Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Boeing would restart its A-10 wing production line. Although Boeing has rewinged the A-10 in the past, the Air Force has clarified that companies would compete for future contracts.
WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee has taken its first steps toward preserving three A-10 Warthog squadrons that, without funding for new wings, could begin retiring as early as the mid-2020s.
The HASC chairman's mark of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, released Monday, adds $103 million for an A-10 "unfunded requirement." In its FY18 unfunded priorities list, the U.S. Air Force included an equivalent amount of cash, which if appropriated would be used to restart production of A-10 wings and manufacture four wing sets.
As of now, the Air Force plans on retaining its A-10s through at least the next five years. Past then, some parts of the fleet will need modifications to keep flying.
The service currently operates 283 Warthogs, but only 173 of those have had their wings replaced. Unless the remaining 110 A-10s — about three squadrons worth — are rewinged, those aircraft would come to the end of their service lives, U.S. Air Combat Command head Gen. Mike Holmes told Defense News in an interview earlier this month.
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Congress has long been opposed to any move that would retire even a portion of the A-10 inventory, and HASC’s inclusion of the funding in the defense policy bill could be a signal that lawmakers will continue that trend. However, it’s worth noting that the NDAA only approves funding and does not actually allocate it — meaning there is no guarantee that House and Senate appropriators, who control Congress’s purse strings, will fund the wings in their spending bills.
HASC members had telegraphed that it would once again supply the funding needed to preserve the aircraft. During a hearing this month, Rep. Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican and former A-10 pilot, pointed out that testimony from Air Force officials committed to retaining only six squadrons. She then demanded to know the planning assumptions that had substantiated the decision to mothball one-third of the inventory.
"From my view and my experience, if we need that capability until a proven, tested replacement comes along, nine squadrons is the absolute minimum," she said then.
Holmes has said the first A-10s could wear out their wings as early as five or so years from now, giving the service some time to figure out whether it should extend the lives of those three squadrons or replace them with F-35s or other platforms.
"When their current wings expire, we have some flexibility in the depot; we have some old wings that can be repaired or rejuvenated to go on. We can work through that, so there’s some flex in there," he said.
Asked about the future of the A-10 in an exclusive June 13 interview, U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson praised the Warthog, calling it a "pretty phenomenal machine."
She also pointed out that the Pentagon has a defense strategy review underway — a hint, perhaps, that the Air Force’s budget planning assumptions could change after that analysis concludes, paving the way for an even longer lifespan for the Warthog. However, Wilson also acknowledged that the A-10 is just one of many Air Force platforms in need of revitalization.
"With respect to the A-10 and its needs for continued life extension and those things, we’ve got a lot of equipment that needs either replacement or life extension. The A-10 is just one of them, but it’s a great airplane, and we’re committed to it," she said.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.