Save the A-10: Give It to the Army

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Many articles have been written and speeches made about the exploits and success of the A-10 fleet.  It has been a phenomenal airplane in its close air support role. Support for the A-10 remains so strong that the current National Defense Authorization Act precludes additional retirements. The confirmation of the Air Force Secretary was delayed while the issue was deliberated in Congress.

Despite widespread recognition of this success, the Air Force wants to junk all 340 aircraft by 2020.  In order to achieve significant savings, the Air Force must cut entire fleets, says Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. Retiring the A-10 fleet would achieve a projected $3.7 billion in savings, a decent chunk of the $12 billion the Air Force must cut each year under sequestration.

The Air Force never wanted this aircraft from the start in the 1970s.  It was designed to be a tank killer in Western Europe. Never used in this role, it became a weapon of significance killing armored vehicles in Iraq and providing close air support to ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it has never really been accepted by the Air Force. Modifications to support modern precision ordnance were slow to be installed and pilots had to use the weapon sensors to find targets, rather than cockpit displays.

The A-10’s orphan heritage is further complicated by the split custody of the aircraft between the Air Force’s active, Guard, and Reserve components. Half the A-10 fleet resides within the Air National Guard, for example. 

The A-10 fleet is over 30 years old, but does not have many flying hours and will be available for many years. The design is low tech having been designed to operate from unprepared airfields.  This design is still relevant in current military scenarios involving ground forces and assures that many more years of flight hours can be obtained.

Two F-35As fly over Eglin Air Force Base (U.S. Air Force)

Yet current plans call for the Air Force to acquire 1,743 F-35As, about 300 of which would replace the A-10. Significant testing of the F-35 ground support capabilities has yet to occur. But the multi-mission design of the aircraft is likely to reduce ground support emphasis. Pilots have to learn interdiction, air combat and defense suppression before turning to ground support techniques. It has been done with the F-16, but ground troops prefer support from the A-10 or helicopters.

At current projected prices, 300 F-35s will cost about $37 billion, and operate at much higher cost.

One alternative worthy of consideration would be to transfer the A-10 fleet to the Army with sufficient resources to operate and provide logistic support. The Army would then update the A-10 combat system to conform to Army standards. This would allow the Army to integrate the A-10 with existing attack helicopter units and provide a more cohesive close air support capability. That process might allow the Army to make reductions to attack helicopter forces. If this sounds familiar, it should. The Marines operate this way now with a combination of fixed and rotary wing aircraft with great success.  

However, the 1948 Key West Agreement precludes this change. The policy paper approved by President Harry Truman after the passage of the 1947 National Security Act specifically assigned the Air Force to provide “close combat and logistical support” for the Army. Since the Agreement did not contemplate the existence of major helicopter forces, the Army was allowed to successfully pursue the military development of helicopter. 

Now is the time for a bigger change that will allow the Defense Secretary to make a more thoughtful assignment of ground support responsibilities to ensure they are conducted in the most supportive manner for ground units.

The face of an A-10 Warthog (U.S. Air Force)

Giving the Army the A-10 would allow the service to fulfill the close air support mission with a quality aircraft. Retaining the A-10 fleet would cost $3.7 billion, but it would eliminate the need for those 300 F-35As, saving the Pentagon $37 billion.

Such savings would cut about 10% of the Pentagon’s major system cost growth, estimated at $411 billion by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It would be a first step in managing the issue of cost growth the acquisition system prefers toignore. 

Transfer of the A-10 fleet to the Army is a money saving action avoiding early retirement of proven ground support aircraft. The Key West Agreement should not be allowed to prevent a common sense management action. 

Everett Pyatt is the Leader of the Project for Defense Management and Acquisition Leadership at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a part of Arizona State University. He is formerly Assistant Secretary of Navy and Acquisition Executive.

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