Air Force officials have vowed that there were no plans to retire the entire A-10 fleet
The Air Force has paid for new wings for 173 aircraft, but doesn't have funding for another 110
The US Air Force is telling Congress to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to upgrading the venerable A-10 Warthog fleet.
As the service rolled out its budget this year, Air Force officials vowed there were no plans to retire the entire A-10 fleet – despite previous attempts – but that doesn’t mean all of the planes in the fleet are safe.
The Air Force has warned Congress that more than a third of the 283 A-10 attack aircraft fleet may have to be permanently grounded unless Congress increases the Air Force’s budget to restart the production line that makes new wings for the planes.
The Air Force has paid for new wings needed to extend the life of 173 A-10 aircraft, but does not have the funding for the other 110 in the fleet, and about 40 would have to be grounded by 2021 unless additional funds are allocated, according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.
The Air Force didn’t include money for the extra wings in its latest budget request. But it did drop in a $103 million request on its so-called “wish list” for A-10 wings.
The wish lists, known officially as unfunded requirements, are provided to Congress to request money for programs that didn’t get funded in the military’s budget request.
Boeing, which made the new wings for the A-10, has since shut down their plant line. The Air Force’s $103 million request, along with $20 million provided in the current fiscal year, would pay for opening a new line and the production of four new wings, an Air Force official told CNN.
Defense budget experts say the move to include the plane’s wings on its unfunded requirements list resembles a tactic often employed by the military to push Congress to add in funding for politically popular programs, giving the services more room to maneuver within the budget request.
“It’s a classic budgetary tactic to not include funding for something you know Congress is going to make you fund,” said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It effectively puts the onus on Congress to find an offset rather than the Air Force. The Air Force is hoping that Congress will pay for this by giving the Air Force additional funds and cutting something elsewhere in the budget, but there is no guarantee of that. If it was truly a high priority, it would have made it into the regular budget request,” Harrison said.
For years, the Navy included F/A-18 fighter jets on its unfunded requirements list but not the budget, which Congress then added into the final appropriations bill.
The issue of the A-10 wing funding came to a head last week during congressional testimony.
Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, an Air Force acquisition official, testified to Congress that the Air Force was committed to maintaining six of its nine A-10 squadrons flying through 2030.
“Additional A-10 force structure is contingent on future budget levels and force structure requirements,” Bunch wrote in his written testimony.
Rep. Martha McSally, a former A-10 pilot who has been one of the most vocal defenders of the aircraft in Congress, pressed the Air Force to explain why it was considering dropping to just six squadrons.
“It’s the first time you’ve publicly said that you’re going to go down to six squadrons,” McSally said. “I’d really like to know what those planning assumptions are of the six squadrons.”
Her questions, however, were only submitted for the record, since the hearing was ended due to House votes.
Lawmakers have wrestled with how to replace the A-10 for years – a tall task due to the aircraft’s continued effectiveness despite making its first flight in 1975.
The Air Force had originally planned for its version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to replace the A-10.
But unlike the multi-role F-35, the A-10 is the only airplane in the Air Force specifically designed for close-air support, a function that has become urgent in the fight against ISIS, according to Air Force officials.
The A-10 is able to target enemy forces up close without risking friendly fire casualties because the pilots are flying slow enough to visually distinguish between enemy and friendly forces.
Last year, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said there were plans to defer the A-10’s retirement until 2022, at which point it would be replaced by the F-35.
But while the first wave of F-35s are currently being deployed for combat, the program’s history of delays and cost overruns has caused the Pentagon to consider extending the operational life of the A-10 to meet the demands of the counter-ISIS mission.
Air Force officials are also downplaying the idea that the retirement of several A-10 squadrons is imminent pointing out that the service is still evaluating options for funding additional wings.
In the U.S. Air Force fleet
Congressional aides predict the money is likely to be included in the defense authorization and appropriations bills, as the A-10 has been a stalwart among lawmakers and has played a key role in the ISIS fight.
Though with the topline of the Pentagon’s budget still a very uncertain, nothing is a sure bet.