WASHINGTON — Two years after the Air Force tried to force its aging A-10 Warthog fleet into retirement, officials are exploring whether to procure a potential replacement for the aircraft famed for its powerful defense of troops on the ground.
But whether the service chooses a clean-sheet design or tries to modify a currently available jet, experts say the service will face an uphill battle in terms of getting funding during a tight fiscal climate where it may have to battle other modernization programs for money – despite hopes that foreign customers may be interested in such an aircraft.
The Air Force in recent years has had a complicated relationship with the Warthog, the common name given to the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II. The service attempted to retire the plane in fiscal 2015 and 2016 due to the spending constraints caused by mandatory budget cuts, and was rebuffed by Congress both years. Finally, in its fiscal year 2017 budget request, it opted to retain the aircraft until 2022 in part due to the platform's utility in the fight against the Islamic State.
Both the outgoing and incoming Air Force chiefs of staff have been banging the drum for a follow-on close air support (CAS) aircraft in recent weeks, describing one that would be cheaper to operate and incorporate modern technologies. That would require an expansion of the service's budget, former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told reporters days before his June retirement.
"I'd like to build a new CAS airplane right now while we still have the A-10, transition the A-10 community to the new CAS airplane, but we just don't have the money to do it, and we don't have the people to fly the A-10 and build a new airplane and bed it down," he said.
Starting a new program is never easy, but the service doesn't necessarily have to spend huge amounts of time and money to develop a new platform, he told Defense News in an exclusive interview earlier in June.
"I think you can do it much quicker than people think you can," he said. "We don't have to come up with sensors and weapons that are cosmic. That's not what we need. We're talking about something that can do the bulk of the low threat, maybe a little bit of medium threat work in rugged environments all over the world."
Welsh's likely successor, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, told a Senate panel in June that the service needs to retain the A-10 for the time being, but begin thinking about how to conduct close air support in the coming decades.
"My focus is going to be on ensuring that I go back to the doctors of CAS, the A-10 fleet and the A-10 operators, and say what is the future of close air support? That is the conversation we need to have," he said. "We need to maintain what we have for the current fight, but where are we going in the future?"
In his interview with Defense News, Welsh said he believed the development of a new close air support platform could generate numerous foreign military sales.
"It's something we can teach our allies to fly, something we could probably sell overseas. There's lots of air forces looking for this kind of capability," he said. "I think there's a lot of interest in lots of places to developing this kind of a platform."
Analysts, however, were skeptical that an A-10 replacement would find a wide market, particularly if it was a single-mission aircraft.
"The A-10 is arguably the best CAS aircraft of its generation, yet to date the U.S. has remained the only operator," Douglas Barrie, IISS senior fellow, said in an email. "At a time when defense spending in many countries remains under pressure, finding the resource for a single-role platform, rather than a multi-role combat aircraft, strikes me as a challenge."
Talking up the export potential of a new CAS plane is beneficial to the Air Force if it can get industry to start investing their own funds into new designs or concepts, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group. However, most countries would rather funnel their money to multi-mission fighter jets.
Some analysts even suggested the Air Force's newfound enthusiasm for replacing the A-10 with a new CAS plane should be understood as a backdoor approach to finally mothballing the Warthog for good.
"It's pure and simple a way of rationalizing the A-10s retirement," Aboulafia said. "And I'm not saying I'm against the A-10's retirement. I think on balance, I might be for it. But the only way to resist the intense political pressure associated with the A-10's retirement is to conjure up an imaginary CAS acquisition program."
Dan Grazier, a fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, agreed that talk about procuring a new CAS platform was probably "a ploy to call off the dogs" and retire the A-10, but said it was unlikely that Congress would fall for it. Enough lawmakers on Capitol Hill understand the value of the A-10 to block the plane's retirement until a replacement capability has made it through development and hopefully into full-rate production, he said.
However, Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Analysis and a former Air Force colonel, disputed the idea that Welsh and Goldfein's comments represented a veiled attempt to retire the jet. Instead, they should be seen as a "huge signal" that the service remains committed to the close air support mission, he said.
