WASHINGTON — Amid some confusion over when the Air Force will retire the A-10 attack plane, top service officials this week clarified the plan to start drawing down Warthog squadrons in fiscal 2018.

Comments from Defense Secretary Ash Carter in early February seemed to indicate the Air Force would postpone divesting the A-10 until fiscal 2022. In a speech previewing the budget release, Carter noted commanders' demand for the A-10 and other fourth-generation aircraft in the fight against the Islamic State.

"The budget defers the A-10's final retirement until 2022, replacing it with F-35s on a squadron-by-squadron basis so we'll always have enough aircraft for today's conflict," Carter said Feb. 2.

However, the Air Force will actually begin sunsetting the beloved attack plane in FY18, divesting two A-10 squadrons, or 49 planes, that year, a service spokeswoman confirmed March 17. The service will retire 49 aircraft in FY19, 64 in FY20, and 96 in FY21.

The decision to retire the A-10 beginning in FY18 was purely budget-driven, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in response to questions from Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., during a March 16 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. The multirole F-35 has been billed as an across-the-board replacement for all of the Air Force's legacy fighter jets, but the F-35 cannot match the A-10 as a single-mission close-air support (CAS) platform, officials have said.

"The F-35 is intended to the high-threat CAS platform," Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said during the hearing. "We are losing CAS capacity, that's what the Budget Control Act has done to us."

The plan to begin divesting squadrons in FY18 is key to supporting the Air Force's standup of the F-35, Welsh explained. Over the past few years, the Air Force has established "workarounds" to keep up with the demands of sustaining both the A-10 and standing up the F-35, including contracting out maintenance work to industry. However, those resources run out in FY18, Welsh said. If the Air Force keeps the full A-10 fleet flying into the next decade, the service will only have half the manpower it needs to field the F-35 when it is scheduled to reach full operational capability (FOC) in FY21, he stressed.

"In FY18 all those things kind of run out and we're now short people to stand up F-35 units," Welsh said. "If we keep the A-10, by FY21 — the scheduled FOC date for the F-35 — we will be about 50 percent short of the maintenance manpower we need to field the F-35. So it's a manpower problem."

The Pentagon's top weapons tester will pit the full-up F-35 against the A-10 and potentially other aircraft during comparative tests slated for 2018. During the hearing, McSally, a retired Air Force colonel with 325 hours flying the A-10 in Iraq and Afghanistan, urged James and Welsh to wait to begin divesting the A-10 until this testing and analysis is complete.

"Our perspective is we shouldn't put one more A-10 in the Boneyard [Davis-Monthan Air Force Base] until this test is complete and we actually have a report to assess those sort of risks and then we move forward," McSally said.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

More In Air Warfare