The A-10 Warthog: Too Old to Keep Fighting?
After failing to convince the public that A-10s are a threat to friendly troops, the U.S. Air Force now wants you to believe that the ground attack planes are simply too old to keep fighting.
Earlier in March, Air Force officials hosted a summit to discuss the future of close air-support — the critical air strikes that help out troops on the ground.
After the gathering wrapped up, Air Combat Command—which controls the bulk of the service’s combat aircraft—kept up its media blitz against the A-10 by zeroing in on the aircraft’s age.
“There’s only so much you can get out of that airplane,” ACC chief Gen. Herbert Carlisle told reporters, referring to the A-10. “Those airplanes are gonna wear out.”
Carlisle offered these comments while the low- and slow-flying A-10s attack Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — and stare down the Russians from NATO bases in Europe. His statements also came despite upgrades that should keep the Warthogs combat-ready for decades, according to the flying branch’s own internal documents.
“They’ve been worked very, very hard,” Carlisle said. “But eventually that platform is going to age out.”
It’s fairness, it’s technically true the A-10 will eventually age out. But any actual problems are at best a self-fulfilling prophecy — and at worst — tantamount to willful sabotage.
Practically since the first squadrons got their Warthogs in 1977, the flying branch has continually tried to cancel or limit any improvement programs and even routine maintenance on the aircraft.
Carlisle’s statements were “at a minimum a mendacious spin,” A-10 designer Pierre Sprey told War Is Boring. In reality, the Air Force has made a “deliberate choice” to retire the Warthogs, Sprey added.
The flying branch already has a storied history of stonewalling against any serious efforts to keep the A-10 fleet going.
“The A-10 and the close air support mission have always been seen as lower priorities that take money away from favored programs,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information — part of the Project On Government Oversight.
Here’s another thing. Often due to pressure from Congress, the Warthogs today are significantly more capable — and longer-lived — than the original design.
Most notably, the Air Force hired Boeing to install new wings on more than 200 of the blunt-nosed attackers in 2007. The Air Force itself declared these new, reinforced spans would keep the A-10s airworthy for at least another three decades.
But having already expected to get rid of the straight-winged planes, the Air Force effectively waited until the last possible moment to approve the upgrade.
“The A-10 fleet received no money for major modifications or programmed depot maintenance during the 1990s,” the Government Accountability Office reported a month before the work started. “As a result, the Air Force is now faced with a very large backlog of maintenance, structural repairs and extensive modifications.”
The next year, the problems became particularly evident. Cracks in the wings from “fatigue and corrosion” sprouted up across the A-10 fleet, according to an Air Force history we received through the Freedom of Information Act.
“Of 144 aircraft inspected, 138 had cracks,” Air Combat Command’s 2008 historical review explained. “A planned A-10 deployment for the spring of 2009 to Korea was shifted to other systems, ACC cancelled at least one upcoming exercise due to lack of A-10s and one training course was ‘effectively grounded.’”
Even with these self-inflicted problems, the Air Force conceded that it expected to save more than a billion dollars in future maintenance costs with the improvements. On top of that, Boeing designed the new wings for a grand total of $1.1 billion. This final bill was around a fifth of what the Pentagon spends today to operate a single A-10 for a year.
And at the same time the aircraft were getting their improved wings, the service began overhauling older A-10As into modernized C models. The upgraded variants got brand new flight computers and other advanced systems.
“The A-10 offered an example of how ACC sought to sustain its existing fighter force while giving priority to the new systems it wanted,” the command touted in its 2007 internal history, which we also obtained through FOIA.
Since 2009, Lockheed has uploaded regular software updates into the A-10Cs to make sure the extra gear stays up-to-date and working. But four years after the first batch of new code, Air Force officials tried to stop buying these patches.
Without the updates, the planes’ wouldn’t be able to fully make use their systems to find the enemy, drop smart bombs and communicate with troops, other aircraft and command centers.
After getting an earful from the A-10’s supporters in Congress, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James caved and put the funds—a paltry $22 million—back into the service’s budget request.
With all these improvements, the Warthogs aren’t nearly as dangerously worn out as Carlisle said.
In addition, the aircraft now carry the same targeting pods as F-15 and F-16 fighters, and can drop the same laser- and GPS-guided bombs. On top of that, the aircraft still have their unique and devastating 30-millimeter Gatling gun, and the ability to loiter in the skies above the battlefield for hours on end.
Compared to the A-10 with its multiple radios, “there is no other aircraft with that capability to talk to [troops on] the ground,” Sprey added.
But as the A-10s keep on flying, the Air Force has tried to paint the upgrade programs as a problem.
The flying branch complained the projects—especially extensive because of a lack of regular improvements—were overly onerous and kept too many Warthogs out of action for too long.
“The Warthog was a workhorse,” ACC’s 2011 historical narrative stated. “The down side of this was a heavy modification schedule resulting in below Air Force aircraft availability standards.”
That year, the Air Force blamed congressionally-mandated budget cuts—rather than the service’s desire to shift money to other aircraft, namely the Joint Strike Fighter—for causing a shortage of new wing assemblies and threatening the upgrade program.
Maj. Gen. Jim Martin — the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for budget — told reporters that the service could save $500 million if it shut down the rewing project entirely. That amount is equivalent to around three F-35As, which the flying branch wants to eventually replace the Warthogs with.
Of course, “this is a classic game played by all of the services to prematurely retire platforms to make way for the shiny new toy,” Smithberger said.
But Air Force leaders also appear to have something of a “special vendetta” against the Warthog, and their approach has become “quite confrontational,” Smithberger added.
“Anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason,” Maj. Gen. James Post—Air Combat Command’s number two officer—reportedly told airmen under his command in January.
But that sort of language — which Air Force spokespersons have described as “hyperbole,” isn’t new. The flying branch treated Lt. Gen. Elwood “Pete” Quesada with the same disdain, Sprey noted. Quesada was a pioneer of close air-support tactics during World War II, and went on to become the first commander of the service’s brand new Tactical Air Command in 1947.
“Pete Quesada? I wouldn’t talk to that traitor!” is how Sprey described the attitude of bomber-focused Air Force senior leaders in the late 1940s.
And the Warthogs specifically have prompted this sort of anger, too. In 2003, then-ACC deputy chief Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright warned his subordinates against talking to reporters about the A-10 in a memo.
The command’s officers needed to “look hard at themselves, their individual professionalism, and their personal commitment to telling the complete story,” Wright wrote.
Journalist Robert Coram had just reported that the flying branch was secretly trying to ditch the A-10 as early as 2004 in an op-ed for the New York Times. “This is a serious mistake,” Coram argued.
“The cheap, effective A-10 is a symbol and counterpoint for how broken today’s acquisition system for expensive systems like the F-35 is,” Smithberger said.
Unfortunately, the service is insistent on sending the A-10s to the Boneyard. If this happens, Sprey has a pretty good idea what will happen to American servicemembers serving overseas if these plans go ahead. “Many more will die,” he said.
But with this media blitz in full effect, the Air Force isn’t looking back. And given the way they’ve clumsily spinned the facts, the service clearly hopes no one else will, either.