No, the A-10 Is Not Holding Back the F-35
Fed auditors blast Air Force’s baseless Warthog retirement plan
Two years ago, the U.S. Air Force annoyed the other military branches, Congress and the general public when it announced a plan to quickly retire its roughly 300 A-10 Warthog attack jets — rugged tank-killers that have flown down-and-dirty close air support, or CAS, for American ground troops since the 1991 Gulf War.
The Air Force’s rationale for dumping the A-10s keeps shifting. Now government auditors have poked holes in the flyboys’ latest justification — that the branch must drop the ungainly Warthogs in order to free up maintainers for the slowly-growing fleet of pricey F-35 stealth fighters.
Amid public outcry and skepticism from the Army, Congress rejected the Air Force’s A-10 “divestiture” scheme in the 2014 and 2015 budgets — and seems likely to do the same in 2016. The flying branch has tried out different tactics to penetrate this solid wall of opposition.
First, the Air Force claimed it couldn’t afford the billion dollars or so a year it costs to keep the A-10s in the air. The plane’s defenders pointed out that the brute-simple Warthog is actually one of the cheapest warplanes to operate — $19,000 per flying hour, compared to $68,000 per hour for the F-35.
So the Air Force tweaked its argument, insisting the Warthog can’t survive over today’s dangerous battlefields. But then, accepting reality, the flying branch deployed A-10s to the Middle East to help wage the war on Islamic State and sent some of the cannon-armed Warthogs on a tour of Eastern Europe to try to frighten the Russians.
The Air Force basically called its own bluff.
Starting in late 2014, the branch tried out its latest and most eyebrow-raising justification for cutting the low- and slow-flying attackers. The Air Force explained that the squadrons of new F-35 stealth fighters standing up at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona must have the A-10’s maintenance personnel — and soon.
The Air Force claimed that if the F-35 program doesn’t get at least 800 maintainers from A-10 units in 2015, the branch’s first squadron of radar-evading F-35As won’t be ready for combat in December 2016, as the generals have been promising.
It was always an odd assertion, as the Air Force has been cutting other warplanes besides the F-35 —including Predator drones, C-130 transports and F-15 and F-16 fighters — and could poach personnel from those squadrons … or from less essential, non-flying units.
Plus, no prior plans for standing up F-35 squadrons, going back years, required prematurely retiring A-10s. The F-35 has been in development since the late 1990s.
Now the Government Accountability Office, the feds’ official auditing agency, has shot gaping holes in the Air Force’s bizarre claim. In a June 25 report, the GAO points out that the only analytical backing for the manpower justification, as thin as it is, comes from the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Capabilities Assessment and Program Evaluation report, or CAPE — a document dated January 2015.
“The issue of how to best fill F-35 maintenance personnel needs — the subject of the CAPE report — was not a factor in the Air Force budget decision” to get rid of the A-10 in 2013, the GAO explains. “The CAPE report was issued more than a year after the Air Force made its decision to divest the A-10 and therefore was not part of the context in which the decision was made.”
For good measure, the GAO also blasts the original budgetary justification for retiring the Warthog. “Our analysis found that the Air Force’s estimated savings are incomplete and may overstate or understate the actual figure. For example, A-10 divestment could increase the operational tempo of remaining CAS-capable aircraft, which could increase costs related to extending the service lives of those remaining CAS-capable aircraft.”
With the auditors and, ahem, reality canceling out all the official justifications, it should be obvious to any half-attentive observer that the Air Force’s true reasons for wanting to dump the A-10 are rooted in the flying branch’s culture … and the organizational biases of its senior leaders.
“I can’t wait to be relieved of the burdens of close air support,” Maj. Gen. James Post, the vice commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, allegedly told a group of officers at a training session in August 2014.
It seems the brass just don’t like the unglamorous Warthog and its unglamorous mission.