U.S. Senators Accuse the Air Force of Trying to Sneakily Kill A-10s
Missive suggests old shenanigans are new again
A group of senators has accused the U.S. Air Force of trying to sneakily kill the A-10 Warthog ground attack plane. Despite demands from Congress and American commanders on the front lines, the letter alleges the flying branch is cutting maintenance necessary to keep the planes airworthy.
On Oct. 9, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Arizona Sen. John McCain and eight of their colleagues sent the angry missive to Air Force Secretary Deborah James. The lawmakers wanted to know why the Air Force is cutting back on critical maintenance and otherwise sidelining the low- and slow-flying aircraft.
The Air Force is prohibited by law from retiring the Warthog.
First, over the last two years, the Air Force has significantly reduced A-10 depot level maintenance funding and A-10 depot level entries. From fiscal year (FY) 2014 to FY 2015, A-10 depot level maintenance funding was cut from $79.4 million to $47.5 million — a 40 percent reduction. Similarly, A-10 depot level entries fell from 29 in FY 2014 to 24 in FY 2015.
This dramatic cut in the Air Force’s support for A-10 depot level maintenance has created an A-10 readiness deficit that endangers the Air Force’s ability to provide a sufficient number of deployable A-10s to meet combatant commander requirements. In a written response to one of our offices, the Air Force admitted that a need for depot level maintenance in FY 2017 will reduce the number of A-10s available for deployment.
For FY 2016, we appreciate that the Air Force reversed this decline in support for A-10 depot level maintenance funding by requesting $156.9 million to support a projected 26 A-10 depot level entries. However, we believe that number is insufficient to repair the damage to A-10 readiness caused by the shortfall in depot level maintenance, coupled with a high operations tempo, in FY 2015. It is our understanding that at least 31 A-10 depot level entries are required to satisfy projected combatant commander requirements. Furthermore, we understand that approximately 50 A-10 depot level entries in FY 2017 and 43 in FY 2018 are required to meet projected combatant commander requirements.
Of course, the Air Force has made no secret of its desire to get rid of the A-10, which is designed solely to support troops on the ground. Since the straight-winged plane first entered service in 1976, the flying branch has consistently pushed for its retirement.
But if true, this is hardly the first time the service has withheld vital repairs and upgrades in order to try and limit the abilities of the A-10 fleet. In 2007, the Government Accountability Office noted the negative outcomes of this strategy:
Significant investments are underway and others planned or proposed to modernize 356 A-10s and to extend service life from 8,000 to 16,000 flying hours in order to achieve the goal of keeping the aircraft in service until 2025 or later. However, because of post-Cold War plans to retire the aircraft starting in the early 1990s, the A-10 fleet received no money for major modifications or programmed depot maintenance during the 1990s. As a result, the Air Force is now faced with a very large backlog of maintenance, structural repairs and extensive modifications to modernize the A-10 fleet and keep it viable. Officials have begun major upgrades to modernize the cockpit and major subsystems and to replace the wings on most of the fleet. Officials are also finding that as older aircraft are inspected and opened up for modification, additional and more costly structural and sustainment work is being identified beyond initial plans.
Even with the higher priority accorded the aircraft, program officials identify at least another $2.7 billion in unfunded requirements. Chief among these are an engine upgrade program estimated at $2.1 billion. It is intended to provide the A-10 with significantly improved engine capabilities. However, the proposal was deferred by the requiring command because of limited funding and higher warfighter priorities. The Air Force’s Fleet Viability Board, which assesses aging aircraft fleets and recommends to the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force whether aircraft should be retired or continued in service, recently determined that the A-10 is still viable and validated many of the modifications and repairs already underway. The Board recommended funding this engine upgrade in order to extend the A-10’s service life until 2030. The Board’s assessment identified mission limitations due to insufficient thrust to maximize survivability in the current threat environment with existing engines. Although agreeing that the engine upgrade would be desirable if funds were available, the requiring command continues to defer this program as a lower priority. We note that the Air Force has requested development funding of $230 million for the engine upgrade program in the 2008 supplemental request.
On top of holding up preventive maintenance, the Air Force is keeping Warthogs on the flight line in name only by placing them on so-called “XJ” status:
Second, according to a May 5, 2015, memorandum signed by then-Major General John Cooper, the Air Force has removed the 18 backup aircraft inventory (BAI) A-10s from an active inventory status and placed them in an “XJ” status. While Congress authorized the Air Force in Section 134 of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to move a limited number of A-10s to “back up flying status”, Congress did not authorize the Air Force to remove them from an active inventory status and place them on “XJ” status.
There is a difference in the readiness of aircraft on BAI or “back up flying status” versus aircraft on “XJ” status. This is not just a difference in semantics. As the title makes clear-consistent with widespread practice and understanding across the Air Force and consistent with Air Force Instruction 16-402-aircraft on “back up flying status” or BAI status are periodically flown in order to maintain readiness. However, as the May 5 memo makes clear, the A-10s on “XJ” status will not be flown. As you know, the maintenance condition and readiness of aircraft that are not flown progressively deteriorates-even if the aircraft undergoes periodic ground maintenance. In other words, the Air Force has reduced the A-10 to a lower state of readiness that Congress did not authorize and that is inconsistent with Congressional intent. According to Air Force Instruction 21-103, the Air Force defines “XJ” status as “excess to the requirements of the possessing command” and “awaiting disposition instructions.” In the Air Force’s written response, please tell us whether the Air Force considers the A-10s placed on “XJ” status as “excess to the requirements.”
Also referred to as “warm storage,” the Air Force doesn’t regularly fly aircraft with the “XJ” notation and only gives them the bare minimum of maintenance attention. The flying branch generally uses this status for planes with expired inspection information, where manpower cuts or shifts prevent routine work — or if there just isn’t enough money to get them back to regular flying duties.
If any of this is true, then the service has only itself to blame. The Air Force is seeking to cut the A-10 fleet ostensibly to free up funds for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. And in February, the flying branch moved 18 Warthogs into backup storage specifically so repair crews could go help with the stealth fighters.
In the final version of the 2016 defense budget, legislators included a specific provision to prevent the Air Force from gutting the blunt-nosed, hard-hitting planes, which are currently flying combat missions in the Middle East and regularly deploying to Europe in the face of an increasingly belligerent Russia.
But this latest letter shows the battle over the future of the A-10 is far from over.