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Op-Ed: The A-10 Warthog is still the Air Force’s favorite target

(Air Force)

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The A-10 Warthog has had a very interesting past three weeks. On May 23, President Trump’s first defense budget for FY2018 appeared to fully protect the current fleet of A-10s from being reduced in size or even retired as the Air Force has repeatedly tried to do. June 2, a report showed that the A-10 had delivered the second largest number of weapons against ISIS since Operation Inherent Resolve began despite being absent from the mission for the first three months. Then on June 7, the Air Force made public that is planning on slashing the number of combat coded A-10 squadrons from nine to six.

Once again, the A-10 is riding the Warthog vs the Air Force roller coaster. Since the most recent effort began in 2014 to eliminate the entire A-10 inventory, it has become an annual struggle between Congress and the Air Force to keep the A-10 flying. Thus far, Congressional support has overcome Air Force shortsightedness as the service tries to squeeze every dollar into bringing the F-35 fully on board. The F-35, however, is at least a year away from being fully combat capable, while the A-10 has been flying combat missions around the world since Desert Storm in 1991.

Last week’s announcement that the Air Force was looking to slash almost one-third of its A-10s was a surprise to almost everyone, including Rep. Martha McSally who broached the subject during a House Armed Services hearing on Combat Aviation Modernization and the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Request. McSally is quite familiar with the A-10, being a former Warthog pilot and the first woman in U.S. history to fly a combat mission and to command a fighter squadron. As expected, she has been a stout supporter to keep the A-10 part of the Air Force. “It’s the first time you’ve publicly said that you are going to go down to six squadrons,” McSally told Air Force officials during the hearing. “I’d really like to know what those planning assumptions are of the six squadrons… From my view and my experience, if we need that capability until a proven, tested replacement comes along, nine squadrons is the absolute minimum.”

This time, wings are at the center of the new attempt to reduce the A-10 fleet. Of the current 283 A-10s the Air Force owns, 173 have had new wings built by Boeing and are now estimated to be flight-worthy until 2030. The remaining 110 Warthogs will need new wings to remain part of the inventory, and while the Air Force has dragged their feet before with earlier A-10 re-winging efforts, this decision to shut down three squadrons is an attempt to force the hand of Congress. If Congress is set on keeping the A-10, then the funds for new wings must be made available for that specific purpose and not stripped from other funding goals the Air Force has. If funding is not granted, then the Air Force will move one step closer to its long-standing goal of eliminating the Warthog.

The Warthog still has a place in the Air Force alongside the F-35, and should for many years until a replacement arrives or the F-35 finally demonstrates that it can do close air support better than the A-10. The F-35 may get its chance at that, proving that next year when it is expected that the long-awaited A-10 versus F-35 fly-off will occur. It will be very interesting to see how the series of weapons tests are set up and what grading criteria will be used. It is hard to imagine the Air Force allowing its “golden child” to lose to its geriatric competitor.

The A-10 is a survivor. The Air Force never wanted the Warthog but chose to accept the plane simply to keep the U.S. Army out of the fixed wing aircraft business, and thus deny the Army a slice of Air Force funding. The A-10 has always been the unwanted child of America’s youngest military branch. Loved by the pilots that fly it and the troops on the ground that it protects, the A-10 has seemingly always been fighting to keep flying and repeatedly saved by its performance in war. The A-10 has always been able to finish a fight whether over Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria or deep within the corridors of Washington, D.C.

Gary Wetzel is an experienced military aviation photographer and writer. He is the author of two books on A-10 combat operations in Afghanistan and a U.S. Navy veteran, having served aboard fast-attack submarines as a sonar technician.