New sets of sturdier wings that will extend the A-10 Thunderbolt’s service life for thousands of flight hours are arriving even as the U.S. Air Force continues to push plans for putting the close air support jets out to pasture.
Boeing delivered 173 wing assemblies under an initial re-winging effort completed in 2017. The production line lay dormant before the Air Force ordered new wing sets in 2019. In partnership with Korean Aerospace Industries, Boeing announced the delivery of the first of 50 new wing sets on order to Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, on May 25. Air Force maintainers have already begun integrating the more durable wings onto an A-10, according to Boeing.
The Air Force has 281 A-10s in its current fleet, though it plans to divest 21 in fiscal year 2023 if Congress allows it. The A-10 is the cheapest aircraft to operate in the Air Force's tactical jet portfolio.
Each wing set consists of outer wing assemblies, center wing assembly, control surfaces, and a fuselage integration kit designed to extend an A-10’s service life to 10,000 flight hours from about 8,000 hours, and possibly well beyond.
"Boeing is working diligently to deliver greatly needed new wings for the A-10 fleet," Lt. Col. Jaclyn Melton, materiel leader for A-10 Programs in the A-10 System Program Office at Hill Air Force Base, said in a prepared statement. Boeing is under a contract with a maximum value of $999 million to produce up to 112 wing sets and spare kits through 2030.
Boeing was awarded that contract in August 2019 and was able to resurrect the production line from a “dry” status, with tools and equipment in long-term storage within a year. The company is now in full-rate production to meet the Air Force’s prescribed schedule of A-10 upgrades, said Dan Gillian, Boeing’s vice president of U.S. government services.
Even replacing another 50 wing sets may not be enough to revive the fleet.
Still, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) last month that the service plans to buy wing kits for 218 A-10s, even as it seeks to retire 21 of the aircraft in its fiscal year 2023 spending plan. It has requested that the Indiana Air National Guard's 122nd Fighter Wing transition to flying F-16C/D as part of this reduction. The service also laid out plans to divest the remaining A-10s over the next five to 10 years.
“The A-10 is a great platform for a [permissive] environment,” Brown told HASC during the April 27 hearing. “I don’t see very many [permissive] environments that we’re going to roll into in the future.”
Congress already blocked a plan to divest 42 Warthogs in the current fiscal year, the fifth time since 2014 lawmakers saved all or part of the Warthog fleet from the chopping block.
Brown has defended the service’s so-called “4+1” fighter construct and his desire to retire the A-10, represented by the “+1” in that equation. Brown reiterated that the A-10 is not survivable against a peer military and that it sucks up resources from the F-35 and other multirole systems while performing the single mission of close air support.
In a recent briefing that was made public by the Project on Government Oversight, Pamela Lee, the A-10 systems manager at Hill Air Force Base, said the Air Force has “resourced the A-10 to divest yet flew it like an enduring fleet, rapidly accelerating [the] decline toward today’s hollowing fleet.” Information contained in that briefing indicates the Air Force has taken actions since at least 2014 that have "hollowed" the A-10 fleet through "demolition by neglect" and made efforts to re-wing some of the aircraft increasingly moot. The briefing obtained by POGO, which the Air Force has confirmed is genuine, indicates the service is not only interested in getting rid of the A-10 by fiscal year 2028, but is using that as a planning assumption.
The re-winging of 173 A-10s (which has now been completed) would leave the remaining 145 aircraft unable to fly a six-month deployment, according to Lee. Aside from needing new wings, the Air Force has cut in half the number of A-10s scheduled for depot-level maintenance, particularly repairs to the main fuselage that was delayed for years. Warthogs also are suffering from aging engine nacelles that could represent a more dire threat than structural issues with its wings, Lee said.
Questions over what to do with the A-10, a specialized aircraft built around its massive GAU-8 Avenger 30mm Gatling gun for killing Soviet tanks in European battles that never materialized, cropped up almost as soon as the aircraft fielded. The Air Force considered retiring the A-10 as early as 1984, shortly after production was completed, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report published in 2015.
At the time, the Air Force was concerned that the A-10 could not survive 1990s-era Soviet air defenses, and its mission should instead go to F-16C/D Viper jets. Since a renewed push to retire the A-10 in the fiscal 2015 budget cycle, the Air Force has reasoned that continued maintenance of the A-10 fleet has stymied fielding of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and wanted that the Warthog still is not survivable against high-end threats like those Russia and China possess. For its part, the A-10 community has been exploring novel ways the aircraft could contribute to a higher-end fight by carrying standoff weapons.
Then-USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III in 2014 said the Air Force would save $3.7 billion across the five-year future-year defense budget running through 2020 and another $500 million in cost avoidance for upgrades that wouldn't be necessary. As if on cue, the Air Force has floated some plan to retire a portion or all of the A-10 fleet in its annual budget request, and every year the proposal meets immediate congressional resistance.
Bowing to sentimentality over the aircraft, which flew 8,084 sorties during the First Gulf War and endeared itself to another generation of ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress repeatedly came to the A-10’s rescue. Supporters of the aircraft have also argued it is the only jet platform in the U.S. arsenal explicitly designed for close air support.
Having survived the Air Force budget ax more than a dozen times, Warthogs likely will fly air support for U.S. troops for at least a few more years. But the absurd reality of deeply upgrading a huge part of the A-10 fleet at great expense so that it can serve for many years to come, while the service it belongs to wants it totally gone in five years is a reminder of how baffling the defense procurement and force structure debate can become in Washington. The cold reality is that if the Air Force gets what it wants, it would have spent hundreds of millions of dollars extending the life of an aircraft it plans on throwing away long before even a fraction of that usefulness is consumed.
Contact the author: Dan@thewarzone.com