As pundits, analysts and the blogosophere attempt to predict all the ways in which the midterm elections have changed the political landscape in Washington, it doesn't take a political scientist to realize that the A-10 Warthog's future now looks much brighter than it did on November 3rd.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will have a new chairman, which is nearly certain to be John McCain. The senior Senator from Arizona is a huge supporter of the A-10, not just for its extraordinary close air support capabilities, but because the largest A-10 base in the world is in his home state (Davis Monthan AFB with about 80 A-10s assigned).
Just two days after the election, McCain has already come out swinging in defense of the 'Hog, stating yesterday that the A-10 is the best close-air support aircraft ever made and that there is "no doubt" Congress will prevent its retirement. McCain went on to bring up the recent and very tragic 'blue on blue' B-1B close air support incident and proclaimed that there is no true replacement for the A-10.
This comes as the USAF continues its own political maneuvering as it grasps to stymie the increasing pressure not to retire the Warthog. It is now making the case that if the A-10 is not put out to pasture there will not be enough maintainers to transfer to the F-35A community in coming years. As a result the troubled stealth jet would miss its already highly questionable, fairly irrelevant and politically sensitive initial operational capability (IOC) date. Currently IOC remains a couple years from now for the USAF's F-35A model and less than a year away for the Marines' F-35B model.
According to the USAF, 1,100 F-35A maintenance personnel are required in order for IOC to take place, and it is claimed that it would take 12 months longer to train brand new support crews if the A-10 fleet does not transfer a portion of its brain-trust to the F-35 program.
Some find it strange that the USAF is now saying that the A-10's retirement is tied to the F-35's IOC when the USAF knew for years of that date and its demands, long before the A-10's retirement was floated once again.
As for IOC itself, it is all really just semantics as the term, and its date, means little for the F-35 when it comes to close air support capabilities, or any highly complex combat capabilities for that matter. It won't be untill, at best, very late this decade, or more likely the first half of the next decade, that the F-35 will really be fully operational, with the majority of its sub-systems, software and weapons in place and certified to take on a range of roles, include highly dynamic close air support.
The USAF's latest push to retire the A-10, an exercise that has become near-predictable about every decade or so since the tank busting jet entered service some 35 years ago, comes at a time when America finds itself in another deepening counter-insurgency conflict in the Middle East. This was not the case over a year ago when the 'antiquated' A-10 was being lambasted for having no to little role in future conflicts by the Pentagon leadership.
Seeing as the DoD itself says the war against ISIS will last many years, it is almost childish, if not totally reckless, that the USAF would be willing to sacrifice such a well suited weapon for the war we are in so that it can buy a few dozen more questionable weapon systems for a 'paper war' of the future.
Possibly the strongest voice in Congress for protecting the A-10, even more so than Senator McCain, is Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Ayotte lashed back at the USAF's quasi-total war against the proven and efficient Warthog this week. Talking to Breakingdefense.com she stated:
"Suggesting that we must prematurely retire the A-10 to fulfill long-anticipated maintenance requirements for the F-35A is a false choice. There are a variety of steps the Air Force can take to maintain the combat-proven and cost-efficient A-10, while also providing sufficient maintenance personnel for the F-35A, [which] is not estimated to reach initial operating capability until 2016."
"Rather than threatening to unnecessarily undermine the maintenance of the F-35A—which the Air Force has said is one of its top three acquisition priorities—I hope the Air Force will listen to our ground troops and end its dangerous and misguided effort to deprive our troops of the A-10, which is the aircraft that is most likely to help them survive a firefight with the enemy."
Ayotte, whose husband was an A-10 pilot, plans on continuing to fight the USAF's strange logic, conflicting arguments and grab-bag of excuses to retire the A-10 with her own media blitz. Next week she is holding a high-profile press conference with the President of the Tactical Air Control Party Association, along with other decorated veteran Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTACs), to tell America their first hand accounts of the straight winged jet that the USAF is so desperately wanting to throw away. The A-10s, and its highly trained and mission focused pilots, saved many of these soldiers and their comrades' lives, and as experts in the application of close air support, in some cases they can attest that no other aircraft in the world could have done so.
The strange thing is that the A-10's retirement is not a highly partisan issue, in fact you cant find a multitude of lawmakers on both sides of the isle that support it. Instead its tentacles wind around the issues of the black hole that has become the F-35 program, special interests, and lawmakers' personal stance on taking the military brass's recommendations blindly.
The truth of the matter is that the A-10's existence actually has little to do with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program at all. It is the USAF alone that has made it a sacrificial red herring vis-a-vis the F-35 program. The savings generated by retiring the entire A-10 fleet, around 300 aircraft, could only buy a few dozen F-35s at best, not including research and development costs.
The F-35 budgetary issue is complex, as after years of delays and cost overruns it is rapidly gobbling up all the USAF's budget it can to stay alive. The idea is that we have to buy a ton of these jets very quickly to keep the program from supposedly entering a procurment death spiral (how convenient for the F-35's manufacturer and its many suppliers!). Yet the mismanagement of the F-35 program only has to do with the A-10 because the USAF packages it that way. So, as in past USAF attempts to gut the Warthog, once again the service's 'tough budgetary choice' is to save a few pennies by eliminating the most effective tactical aircraft of the past decade and a half, and the most relevant one for the new war we are in today.
With geopolitical events being what they are, the Republicans gaining control of both the Senate and the House, and having already been granted a one year extension on its life earlier this year by Congress, there is a very good chance that the Warthog will be once again be saved from infanticide, Air Force style.
Image credits: Senators- AP, Warthog & Buildings Russavia/Wikicommons, all other pictures USAF.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com