WASHINGTON — A-10 Warthog fans can breathe a sigh of relief: The Air Force won’t start retiring the famed close-air support plane until 2021, at the very earliest.
The decision delays initial retirement of the aircraft by three years, as the Air Force had planned to begin mothballing the A-10 as early as 2018. However, the service is still deliberating the future of the platform, including whether it still needs to start a new program to replace it, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Tuesday.
“We’re going to keep them until 2021, and then as a discussion that we’ll have with [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis and the department and the review over all of our budgets, that is what will determine the way ahead,” he told reporters.
Over the next couple of years, Goldfein said he’d like to see the dialogue about the close-air support mission (CAS) move from a “platform-centric” discussion about whether to sustain the A-10 to a “family of systems” approach that recognizes that many aircraft support ground forces.
“That starts with an understanding of how we do the business today of close-air support, because the reality is it’s changed significantly, and it will change significantly in the future if we get this right, because this is something we’ve got to continue to think about,” he said.
As Central Command’s air component commander in 2011, Goldfein said he employed a number of different aircraft for the CAS mission in Afghanistan depending on the region.
In the mountainous terrain of eastern Afghanistan, unmanned MQ-9 Reapers were often dispatched, he said. The open fields of southern Afghanistan were optimized for A-10s, while B-1 bombers — with their endurance and large munitions suite — were a good fit for northern Afghanistan. F-16s played a larger role in the western portion of the country.
“If I had gone to those ground force commanders and said, ‘Hey, I’ve swapped out B-1s for A-10s or F-16s,' he would have rightly looked at me and said, ‘Why? They can’t get there fast enough and they don’t have enough gas,’” he said.
Although the service has not decided whether it will eventually pursue a new, purpose-built CAS plane — an A-X2, as it has been called inside the Pentagon — Goldfein reiterated his intent to conduct a demonstration of off-the-shelf light attack aircraft.
The Air Force first floated the idea of buying these “OA-X” light attack aircraft last year, which would help supplement the A-10 and other assets conducting low-end missions in the Middle East. The newest unfunded priorities list submitted by the service includes $8 million to support an experiment that would allow aircraft manufacturers to show off potential offerings, but the effort has not been funded yet.
Goldfein said the experiment would give the Air Force a glimpse into what is available on the market, possibly paving the way for a program of record.
"Show me what you got that's off the shelf, that's shovel-ready, that can contribute right now without research-and-development dollars, that we can get into the fight right now,” he said.
Arizona Republican John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, has supported a purchase of 300 OA-X aircraft.