WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is still pondering if and when it can replace the A-10 Warthog, but outgoing Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has his own vision for the next close-air-support platform, which he wants to dispense different kinds of munitions as easily as a soda machine dispenses beverage cans.
Welsh, who is retiring in July, has admitted that the service currently lacks the funding necessary to buy a new close-air support (CAS) plane before the A-10 Warthog retires as early as 2022. Such a program would require more money than is currently expected over the next five years. However, the Air Force remains interested in a new aircraft, and officials are building a draft requirements document that could serve as a starting point for an A-10 replacement.
When asked about what improvements he’d like to see in a next-generation CAS plane, Welsh described a “flying Coke machine” that could distribute “firepower on demand.”
"You have a Coke machine overhead, you put in a quarter, and you get whatever kind of firepower you want when you want it. In a perfect world that's close-air support of the future,” he told reporters during a June 15 breakfast meeting.
Either a clean sheet or an existing design may be able to meet Air Force requirements, depending on the cost and schedule parameters, he said.
"We don't think this would take that long to do. We really don't think it is that complicated of a design problem,” he said. "We think we can optimize it for a low to medium threat environment, not a full threat environment. We need something that can keep doing, at much lower cost, the types of things we're doing in those encounters that we see today."
Welsh said he believes that a newer aircraft would cost less to operate than the A-10, which currently eats up about $20,000 per flying hour.
“Let's find something that's $4,000 to $5,000 a flying hour that brings more firepower, that is more responsive. We can do all that. We just don't have the money today to do it. It's not the highest priority for where we have to spend our money.”
Another issue, besides the upfront cost of developing and buying new jets, is the manpower needed to support them, he said. Manning levels hover around 85 to 90 percent, and the service is constantly being asked to provide more cyber and space capability on top of fielding new aircraft like the F-35 and operating legacy ones like the F-16 and F-15E, he said.
"I'd like to build a new CAS airplane right now while we still have the A-10, transition the A-10 community to the new CAS airplane, but we just don't have the money to do it, and we don't have the people to fly the A-10 and build a new airplane and bed it down,” he said.
Over the past two years, Congress has forced the Air Force to retain the Warthog despite the service’s attempts to divest it for budgetary reasons. The service in its fiscal 2017 budget request opted to keep the A-10 until at least 2022. “Keeping the A-10 has been a wonderful thing for us,” Welsh acknowledged, but “the world has changed” since the Air Force conducted the operational analysis that spurred the service to opt for its retirement.