To Tom Norris, a former Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II combat pilot, the Pentagon’s plan to retire the “Warthog” in the next few years is like a coach benching a team’s best player.
“The A-10 right now is kind of like the star quarterback and they are planning to pull the star quarterback out of the game and replace it with a 6-year-old prodigy,” said Norris, a Tucson-area resident who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2008. His 20-plus-year military career included stints as an A-10 pilot at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
The Air Force has proposed retiring the venerable but effective A-10 for budget reasons by 2019, arguing that it’s too expensive for its single mission of aiding and defending troops on the ground. Other aircraft, including the sophisticated new F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter, will pick up that job.
The decision could have deep ramifications for Tucson’s economy because the A-10 is one of D-M’s core missions. Losing 83 A-10s, which is what the Air Force plan calls for, could cost the region an estimated 2,000 jobs and tens of millions of dollars.
Norris and other critics of the proposal, including some members of Congress, say the F-35 — the “6-year-old prodigy” — is problem-plagued, unproven and ill-suited to ground support.
Congress has passed language prohibiting the Pentagon from mothballing the A-10, at least this year. And Air Force brass has said that retirement ban has forced the service to look at other options for cuts.
Air Force officials don’t dispute the lethal effectiveness of the A-10. The homely looking craft was developed as a tank-killer during the Cold War and rolled out in the mid-1970s in expectation of a possible European tank battle. The first ones arrived at D-M in 1975.
Instead, the A-10 saw its first combat action in Operation Desert Storm, destroying hundreds of tanks and other vehicles as the U.S. and its allies rooted Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. More recently, the A-10 has served admirably in the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
In announcing the Pentagon’s budget plans in late February, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the move to scrap the A-10 was “a tough decision.”
“But the A-10 is a 40-year-old single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield,” Hagel said at the time. “It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses.”
Hagel said the advent of precision munitions means other aircraft can now provide effective close air support, “from B-1 bombers to remotely piloted aircraft.” The Air Force has said 80 percent of close air-support missions flown in Iraq and Afghanistan were flown by aircraft other than the A-10, including F-16 fighters and B-1 bombers.
The Pentagon says eliminating the A-10 fleet would save some $3.7 billion, plus about $500 million in “avoided costs” — savings that can only be achieved by cutting the whole fleet, Hagel said.
“Keeping a smaller number of A-10s would only delay the inevitable while forcing worse trade-offs elsewhere,” Hagel said.
Backlash against cuts
There has been strong bipartisan backlash against cutting the A-10 from members of Congress.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., whose husband is a former A-10 pilot, successfully pushed the amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act ordering that the Pentagon “may not retire, prepare to retire, or place in storage” any A-10 aircraft until the Air Force certifies that the F-35 has acquired specific close air-support capabilities.
The issue has become a hot political issue in Arizona. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, has been lobbying to save the A-10; Republican election opponent Martha McSally — a former A-10 pilot — has also decried the move to mothball the attack jet and has criticized Barber for doing too little, too late, to save it.
One leader of the fight to save the A-10 is the Straus Military Re form Project, part of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.
Winslow Wheeler, a former Pentagon budget official who now campaigns against defense waste and inefficiency as director of the Straus project, said the Air Force has been disingenuous in its dismissal of the A-10.
While Air Force officials have portrayed the A-10 as a single-mission luxury it can no longer afford, Wheeler said that even when the F-35 is ready, it won’t be able to match the Warthog’s capabilities close to the ground.
“To think that the F-35 can perform that mission competently is a bad joke,” he said.
The A-10 has seen more than $1 billion in A-10 upgrades in recent years, including the addition of precision-targeting equipment and new wings — upgrades military planners said would keep it flying until 2028.
Cutting the fleet would simply waste that investment, Wheeler said.
The Pentagon contends that the relatively slow and unstealthy Warthog wouldn’t survive future conflicts because it would be a sitting duck for sophisticated air defense systems. Hagel told members of Congress recently that it’s that concern, not money, that is driving the decision to retire the A-10.
Wheeler said the Pentagon is focused on protecting funding for long-range strike weapons like the F-35 and the next-generation bomber, which is still on the drawing board, in preparation for its “pivot” to focus on defense in the Asia-Pacific region.
But our track record for predicting future conflicts is poor, he said. For example, we thought the prospect of large tank battles died with the Cold War — only to have them resurface in Iraq.
“We’ve heard that song many times before,” he said. And recent events like Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and continued saber rattling by North Korea make it foolish to scrap the A-10.
“Half an A-10 fleet is better than none,” he said. “If these guys had any brains, they’d be pulling (A-10) airframes out of the boneyard, not rolling them in.”
Norris, the former A-10 pilot, bristles at the notion that aircraft like the F-16 Fighting Falcon or the F-35 can match the Warthogs’ effectiveness at close air support.
During his deployment in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003, his A-10 unit was called in to protect a small contingent of troops holding the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River in north-central Iraq. The military feared Saddam Hussein would destroy the dam to flood nearby battlefields and disrupt the U.S. attack.
When his squadron arrived, some F-16 and F-15 fighter jets were already there so the A-10s circled above the battle. The fighter jets were having trouble distinguishing enemy combatants from U.S. forces in the close-quarters fight, so the A-10s swooped in slow and low enough to identify friend from foe and quickly ended the threat, Norris said. The A-10 is designed to take a beating, with multiple redundant controls, self-sealing fuel tanks and a titanium tub that surrounds the pilot.
“We got close enough because we weren’t afraid of getting shot at,” said Norris, who flew 41 sorties during Operation Desert Storm and 38 during Operation Iraqi Freedom as an Air Force and Air National Guard pilot.
“In order to do this mission of close air support, you can’t be flying at 30,000 feet looking through a sensor,” he said. The Warthog can safely lay down a rain of gunfire within 15 meters of friendly forces.
Norris disputes the Air Force assertion that the A-10 flew only 20 percent of close air-support missions, contending that the service counted many other types of missions flown by other aircraft.
Painful defense cuts
Many defense experts agree that the A-10 should be mothballed.
In February, four major Washington think tanks — the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for a New American Security and the Center for Strategic and International Studies — all agreed that the fleet should be retired as part of a rough plan for future defense spending.
Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the AEI’s Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies, said the push to can the A-10 shows the tough choices the Pentagon faces to meet budget goals.
“The A-10 is the most visible example of how painful the defense cuts are getting for the Pentagon and for Congress,” said Eaglen, who has worked on defense issues in both houses of Congress as well as at the Pentagon.
“It’s really put the armed forces into a box, because every time Congress rejects one of these decisions but doesn’t provide more money, they’re just going to other priorities, whether it’s (combat) readiness or some other aircraft.”
This year, the Air Force proposed keeping the Global Hawk and retiring the U-2 spy plane, which has been flying since the 1950s. Now the service has said it would have to cut more aircraft like the F-16 if the A-10 doesn’t go.
Air Force deputy chief of staff Maj. Gen. James Jones said that would mean the equivalent of cutting the entire fleet of 66 B-1 bombers or 350 of the roughly 1,000 F-16s. He stressing that those estimates were for equivalent comparisons only, transcript of the media briefing provided by the Air Force shows.
Eaglen said it’s unclear what will happen. Congress rejected the A-10 retirement proposal last year as well as a plan to scrap a new version of the Global Hawk surveillance drone.
The amendment to preserve the A-10 could protect them for now, but the authorization act and the budget itself could be changed through legislation as the budget process progresses.
“It’s tough to say which way this is going to go,” Eaglen said.