When American troops find themselves in precarious positions on the battlefield, there is no better sound than the rumbling engines of an A-10 bringing its 30 mm gun to bear. Pumping out up to 1,174 rounds with incredible accuracy, it can literally mean the difference between life and death for troops who are pinned down.
The A-10 “Warthog” is the world’s premier close air support (CAS) aircraft, tasked to deliver firepower to save American lives in close combat. The Warthog is powerful, survivable and cheap, and its unique capabilities have been crucial in every conflict since Desert Storm. Its home is right here at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. I flew 325 combat hours in the A-10 and had the honor to command D-M’s 354th Fighter Squadron at home and in combat in Afghanistan.
The A-10 was originally scheduled to remain in the Air Force inventory until 2028 and be replaced by the F-35. But current fiscal constraints could result in the Warthog being phased out much sooner. The consequences of an early retirement are severe for national security as well as for Tucson’s economy and future. We need to pay attention.
Should the A-10 be phased out early, it would have a devastating effect on our community. In 2012, Davis-Monthan injected $1.6 billion into the local economy, employed 3,332 civilians and created 4,687 jobs. D-M is the third-largest employer in Southern Arizona (9,100, according to the Star 200), and including families, brings 19,000 personnel into our community. If neither the A-10 nor the F-35 is at D-M, it becomes vulnerable to shutdown in the next round of base closures.
In addition, retiring the A-10 will put American troops at risk by degrading CAS capabilities. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh recently said, “It is cheaper to cut (entire) fleets than to cut a few from a fleet.” When asked whether that meant an end to the A-10, he replied: “Maybe. … I love the A-10, … but we’ve got to make some tough decisions here. It’s a single-mission airplane, essentially. ... If we have multiple-mission airplanes that can do the mission — maybe not as well, but reasonably well — you would look at eliminating the single-mission platform.”
Army troops on the ground under fire likely don’t have the same view. The Senate’s 2014 defense bill directed the Air Force and Army to study whether replacing the A-10 with the F-35 would leave a gap in CAS capability. It is critical that this language survive upcoming House-Senate conference negotiations on the final bill.
Every September, the military services submit a Program Objective Memorandum (POM) to the secretary of defense proposing its resource requirements and programs for the next five years. In last year’s process, the Air Force tried to close five A-10 squadrons (102 aircraft) — 29 percent of the A-10 fleet. Congress intervened and saved three of the squadrons.
I reached out to the Pentagon this week to gauge the risk of the A-10 being phased out early as part of this year’s POM. During these “budget drills,” which I have participated in, it is typical for planners to develop a menu of scenarios of cuts and related savings. They stressed that internal proposals are ongoing and pre-decisional, but all options are on the table due to deep budget cuts. None of the final proposals will go into effect unless approved by Congress and the president.
No decisions have been made yet, but we cannot remain asleep at the wheel. We must wake up, get engaged and be vigilant. Now is the time for us to unite and get a battle plan to fight for the A-10 and preserve Davis-Monthan as a vital part of our community.
We should form a potent private sector team of leaders committed to bringing this cause to Washington. Our local elected officials must support bringing any assets to D-M, and they need backing from a united front of citizens. And we must demand that our federal delegation fight for the A-10 and D-M with actions and results, not just words. The time is now, and the stakes are high. As we A-10 pilots say at the start of any combat engagement: “Fight’s on!”