WASHINGTON — The Air Force expects it will have to ground a portion of the A-10 fleet in the years running up to fiscal year 2025, as the life of their wings runs out, but the service believes it will not effect operations, a three-star general said Thursday.
“We are not confident that we’re flying all of the A-10s that we currently possess through 2025 with our plan,” said Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, during a House Armed Services Committee panel.
“So as we are looking at a CAF [combat air force] roadmap and with our modernization program, our intent is not to have groundings that impact the fleet.”
In its recently-passed FY18 spending bill, Congress included $103 million that would allow the Air Force to start a new production line to put fresh wings on the venerable A-10 Warthog close air support plane. Although 173 A-10s have gotten new Boeing-produced wings, including one aircraft that has since crashed, 109 Warthogs are in danger of moving to the boneyard unless replacements are installed.
Harris told lawmakers that some aircraft that are close to being grounded will cycle into the Air Force’s backup aircraft inventory.
The FY18 budget would pay for the first four pairs of wings, while the Air Force’s $79 million request in FY19 would pay for an additional eight to 12 sets. But beyond that, there are still big questions as to how many A-10s will ultimately get wings and how many A-10s could be grounded in the years before FY2025.
During the hearing, Harris said he couldn’t immediately provide answers to those questions, put forward by Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and a former A-10 pilot.
“Is there some other reason why you’re not asking for max capacity? Is it because we can’t have that many in the fleet that are out for that period of time, just operational requirements?” asked McSally, who said that to her knowledge, the Air Force is capable of putting new wings on 32 A-10s per year.
Harris responded that the service opted to keep production of wings at a lower level until the Defense Department completes a number of studies of its combat aircraft inventory, to include the much-hyped comparative tests between the A-10 and F-35 that will measure both planes’ close air support bona fides.
“We’re not going to make a further commitment until we know where we’re going with both the A-10 and the F-35,” he said.
Another point of contention between McSally and Harris was the number of A-10s slated to move through the rewinging process. The Air Force has only committed to retaining six of the nine currently existing Warthog squadrons to 2030.
“With them being south of the DMZ, and deployed to Afghanistan and just coming back from schwacking ISIS and working with our NATO allies and all that we have on our plate, three active duty and then six guard and reserve squadrons for a total of nine—that’s already stretching it,” McSally said.
“How would we provide that capability to the combatant commanders if we went down to six? I just don’t see it.”
The rewing effort might allow the service to increase the number of A-10s per squadron from 18 back up to 24 aircraft for the three active duty squadrons, and up to 19 aircraft for the Air National Guard and reserves, Harris said. But he wouldn’t commit to retaining any more than six squadrons until 2030.
Retaining six A-10 squadrons until “2032 is in the testimony” submitted by Harris to lawmakers on Thursday, McSally noted, “But okay.”
Harris argued that the A-10 currently only conducts 20 percent of all Air Force close air support missions, and some of them could be performed by one of the two light attack aircraft that the service is considering buying.
“It continues to be a great airplanes and we’ll fly it while it fits into our program,” Harris said of the A-10, “but it doesn’t support the National Defense Strategy of preparing for a fight with Russia and China.”
Rep. Mike Turner, the Ohio Republican that chairs HASC’s tactical air and land power subcommittee, noted that the committee will include a provision in the upcoming FY19 defense authorization bill revolving around the Air Force’s decision to recompete the A-10 wing replacement contract.
“While the production line was shut down while Congress was deciding whether or not the A-10 was going to be preserved, someone made a decision that cost the American taxpayer an enormous amount of resources, and we’re going to be requiring an assessment of what that was, he said.
“When we deal with these issues in the future hopefully someone at DoD will understand that — until Congress takes action we ought not take action that affects the American taxpayer — until the debate has been completed.”
However, the situation is a little more complicated than that. Boeing continues to work on wings, and the Air Force expects the final of 173 wing sets to be installed this summer, according to Harris’ testimony.
However, the company has had difficulties with its supply base, and Air Combat Command head Gen. Mike Holmes said earlier this year that the price of the A-10 wings had become cost prohibitive for the contractor to continue making.