The U.S. Air Force didn’t think through its recent plan to send the A-10 ground attack plane to the boneyard, according to government auditors.
A new report from the Government Accountability Office concluded, “The Department of Defense (DOD) and Air Force do not have quality information on the full implications of A-10 divestment, including gaps that could be created by A-10 divestment and mitigation options.”
To recap, the service — driven in part by spending caps known as sequestration — proposed retiring its fleet of 283 Thunderbolt IIs (more popularly known as Warthogs) as part of its fiscal 2015 and 2016 budget submissions. (Never mind, for a moment, that its 2014 spending plan proposed keeping the Cold War-era plane in the inventory through 2035.)
Led by lawmakers from Arizona and other states with high numbers of the aircraft, Congress nixed the idea and the Air Force in its most recent budget request partially acquiesced by proposing to delay the A-10 divestiture until at least 2022.
Now, government bean counters are detailing just how ill-advised they think the Air Force plan really is.
For one, they say, the service hasn’t property accounted for how other aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter made by Lockheed Martin Corp. will be ready to assume and carry out the missions currently flown by the A-10.
“The Air Force plans to replace A-10 squadrons one-for-one with F-35 squadrons in order to mitigate the drop in fighter capacity projected under the original A-10 divestment proposal,” the report states. “However, Air Force documentation reveals that the loss of A-10 squadrons will outpace the F-35 squadron gain, with eight A-10 squadrons divested by the end of the 5-year budget plan but only six F-35 squadrons stood up.”
This issue is particularly acute in South Korea, where the Air Force had planned to divest an A-10 squadron in fiscal 2019 without replacement — creating a gap in the ability to defeat the threat from North Korean armor, according to GAO.
What’s more, combatant commanders note the A-10 “brings useful and unique capabilities to the battlefield” and even Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has said the airplane has “devastated” targets affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, according to GAO.
And with its ability to carry a diverse array of weapons — bombs, Maverick missiles, rockets and its iconic 30mm cannon — the aircraft can attack moving targets on the ground and at sea, auditors say.
While the Warthog is “a single seat fixed-wing platform specifically designed for close air support and defeating enemy armor,” it actually has three primary missions, including close air support, forward air controller and combat search and rescue; and two secondary missions, including air interdiction and counter fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft (CFF), the report states.
The latter refers to the mission to counter groups of small boats using swarming tactics to attack maritime assets — and the Air Force’s own analysis from 2014 concluded, “the A-10 is the best single Air Force platform for the CFF mission,” the report states.
For its part, the Air Force disagreed, or non-concurred, with the GAO’s recommendations and argued that it was well aware that divesting the A-10 would create capability gaps but that the plan “the most acceptable strategy to remain within the Air Force budget authority while controlling risk across all Air Force mission sets.”