Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Frank Kendall did not outright reject the idea of transferring A-10 Warthog ground attack jets to Ukraine when asked about that possibility earlier today. His comments came after Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown said separately that the Ukrainian Air Force will eventually have to start moving away from their Soviet-era combat jets and that whatever comes next will "be something non-Russian."
Kendall and Brown both made their comments at the annual Aspen Security Forum today. The conference opened yesterday and is set to run through the end of the week. To date, only the U.S. Air Force has operated A-10s, an iconic close support aircraft known primarily for its massive GAU-8/A Avenger 30mm cannon and heavy armor.
"What is it that the Air Force ... needs to let go of?" The Washington Post's David Ignatius, who served as the moderator Kendall's talk at Aspen, asked the Air Force Secretary.
"The venerable A-10 ... is not a system that we are going to need against the kinds of adversaries we're concerned about most now," Kendall responded, in part.
In its most recent budget request for the 2023 Fiscal Year, the Air Force asked for authority to retire 21 Warthogs during that period. These aircraft have certainly proven to be useful in the past two decades or so when supporting low-intensity combat operations in permissive environments, but there are increasing questions about their utility in any future higher-end conflicts in contested airspace.
"A parenthetical thought. Why don't we give those A-10s to Ukraine?" Ignatius then asked after Kendall finished with his full answer to the initial question.
"General Brown addressed that question this morning about what fighters Ukraine might be interested in. That's largely up to Ukraine. ... Older U.S. systems are a possibility," Kendall said in response. "We will be open to discussions with them on what their requirements are and how we might be able to satisfy them."
You can watch the entire discussion between The Washington Post's David Ignatius and Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall at the 2022 Aspen Security Forum below.
"I can't speculate what aircraft they may go to," Gen. Brown had said when he was asked a question about U.S.-based training for Ukrainian pilots during his own separate talk at Aspen. "It'll be something non-Russian."
Brown did note that European offerings, as well as American ones, could be possibilities.
Last week, members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to include approval for funding for the training of Ukrainian fighter pilots in a draft of the annual defense policy bill, or National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for the 2023 Fiscal Year. That legislation still needs to be finalized, then reconciled with a separate version now advancing in the Senate, before Congress can put it to a final vote, after which it could go to President Joe Biden's desk to be signed into law.
Kendall and Brown's remarks today are notably different from the responses they gave to questions about sending A-10s to Ukraine in March, where both individuals more pointedly stressed that there were no active plans to do or even discussions about the possibility of such a transfer.
“I’m not aware of any current plan, or even any discussion of a current plan to field or provide A-10s to the Ukrainians,” Kendall had told reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, according to Breaking Defense.
“I’m not aware of any discussions or plans inside the United States Air Force to provide A-10s to Ukraine,” Brown said at the same event.
The matter of sending A-10s, as well as other western combat jets, to Ukraine has certainly been raised multiple times since Russia launched its all-out invasion in February. So far, the Biden administration has resisted these calls, which have come from members of Congress, Ukrainian officials and members of that country's military, and the general public, among others. U.S. authorities have typically cited concerns about how such deliveries could escalate the conflict and increase the risk of spillover outside of Ukraine.
That attitude has been steadily changing in recent weeks, including with the transfer of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) along with precision-guided rounds and plans to send medium-range National Advanced Surface to Air Missile Systems (NASAMS). The potential delivery of systems like these to Ukrainian forces had been seen as totally off-limits just a few months ago.
On Monday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov Tweeted out that he had spoken with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and that his American counterpart had "some very good news, but details will come a little later." This, of course, could just be a reference to the U.S. government's new pledge today to send more HIMARS, which have had a notable impact on the conflict already.
Not long ago, the very idea of sending A-10s to Ukraine, or anywhere else, would have been a largely moot conversation. Congress has for years blocked the Air Force from divesting any of its Warthogs, with legislators continually demanding assurances first that the service will not lose critical close air support capabilities as a result of any decision. This long-standing position is now softening. The current version of the House's NDAA acquiesces to the Air Force's proposal to retire 21 A-10s in the coming fiscal year. The Senate Armed Services Committee announced on Monday that theirs does, too.
Other potential political hurdles look to have disappeared, as well. In 2003, the Air Force argued against a potential lease of A-10 aircraft to the Colombian Air Force in part because of concerns about blowback from the State Department, which had asked about acquiring a fleet of Warthogs for conversion into armored platforms to spray herbicides in support of counter-narcotics operations in Latin America.
By all indications, the State Department's Air Wing, a large if obscure organization that you can read more about here, looks to have moved beyond any interest it might have had in using A-10s for this purpose. It acquired a number of former U.S. military OV-10 Broncos and converted them into armored spray aircraft before divesting them in favor of modified commercial crop dusters.
Of course, whether or not Ukraine receives any A-10s still very much remains to be seen. The concerns the Air Force has about the Warthog's vulnerabilities in environments full of higher-end air defenses apply to the conflict in Ukraine, where aircraft on both sides face significant threats on a daily basis. At the same time, the A-10 was built to survive heavy battle damage and be fixed quickly and returned to service. They can also operate from austere airfields with a relatively small footprint. These characteristics all suit Ukraine ideally. It's also worth noting that the Ukrainian Air Force is still flying far less capable Su-25 Frogfoots – a very rough Soviet-era counterpart to the A-10 – on missions daily.
Both American and Ukrainian officials would have to decide how other factors, such as training and logistical requirements, might play into the practicality of transferring any number of A-10s, as well as what weapons would be available to them if they were supplied to Ukrainians. The aircraft has some sensitive systems that would likely need to be removed prior to such a transfer, as well.
With regards to training demands, “thanks to prior military exchange programs, Ukraine already has a small number of pilots trained to fly the A-10,” retired Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who served for a time as head of U.S. European Command (EUCOM), and Kurt Volker, a former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, wrote in an op-ed that the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank published in March. The War Zone has not been able to confirm this.
All this being said, if any A-10s do eventually appear in the skies over Ukraine, it could well help put the debate about their ability to operate in higher-end threat environments to rest for good, for better or worse. At the same time, foisting A-10s off to Ukraine could finally give the Air Force brass the cover it needs to draw down the fleet once and for all.
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