While the U.S. Air Force Tried to Kill the A-10, Officials Struggled to Keep the Jets Airborne
Conflicting policies starved the Warthog of upgrades
U.S. Air Force leaders do their best to present a single viewpoint regarding the A-10 Warthog. To hear them tell it, the aircraft is worn out, vulnerable and has to go. Anyone who disagrees is ruled by personal biases and emotions.
“I would be disappointed if the people who flew the A-10, if the people who train with the A-10 weren’t emotional about this,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told reporters at the Pentagon on Jan. 15, 2015. “[But] for the Air Force, it’s not an emotional issue.”
However, an official Air Combat Command history reveals that Air Force polices and instructions regarding the A-10 were often confusing, conflicting or missing altogether. The flying branch wanted to retire the aircraft–but high demand from the war in Afghanistan and pressure from Congress blocked the move.
In the meantime, the Warthog starved in want of needed upgrades. And rather than let subjective feelings guide their decisions, it was the officials in charge of the A-10 fleet who focused on the cold, hard facts to keep the aircraft from literally falling out of the sky.
War Is Boring obtained a heavily redacted copy of the history through the Freedom of Information Act.
Since the Warthog first entered service in 1977, the Air Force has tried to retire the plane. More recently, the flying branch claimed that it needed to send the jets to the boneyard to free up funds for the troublesome F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The Air Force just plain dislikes the Warthog. The reasons are partly practical and partly philosophical. As a heavily-armed ground attacker, the A-10 plays a supporting role to the Army and Marines. More practically, Air Force officials argue that the Warthog would not survive in a war with a “near-peer” adversary–i.e. Russia or China–armed with the latest radars and anti-aircraft missiles.
“The A-10 underwent a tumultuous year in 2013,” is how the official history begins its section on the Warthog. The service pressed hard that year to retire the plane, and the issue was closely debated during confirmation hearings for Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.
But while the public debate raged, the planes were flying life-saving missions in Afghanistan. With their 30-millimeter Gatling gun, missiles and bombs, the aircraft flew critical missions for American troops on the ground. During one battle on July 24, 2013, the Air Force credited two Warthogs with saving 60 soldiers during a Taliban ambush.
With the planes in high demand, program officials back in the United States “struggled to balance the senior leader desire to plan for the divestiture [of the A-10] and the necessity to maintain fleet effectiveness and viability while the argument played out,” according to the annual historical review. “This proved difficult … as funding was hard to come by.”
Most importantly, the A-10 Weapon System Team needed to figure out how to buy more wings for the Warthogs. Without the replacement spans, the aircraft would need to be grounded in three or four years or they risked crashing. But with the new wings, the Warthogs will be airworthy for another two decades or more.
In 2007, the Air Force had awarded Boeing a $1.1 billion contract to install the new wings. Five years later, Congress slashed funds for the project because of poor performance. But the service had already waited until the last possible moment for the upgrades.
“The A-10 fleet received no money for major modifications or programmed depot maintenance during the 1990s,” the Government Accountability Office discovered right before the Warthogs began receiving their new spans.
By 2013, the Air Force did not have the funds to pay for wings on 101 Warthogs–out of a total of 283 jets. The Air Force had no money allotted for 55 units to meet even its own basic requirement of refurbishing just 228 aircraft.
Curiously, the wings were not that expensive by Air Force standards … and compared to the alternative. Contractors in charge of installing the new wings warned the Air Force that it would cost more than $1.5 billion to keep the jets with the old spans safe to fly. In turn, they estimated the cost of upgrading all of the unmodified aircraft to be less than $500 million.
But with no clear instructions from their superiors, the Air Force’s program offices held off making any requests for new funding. Boeing ended up on the hook to replace the wings on fewer than 200 A-10s by the end of 2017.
When it came to getting updates for the Warthog’s Operation Flight Program software–a.k.a. OFP–the officials found themselves in a similar predicament. At the time, the Air Force was installing the software package Suite 7b on all A-10Cs–the most up to date version of the jet in the fleet.
“As senior leaders continued to discuss the future disposition of the A-10 fleet … [program officers] lacked clear guidance of how to proceed with the necessary OFP developments in the upcoming years,” the annual history noted.
The developments in question were the two more planned software packages–known as Suite 8 and Suite 9. As far as the Warthog’s two program offices were concerned, the code was critical for the aircraft regardless of whether the Air Force was planning to ditch the jets in the future.
The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center–in charge of overseeing repairs and upgrades for every plane in the service–offered a number of suggestions. The contractors could continue working on Suites 8 and 9 as planned, the Air Force could cancel some portion of the upgrades or do the future code work itself.
But all of the proposals “carried risks and unknowns for the future of the A-10,” the historical summary explained.
On Oct. 22, 2013, Wayne Fisher, the Deputy Chief of Air Combat Command’s Combat Forces Division, told the A-10 Systems Program Office to keep everyone at work on Suite 8. But Fisher said this plan was based in part on “retaining the ability to advocate for funding that is also in line with the current USAF position.”
That position was that the A-10 had to go. So less than a month later, reports circulated that the flying branch was trying to cut funds for any code updates, effectively killing the project. In the midst of this conflicting information, “the A-10 OFP team continued push for all required funds necessary to complete … Suite 8,” the historical overview stated.
“At the end of the year, it remained to be seen whether or not the necessary funding for the planned way ahead would be attained,” the report added.
In February 2014, congressional pressure–primarily from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican and outspoken supporter of the Warthog–forced Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James to reinstate the funds for the new software.
Despite the Air Force’s attempts to get rid of the planes, Warthogs backed up American and other friendly troops in Afghanistan until combat operations formally ended there on Jan. 1. More recently, the straight-winged jets and their powerful guns became a welcome sight for coalition forces fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Six months ago, the Pentagon sent a contingent of A-10s from the 355th Fighter Wing to Germany. On Aug. 11, the Air Force announced that a dozen more Warthogs were on their way to the continent to train with NATO allies and other friends in the region.
Unfortunately, despite the jet’s continually expanding combat record in the Middle East and its role staring down Russia in Europe, the A-10’s future remains just as uncertain now as it was two years ago. The Air Force still hopes to begin phasing out the jets–upgrades included–in 2016 as it takes delivery of its first combat-ready F-35s.