Many news outlets ran triumphant headlines late last week that read as if the battle to keep the A-10 Warthog in service for the foreseeable future had finally been won. Sadly this is not the case, far from it. The A-10’s future remains murky at best, and the USAF’s sly plan to rapidly draw down the A-10 fleet over the next few years has not been taken off the table, though it may be slightly delayed. Just one thing has changed as a result of the uncertainty surrounding the Presidential election, the clear need for the jet’s capabilities overseas, and the status of the still largely unproven F-35: The USAF’s Material Command is leaving itself in position to sustain the A-10 fleet, just in case it isn't sent to the boneyard once and for all.
Last week's naive news reports centered around an Aviation Week article featuring a recent interview with Air Force Materiel Command head honcho General Ellen Pawlikowski. In the interview the General stated the following:
“They have re-geared up, we’ve turned on the depot line, we’re building it back up in capacity and supply chain... Our command, anyway, is approaching this as another airplane that we are sustaining indefinitely… My approach from a sustainment perspective is to approach this as if we’re just going to continue to keep these airplanes operating...We will wait as the dust settles as far as what the strategy will be; that discussion continues to go on and I think it always will as we look at the fact that our demand signal for our airplanes continues to be high.”
So the AF Material Command is hedging, nothing more. If it were to draw down depot capacity for the A-10, it would likely disrupt the Warthog community’s warfighting capability dramatically if and when a decision was ordered to keep the jets operating at full strength for the foreseeable future, – even if their retirement was pushed just a year or two into the future. That media outlets turned this statement into gloating headlines is troubling – doing so hurts the A-10’s odds of surviving, as many now think the aircraft is no longer endangered.
Beyond keeping A-10 depots running at full capacity, there have been small-scale glimmers of hope that the greater USAF is moving in the direction of extending the USAF’s planned retirement date, and some statements from head Pentagon officials have supported that possibility. Yet the reality is that, without Congressional support, there is little the USAF could do on its own to axe the A-10 even if they wanted to. Case in point: The aircraft is still flying today after constant assassination attempts by the USAF over the last half decade – and to a broader degree, over the aircraft’s entire operational history.
In recent years, the USAF has tried to justify retiring the A-10 in every way imaginable, going so far as cherry-picking data, and stating that they cannot stand-up the F-35 fleet without poaching many of the personnel currently assigned to the A-10. This helped spark a bizzare and manufactured rivalry between the two very different combat aircraft. This faux-competition hit a crescendo last year when Arizona Representative Martha McSally demanded an absurd “fly-off” close air support competition between the two wildly different, but in reality, quite complementary aircraft.
USAF brass has even put forward the idea that it will replace the A-10 with not just one, but two new aircraft. This is a laughable idea that we labeled as vaporware at the time, considering the USAF doesn’t have the money to operate the A-10 itself – an aircraft both already paid for and proven to be the least expensive manned tactical platform in the USAF inventory. Not only that, but the Air Force’s tactical aircraft budget as it sits today will be insolvent by 2021.
Even the Secretary of Air Force has never even seen a proposal for this A-10 replacement plan and said there was no money for such an initiative even if there was one. Yet once again, the press ran wild with the story, with major news outlets and military bloggers alike offering little skepticism about yet another new airplane program emanating from an already broke Air Force.
Now, with a seemingly pragmatic Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein, settling into his new role, hopefully the days of the USAF pitting the A-10 and the F-35 against each other will be coming to an end. With that rivalry dispatched, we'd finally rid ourselves of the fiscally unsupported propaganda surrounding the possibility of an A-10 replacement.
Don't expect the A-10’s future to be decided until after the election. With money on the line, it won't just be the new President and a new cabinet pulling the strings; a new paradigm in Congress will also impact the USAF’s force structure plans – including the fate of the A-10 Warthog.
The USAF is unlikely to end its offensive against the A-10, even if they punt its retirement date slightly into the future. After buying themselves a little time, and waiting for the political and foreign policy winds to change in their favor, the “boys in blue” will go after the Warthog again. The back stabbing has long been a fact of life for the A-10, as the flying branch has tried time and time again to slaughter the ‘Hog. Even as the Air Force Material Command tries to mitigate the risk of a change in the A-10’s looming retirement plan, other USAF commands are taking aggressive measures in an effort to prepare for life after the A-10, one where the Air Force would no longer have a community dedicated to the close air support mission set.
So sorry folks, don’t believe everything you read. Despite demand, the Warthog’s future is still very much in doubt, and we probably won’t get a clearer view of its fate until after the election and the passage of the Pentagon’s 2018 budget.
Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com