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Air Force plan to get rid of A-10 ‘Warthog’ runs into opposition

  • Maryland Air National Guard Pilot Lt. Col. Paul Zurkowski (in plane) prepares take an A-10 "Warthog" on a training mission in Middle River, Md., on March 14. The A-10 has been the Air Force’s equivalent of an in-the-trenches grunt for almost 40 years and supporters are trying to stop the Pentagon from phasing out the aircraft. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post.  Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)

    Maryland Air National Guard Pilot Lt. Col. Paul Zurkowski (in plane) prepares take an A-10 "Warthog" on a training mission in Middle River, Md., on March 14. The A-10 has been the Air Force’s equivalent of an in-the-trenches grunt for almost 40 years and supporters are trying to stop the Pentagon from phasing out the aircraft. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)

  • A-10 Pilots with the Maryland Air National Guard wear "Warthog" patches on their flight suits in Middle River, Md., on March 14. The Pentagon has proposed phasing out the A-10, with officials saying that getting rid of the remaining 300 or so of the aircraft would save $3.7 billion over five years. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post.  Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)

    A-10 Pilots with the Maryland Air National Guard wear "Warthog" patches on their flight suits in Middle River, Md., on March 14. The Pentagon has proposed phasing out the A-10, with officials saying that getting rid of the remaining 300 or so of the aircraft would save $3.7 billion over five years. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)

  • Captain Jeffrey Negrette of the Maryland Air National Guard goes over paperwork on his A-10 "Warthog" before a training mission in Middle River, Md., on March 14. Warthogs were used as air support for ground troops since the 1970s but now the Pentagon is proposing phasing out the beloved aircraft. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post.  Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)

    Captain Jeffrey Negrette of the Maryland Air National Guard goes over paperwork on his A-10 "Warthog" before a training mission in Middle River, Md., on March 14. Warthogs were used as air support for ground troops since the 1970s but now the Pentagon is proposing phasing out the beloved aircraft. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)

  • Pilots Capt. Jonathon Alberts and Maj. Paul Kanning Maryland Air National Guard take their A-10 "Warthog" on a training mission in Middle River, Md., on March 14. Supporters have launched a campaign to save an aircraft they say is unparalleled in the history of American aviation: a slow-flying airplane designed to fly close enough to the ground so that pilots can distinguish friend from foe. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post.  Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)

    Pilots Capt. Jonathon Alberts and Maj. Paul Kanning Maryland Air National Guard take their A-10 "Warthog" on a training mission in Middle River, Md., on March 14. Supporters have launched a campaign to save an aircraft they say is unparalleled in the history of American aviation: a slow-flying airplane designed to fly close enough to the ground so that pilots can distinguish friend from foe. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)

  • Maryland Air National Guard Pilot Lt. Col. Paul Zurkowski (in plane) prepares take an A-10 "Warthog" on a training mission in Middle River, Md., on March 14. The A-10 has been the Air Force’s equivalent of an in-the-trenches grunt for almost 40 years and supporters are trying to stop the Pentagon from phasing out the aircraft. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post.  Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)
  • A-10 Pilots with the Maryland Air National Guard wear "Warthog" patches on their flight suits in Middle River, Md., on March 14. The Pentagon has proposed phasing out the A-10, with officials saying that getting rid of the remaining 300 or so of the aircraft would save $3.7 billion over five years. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post.  Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)
  • Captain Jeffrey Negrette of the Maryland Air National Guard goes over paperwork on his A-10 "Warthog" before a training mission in Middle River, Md., on March 14. Warthogs were used as air support for ground troops since the 1970s but now the Pentagon is proposing phasing out the beloved aircraft. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post.  Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)
  • Pilots Capt. Jonathon Alberts and Maj. Paul Kanning Maryland Air National Guard take their A-10 "Warthog" on a training mission in Middle River, Md., on March 14. Supporters have launched a campaign to save an aircraft they say is unparalleled in the history of American aviation: a slow-flying airplane designed to fly close enough to the ground so that pilots can distinguish friend from foe. Illustrates WARTHOG (category a), by Christian Davenport, (c) 2014 The Washington Post.  Moved Thursday, April 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)

It’s often called the military’s ugliest aircraft, a snub-nosed tank of an airplane that’s nicknamed “Warthog” for its appearance and ferocity. The A-10 Thunderbolt has been the Air Force’s equivalent of an in-the-trenches grunt for almost 40 years: heavily armed and armored, designed to fly low and take out the enemy at close range.

But now, after a career that has spanned the Cold War to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has proposed shuttering the fleet as part of across-the-board cuts in defense spending. Getting rid of the remaining about 300 aircraft would save $3.7 billion over five years, Defense Department officials say, and allow the Air Force to bring in more sophisticated aircraft, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, to provide what is called “close air support.”

“While no one, especially me, is happy about recommending divestiture of this great old friend, it’s the right military decision,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. “And it’s representative of the extremely difficult choices that we’re being forced to make.”

Supporters of the A-10, inlcuding U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, have launched an aggressive campaign to save the aircraft. They say it is unparalleled in the history of American aviation: a slow-flying airplane designed to fly close enough to the ground so pilots can distinguish friend from foe, often with their own eyes.

The A-10 has saved dozens of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it has performed in a way that modern planes – flying high and fast – never could, they said.

“The best close air support platform we have around is the A-10,” Ayotte said at a press conference yesterday, where she was joined by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and several A-10 pilots. “And we owe it to our men and women in uniform to ensure that they have the best when it comes to this incredibly important mission.”

It’s beloved not just by pilots, but by the ground troops under fire who equate the high-pitched whine of the A-10 and the roar of its cannon with salvation. In recent Congressional hearings it has gotten rave reviews, particularly by the Army brass.

“The A-10 is the ugliest most beautiful aircraft on the planet,” said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell. “It’s ugly. It’s loud, but when it comes in and you hear that pffffff (of the cannon) it just makes a difference.”

Air Force officials argue that with the defense spending cuts, they have no choice but to get rid of the entire A-10 fleet. Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that officials had looked at ways to save the A-10 by cutting other programs. But they ultimately decided that the A-10 was the option with the lowest risk.

“We have a lot of other airplanes that do close air support that can do those other important things,” he said. “The A-10 isn’t used in that way. It doesn’t mean it’s not a great platform. . . . The comment I’ve heard that somehow the Air Force is walking away from close air support I must admit frustrates me.”

One of those aircraft will be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, officials have said. But the aircraft, which has been repeatedly delayed and has seen its cost skyrocket, is not expected to be ready until at least 2021. And the Air Force is planning to get rid of the A-10s by 2019.

Ayotte, who inserted language in the defense spending bill that prevents the Air Force from retiring the A-10 before the end of 2014, called that a dangerous gap.

McCain was more blunt.

“We are going to do away with the finest close air support weapon in history?” he said at the news conference. “And we are then going to have some kind of nebulous idea of a replacement with an airplane that costs at least 10 times as much – and the cost is still growing – with the F-35? That’s ridiculous. That’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Supporters also pointed to how this is the Air Force’s latest attempt to get rid of the A-10 so that it could focus on more advanced aircraft.

A 1988 report from Congress’s nonpartisan investigative arm, now known as the Government Accountability Office, said it had been tasked to look into the viability of the A-10 because “the Air Force is concerned about the A-10’s ability to support the Army and survive the Soviet air defense threat of the 1990s and beyond.”

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