WASHINGTON — Rep. Martha McSally is renewing her fight to keep the A-10 out of the boneyard, this time pushing to make retirement of the legacy attack plane contingent on a flyoff with the fifth-generation F-35.
The US Air Force and Congress have been at odds for years over the A-10, with lawmakers repeatedly thwarting the service's attempts to retire the Warthog. But McSally's latest move reflects a strategy shift in the effort to keep the A-10 alive, pitting a proven close-air support plane against the controversy-plagued joint strike fighter.
McSally, a retired Air Force colonel with hundreds of hours flying the A-10 in Iraq and Afghanistan, recently spearheaded language in the House's version of the fiscal 2017 defense policy bill that would tie the service's A-10 retirement plan to a side-by-side comparison test with the F-35. The legislation still needs to clear a series of hurdles before it becomes law: a House floor vote and a conference with the Senate version of the bill before it faces a vote by the full Congress and the president's signature.
"The official part of our proposal is to actually do a test, not just sit around drinking coffee saying: 'This is what we think,' " McSally, R-Ariz., said in a recent interview. "This is an important part of the official evaluation so that we can have a data-based, assessment-based discussion as to what to do next."
The Pentagon once again bowed to pressure from Congress this year to delay tapering off use of the A-10, beloved by soldiers under enemy fire for the distinctive roar of its Gatling gun. Despite budget pressure and the need to free up maintainers to bring the F-35 online, the Air Force in its latest budget request shelved final A-10 retirement plans until FY22. But this is not enough for McSally, who said the service should not decommission any more A-10s until it has a proven, tested replacement.
The Air Force has already mothballed four A-10 squadrons since 2012, and the ones that remain have gone from 24 to 18 aircraft, McSally said, decrying a "massive degradation" in the capability. The service is down to nine squadrons stretched across four theaters: South Korea, Iraq and Syria, eastern Europe, and the Philippines. This is simply not enough capability to ensure the safety of Americans on the ground, McSally stressed.
An F-35 Lightning II from the 61st Fighter Squadron lines up into an attack route in preparation to drop a GBU-12 500-pound laser-guided bomb on April 25 at the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Gila Bend, Ariz.
Photo Credit: Airman 1st Class Ridge Shan/US Air Force
"Even though the administration seemed like they pulled back on their retirement plan, if you look at the fine print, in their five-year plan for the A-10 they start putting 49 A-10s into the boneyard in FY18," McSally said in an interview last week. "So instead of doing this year-to-year thing, we had the focus of let's have it be conditional, not time-based, and the conditions should be let's let this comparison test happen."
The flyoff is planned as part of the F-35's initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E), a key phase of testing before full-rate production begins. During the flyoff, the F-35 will go head to head with the A-10 on a number of missions, including close-air support and combat search and rescue.
McSally's provision requires the Pentagon's top weapons tester to submit a report on the results of the flyoff, as well as the findings of IOT&E overall, before discussions can resume about A-10 retirement. If, as some experts predict, IOT&E is delayed past its planned start date in FY17, the Air Force may not be able to begin retiring the A-10 until FY19 or later.
Although originally billed as the replacement for all the Air Force fighter jets, including the A-10, even top service officials have recently acknowledged the multi-role F-35 can not match the A-10 in providing close-air support.
"I would never look at you and tell you, 'Hey, the replacement, one for one, for the A-10 is the F-35,' " the White House nominee for Air Force chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein, then-vice chief, said in March.
McSally said she does not want to "predetermine" the results of the flyoff, but she stressed the A-10's lethality, survivability and unique capability to provide continuous close-air support: The A-10 can loiter above the battlefield for 90 minutes, while the F-35A can only stay for 20 to 30 minutes on station, she said; the A-10's gun can fire over 1,170 shots before it runs out of ammunition, while the F-35A only has 180 bullets; the A-10 can stay in the air even after enemy fire has taken out its most crucial capabilities, while the F-35A cannot survive a direct hit.
"There is no way that warfare's basic nature is going to change so drastically, certainly anytime in the next certainly two years when they start putting the A-10 in the boneyard that we're not going to need the type of unique capabilities that only the A-10 brings to the fight," McSally said. "I'm not saying these other assets can't do close-air support; I'm saying if we get rid of the capability that the A-10 brings there are going to be some unique circumstances on the ground where Americans are going to die unless we have a proven, tested replacement."
McSally also pointed out that, at least compared to some aircraft in the Air Force's inventory, the A-10s aren't even that old. The youngest B-52 bomber is 54 years old, yet the Air Force intends to fly that plane through 2040. By contrast, the A-10s were built in the late 1970s and were originally planned to fly until 2028.
Rep. Martha McSally is a retired Air Force colonel with hundreds of hours flying the A-10 in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rep. Martha McSally
The Air Force recently invested over $1 billion in the newest model of the A-10, which has a glass cockpit, data link capability, a fire-control system and a helmet-mounted cuing system, McSally noted.
"All of our airplanes are aging, so why are we making this argument for this one when it's a very important capability?" she said.
McSally said she appreciates the pressure the Air Force is under to find cost savings, while at the same time modernizing its fleet, but argued that the A-10 and its close-air support capabilities are historically underappreciated.
"The A-10, we were sort of considered the redheaded stepchild in the Air Force. ... This type of CAS mission is just something that the Air Force doesn't generally value as much as those of us who are involved in it do," McSally said. "In this case they decided to get rid of an entire capability and I don't agree with that."