WASHINGTON — The spread of the Islamic State group and a resurgent Russia have prompted the US Air Force to reconsider immediate plans to retire the A-10 Warthog, according to a top service official.
In an exclusive television interview on the Jan. 24 broadcast of Defense News with Vago Muradian, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said when the service decided to begin sunsetting the A-10, the global threat environment looked very different. The A-10’s retirement plan — unveiled in the fiscal year 2015 budget request — was developed before the rise of IS and before Russia’s aggressive moves in Eastern Europe, he said.
The nature of the budget cycle forces the Air Force to plan its force structure two years ahead of time, Goldfein stressed. Often, the assumptions that go into planning the budget request change, and the Air Force must be agile enough to adjust to a new normal.
“What happens is that life gets in the way of the perfect plan,” Goldfein said. “So when we made the decision on retiring the A-10, we made those decisions prior to ISIL, we were not in Iraq, we were coming out of Afghanistan to a large extent, we didn’t have a resurgent Russia.”
Shelving the A-10 retirement plan is a key policy shift that the Pentagon will reportedly lay out next month in its fiscal 2017 budget request, according to a Jan. 13 press report.
Top officials had already hinted the Air Force could push off retirement of the A-10 by a few years to meet commanders’ demand for the close-in attack plane, beloved by troops for the distinctive roar of its Gatling gun. The service needs more close-air support to protect troops on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and for the possibility of missions in trouble spots, such as Libya or Yemen, according to Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle.
“I think we would probably move the retirement slightly to the right,” Carlisle said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in November. “Eventually we will have to get there. We have to retire airplanes. But I think moving it to the right and starting it a bit later and keeping the airplane a bit longer is something to consider, based on things as they are today and what we see in the future.”
The service had hoped to decommission the A-10 fleet in part to move maintenance crews over to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, planned to replace all of the Air Force’s fighter planes. But capacity, especially in the face of increased demand in the Middle East, is a concern for the Air Force right now, Carlisle said.
“If you look at the demand signal that’s place[d] on the United States Air Force across all of our mission areas, the demand signal has gone up,” he said.
The Air Force has had to make tough decisions over the last few years to maintain vigilance but at the same time meet budget challenges, Goldfein told Defense News.
“As we look at the future and we look at the potential challenges we have, as we look at the global threats, the trans-regional nature of the threats ... it’s really going to be about, how do we get that balance right across that portfolio for the future?” Goldfein said. “It is a zero-sum game.”
The reported decision to indefinitely postpone the A-10’s retirement comes after years of heated debate between Congress and Air Force policymakers. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a strong A-10 advocate, welcomed reports that the Pentagon will delay the "premature" retirement plan.
“With growing global chaos and turmoil on the rise, we simply cannot afford to prematurely retire the best close-air support weapon in our arsenal without fielding a proper replacement," McCain said in a Jan. 13 statement. "When the Obama Administration submits its 2017 budget request in the coming weeks, I hope it will follow through on its plan to keep the A-10 flying so that it can continue to protect American troops, many still serving in harm’s way.”