CAS Platform of the Future
If the Air Force does press on with a new program, the service will have to establish what capabilities will be needed to perform the CAS mission in a more highly contested environment. Potential adversaries in the Asia-Pacific and Europe already maintain capable air defenses, but Middle Eastern and African state and nonstate actors also are gaining access to more sophisticated weaponry capable of bringing down a slow, low-flying aircraft like the A-10, Gunzinger said.
With that in mind, an A-10 replacement should look a lot like an F-35, Gunzinger said: stealthy, capable of data fusion with other aircraft, and with the ability to fire off a variety of precision-guided munitions, including joint direct attack munitions and small diameter bombs,
Couldn't the F-35 just be used for close air support missions, as was the Air Force's original plan? "The Marine Corps thinks so," Gunzinger said, but added that another option is to develop an A-10 replacement with lower operating costs than the F-35, perhaps with less stealth and a larger payload.
Technology has leapt forward since the Warthog was fielded in 1977, opening the door for a variety of improvements that could be integrated onto a new jet.
"Why is it that I only get a minute and a half of trigger pull on a 30mm [cannon]? Why don't I get 10 minutes, and why is not every bullet precision guided?" Goldfein asked during his confirmation hearing. "Why do I have to spend so much time figuring out who is friend and foe on the ground when we have technology to be able to help us do that? Why is it that I have to do all the work for collateral damage estimates when I have a machine that can help me do that?"
Welsh, for his part, opined that a future CAS plane could look very similar to the Warthog, albeit cheaper to fly at about $4,000 to $5,000 per flying hour. The aircraft would provide a near-constant defense of troops on the ground in low to medium threat environments, and it would spit out different kinds of a munition like a "flying Coke machine" dispenses soda.
"You have a Coke machine overhead, you put in a quarter, and you get whatever kind of firepower you want, when you want it. In a perfect world that's close-air support of the future," he said.
Either a clean sheet design or an existing one could meet the service's requirements, depending on the presumptive schedule or cost, Welsh said.
The Warthog is the only purpose-built close air support plane in existence, which makes it difficult to find a direct replacement already on the market, Aboulafia said. Embraer's Super Tucano remains popular among countries that operate in permissive environments, such as Chile or Brazil, and offers a lower operating cost than the Warthog, which drains about $20,000 per flight hour. But the A-10 is much more capable for the CAS mission than the Super Tucano, he said.
Another option continually floated as a potential Warthog replacement is Textron AirLand's Scorpion, a multi-mission attack jet that can be purchased for $20 million and flown at $3,000 per flight hour.
However, Aboulafia said he was not convinced acquiring the Scorpion would generate any substantial cost savings, given the upfront expense of having to purchase new planes during a budget crunch. Any added capability would also be minimal, he said.
"You've just spent a whole bunch of procurement cash to vastly dumb down your CAS with a jet that's even less survivable? Bravo. Someone here deserves a medal," he said.
The Air Force has a long list of platforms it plans to buy over the next decade—including the F-35, the B-21 bomber, the KC-46A tanker and a combat rescue helicopter, to name just a few—and those platforms rightly are optimized for future fights against near-peer competitors with anti-air capabilities, Aboulafia said. But if the service truly believes it needs to maintain a single-mission CAS plane for low-threat missions in the Middle East and elsewhere, it should consider a simpler option: keeping the A-10 and modernizing it as needed.
"It's the best you're going to do given the budget environment, and it's eminently upgradable," Aboulafia said, adding that a new engine could boost the Warthog's range and survivability. "If they choose to actually devote cash into a unique system, that's complete strategic-thinking poverty, pure and simple."
Gunzinger was more supportive of buying a purpose-built A-10 replacement, but the service should not rush procurement of a new aircraft during the near term, when so many acquisition programs are in their beginning stages. Until those programs mature, "fly the wings off the A-10," he said.