program has reportedly told other service officials that a critical re-wing program for the aircraft will almost certainly remain incomplete, which means more than a third of the total A-10 fleet will end up grounded or sent to the bone yard for good. If true, this would be just the latest in a long string of efforts to deliberately hobble the fleet and force the type into retirement.
On Jan. 17, 2018, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) reported that Todd Mathes, the A-10 Program Element Manager for Air Combat Command, the Air Force’s top warfighting command, had made the service’s position clear at a routine review meeting. Individuals in the room had disclosed the remarks to the private organization, which advocates for various reforms within the U.S. military, on the condition of anonymity, apparently fearing retaliation for speaking out about the plan. They no doubt remembered how now retired Air Force Major General James Post implied to his subordinates in December 2014 that offering support for the Warthog in public or in letters to their representatives in Congress was tantamount to treason.
Todd Mathes stressed that a rebooted re-wing program for the Warthogs “was not going to happen,” the anonymous individuals told POGO. This in turn would allow the Air Force to eliminate three A-10 squadrons, reducing the total number from nine to six. This is an idea the service floated in 2017, only to meet significant resistance from the aircraft’s supporters in Congress.
At present, approximately 170 A-10s came off the production line with new, strengthen wings or received them as part of an upgrade program that began in 2007. The update will keep those aircraft airworthy through at least 2030 and many much longer.
This leaves another 110 or so aircraft without the improved spans, many of which are fast becoming unsafe to fly. The Air Force originally planned to make sure the entire fleet had the new components, but stopped the project early, blaming budget cuts and caps as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act, a process more commonly known as sequestration. However, critics called this claim into question since the service itself said it would only save a relatively modest $500 million in doing so – less than the approximate cost of 6 F-35s and around $4.5 million per airframe to keep more than 100 A-10s airworthy. Congress subsequently blocked the service from retiring any Warthogs by law, a major blow to the service's efforts to retire the Warthogs.
In December 2017, testimony from Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, in which she described herself as a “fan” of the Warthog, suggested a change in the service's general tone on the matter. She seemed to imply that as long as legislators made the appropriate funding available, the service was committed to the re-wing effort.
“If that [funding] comes through, we will work on executing that so we can get that line back up so that we can re-wing,” Wilson explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Dec. 7, 2017. “I think the amount would be the tooling and the first four or five sets of wings for the A-10.”
Mathes comments would seem to contradict these statements, but in response to a query from POGO, the Air Force further clarified that it has no plans at present to continue with the re-wing project beyond the work outlined in defense budget Congress passed for the 2018 fiscal year. This included $103 million to restart production of replacement wings and purchase sets for four aircraft.
“The Air Force plans to use the $103 million authorized in the FY18 NDAA to award a contract, establish a new wing production line and produce four additional A-10 wings,” a spokesperson for the service told POGO. “Establishing the production line will enable the Air Force to procure additional wings if the decision is made to do so in future budgets.”
“If” is the operative word in that last sentence, though. It is important to note that the Air Force did not include any money for new A-10 wings in its budget request for the 2018 fiscal cycle, instead shunting it into a wish list of “unfunded” projects, putting the onus on Congress to figure out how to pay for it on top of everything else.
Boeing, for its part, has disputed the idea that the production line for the new wings has gone completely cold, telling FlightGlobal that it is still in the process of delivering wings as part of the original deal it cut with the Air Force a decade ago. It’s unclear how many units the company is still working on and whether it is still capable of producing some or all of the necessary components.
But as we at The War Zone have noted more than once, the exact state of the wing production line and the possibility of future funding may be moot points. The Air Force has already said Warthogs without the new wings would start hitting their maximum allowable fight hours starting in the 2018 fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, 2017.
Without knowing his exact words, it is possible that Mathes may actually have just been expressing his opinion on this state of affairs with the Warthog fleet. Without having a ready supply of new wings right now, it remains hard to believe that the Air Force will be able to avoid grounding at least some of the A-10s that the service doesn’t already have slated to receive the upgrade, even if only temporarily.
This could have a cascading impact on pilot and ground crew proficiency with the Warthogs. In turn, the Air Force might feel it has a stronger case for retiring those particular planes for good and either converting the three squadrons to fly other aircraft or distributing the personnel to other units. If that were to happen, any impetus for completing the re-wing effort would evaporate entirely and Mathes would be right to say that it’s “not going to happen.”
Congress, however, is unlikely to agree with this course of action. Legislators have repeatedly blocked the Air Force’s attempts to retire the A-10 absent an adequate replacement and have so far dismissed the service’s assertion that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter can take over the Warthog’s missions, instead ordering a fly-off between the two aircraft that could begin later in 2018.
At a certain point, opposition from lawmakers might not matter, though. Congress can block the Air Force from retiring any A-10s forever, but it won’t be able to make jets without the new wings any more airworthy with just the stroke of a pen.
Legislators who support keeping the Warthogs on active duty for the foreseeable future appear to face a no-win situation of either agreeing to trimming the fleet or compelling the Air Force to maintain units with aircraft that are increasingly unflyable as the service suffers a growing shortage of pilots. There is significant evidence suggesting that this has been the service’s plan all along in delaying A-10 upgrades in general.
In the end, Congress is unlikely to allow the Air Force to retire the Warthogs entirely, but they might not necessarily be able to stop them from sending more than a third of the fleet to the bone yard.
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