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A Smart Approach To Retaining Most Of The A-10s « Breaking Defense

Air Force photo

Air Force JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) wave to an A-10 during training.

In American politics people like to talk about third-rail issues, those that kill you when you touch them. For the Air Force, retiring the much-loved and much-misunderstood A-10 Warthog has been a third-rail issue. Army folks, generally not known for their knowledge of aircraft capabilities, LOVE the A-10, largely because it is something Army troops can see results from and it’s really loud and looks aggressive, a combination ground pounders appreciate. Key members of Congress have loved the A-10 because it’s based in their districts (the late Sen. John McCain) or because their spouse flew the airplane (former Sen. Kelly Ayotte.) OK, and a few really do believe the A-10 should be kept because it is the best close-air-support aircraft. In the 2021 budget, the Air Force is taking a new approach, trying to blend extending the life of most of the A-10 fleet while retiring some. The head of the Mitchell Institute, Dave Deptula, presents a detailed argument in favor of the new approach. Will the Air Force touch the rail or? Read on? The Editor.

Some were surprised to see the Air Force again trying in the latest budget request to retire 44 A-10s from, bringing the total force of 281 Warthogs down to 237.

Any discussion regarding the status of the A-10—or any other capability in the Air Force’s inventory—needs to start with the fact that the Air Force is seriously underfunded. Between 1989 and 2001, the Air Force absorbed the largest cuts of all the services as a percentage of the overall defense budget. Between 2008 and 2011, the Air Force received its lowest share of the defense budget going all the way back to the Eisenhower Administration. On top of those slim budgets, the service does not even receive all that is allocated to it in its total budget. Roughly 20 percent is removed from its control as a budget pass-through to the Intelligence Community. In 2020, that equaled $39 billion—enough to buy 400 F-35As. 

David Deptula

The chronic deficiencies in Air Force funding were the motivating force behind service leaders releasing “The Air Force We Need,” a plan that calls for growing the number of operational squadrons from 312 today to the 386 required to execute the national defense strategy. While that assessment has yet to be met with funding from the administration or Congress it provides a realistic way to view risk; the difference between what the Air Force needs and what it currently possesses. 

Because of this disparity, the Air Force is continuously forced to trade existing force structure to pay for modern weapons. It does not matter that the Air Force fields the oldest and smallest aircraft force in its history, or that nearly every mission area is coded “high demand, low density.” The Air Force leaders who sought to retire the A-10 in 2014 did not actually want to cut the aircraft, but they had no other choice due to the Budget Control Act of 2011. While that era has passed, the same dynamics are still at play— a service that is under-resourced, overtasked, compelled to retire aircraft to free up resources to modernize the remaining inventory of mostly geriatric aircraft.

With that background, it is important to understand the Air Force’s plan to cover the panoply of mission requirements that it faces. Defense leaders today are anticipating a broad array of future threats ranging from non-state actors like the Islamic State and Boko Haram on the low end, North Korea and Iran in the middle, and China and Russia as peer adversaries on the top of the spectrum. The overlapping concurrency of these challenges makes for a difficult balancing act given the chronic underfunding of the Air Force and the fact that dealing with each threat demands a different set of tools. 

This is precisely why the Air Force wants to retain the bulk of the A-10 inventory. They are planning on doing it in a smart way to achieve two primary goals. First, to assure sufficient capacity to ensure that when  combatant commanders need the aircraft the Air Force has enough aircraft so that one squadron can be continuously deployed for combat operations. Second, to assure sufficient capability, leaders are investing in re-winging all the remaining A-10 airframes, funding avionics improvements, and other critical upgrades. Taking these steps will ensure the A-10 can continue to fly and fight into the 2030s. The reason for this is simple: when it comes to effectively and efficiently dealing with certain missions in the low- to medium-threat environment, few aircraft can net better results than the A-10. These aircraft are incredibly precise, efficient to operate, can haul a tremendous load of munitions, and their ability to integrate with other aircraft as well as ground forces is legendary. 

However, when defense leaders consider operations at the higher end of the threat spectrum, the reality is that A-10 cannot survive. In such environments, commanders select appropriate capabilities rather than risking airmen or mission success. Close air support is a mission—not an aircraft—and it can be executed by many aircraft other than the A-10, particularly in higher threat scenarios. This is why A-10s were not employed over Syria. It would have put them at risk against sophisticated Russian air defenses and combat aircraft. Commanders prudently decided to harness F-22s, F-15Es, F/A-18s, F-16s, and others to secure desired objectives because these aircraft could better defend themselves against those threats. 

Such sophisticated defenses require continued investment in aircraft like the F-35 and B-21. These are the sorts of aircraft—empowered with fifth generation attributes like stealth, advanced sensors, and computing power—that will be far better equipped to handle mission demands against potential adversaries equipped with the most advanced weapons coming out of China or Russia. 

Preparing for the future demands adjusting the Air Force’s existing aircraft inventory in response to budget realities. Dialing up investment in fifth-generation aircraft is an essential requirement, especially given that too few B-2s and F-22s were procured in the past. The types of combat scenarios that defined the post-9/11 world occurred in permissive airspace at the low end of the threat spectrum. America’s interests demand a much more far reaching set of options able to operate and survive in high threat environments. That is why investments in A-10 modernization and newer designs like the F-35, B-21, and next generation air dominance aircraft are so important. 

However, capacity still matters. The Air Force needs to be properly resourced so it does not have to gut the very numbers that will prove essential in future engagements. No matter the theater in which a fight may erupt, the type of combat action, or the scale of the operation, the need for numbers of airframes is a constant—the same cannot be said for surface forces. It is well past time for leaders in the Department of Defense, the White House and on Capitol Hill to start properly scaling Air Force resources to align for the actual mission demand required by our National Defense Strategy. 

David Deptula, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a retired Air Force lieutenant general with over 3,000 flying hours. He planned the Desert Storm air campaign, orchestrated air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan and is now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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