Sunday, April 20, 2014

Examining the Fight to Keep the A-10 Warthog

Developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and first introduced into service in 1977, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, better known as the 'Warthog', is on the chopping-block according to the newly proposed DoD budget.  The budget proposal, which Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel set forth for FY 2015 adjusts itself to the new realities of the Bipartisan Budget Act enacted by President Obama and Congress, which put a $496 billion spending cap on the DoD.  The A-10 Warthog, which has seen nearly four decades of service in a variety of US conflicts earned its tough reputation especially during the Persian Gulf War with Iraq in 1991, destroying much of Iraq's tanks, artillery and missile sites.  Armed heavily with armor and munitions, the A-10 is also slow, loud and flies at low altitudes.

The impetus behind doing away with the A-10 is understandable, doing away with older aircraft to make budget room for newer models like Lockheed-Martin's F-35.  The budget savings accrued by doing away with the current fleet of 283 A-10s is estimated at $3.7 billion over the next five years, and with rapidly expanding budgets for newly developed aircraft, is valuable savings for the DoD.  Perhaps surprisingly, the proposal to decommission  the A-10 has faced sizable opposition in Washington at a level rarely seen for previous aircraft.  In large part, the concerns for doing away with the A-10 is the aircraft's effectiveness in offering close air-support for ground troops, as pilots are well armed and protected, and are well equipped to tell the difference between friendly- and enemy-combatants as a result of the aircrafts ability to fly low and slowly over combat zones.  

Proponents of doing away with A-10, argue that with the current fiscal environment in Washington and related cuts to the DoD budget, cutting the aircraft offers the least amount of risk compared with other options that would be required to meet new budget constraints.  The argument that cutting the A-10 is the 'least risky' option stems from the fact that the Air Force offers other forms of close air-support that can adequately replace it.

Opponents of the the proposal to faze out the A-10 argue effectively that the aircraft is the best close air-support vehicle ever designed and commissioned, and that doing away with it would create a major liability for both pilots and ground forces deployed in combat zones.  Last Thursday Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and several A-10 pilots made this case in Washington before the Senate Armed Services Committee, explaining how the aircraft saved countless lives among ground forces during conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the hearing Sen. McCain posited, "we are doing away with the finest close air-support weapon in history? And we are then going to have some kind of nebulous idea of a replacement with an airplane that costs 10 times as much - and the cost is still growing with the F-35? That's ridiculous. That's absolutely ridiculous." The argument against doing away with the A-10 grows even stronger when one compares the dates that the A-10 will be done away with, and the date that the F-35 will be ready for practical military use, where the A-10 will be gone in 2019 and the F-35's proposed date for commission is in 2021.  

The proposal to do away with the A-10 is understandable, especially when one takes into account the tough position that the DoD has been placed in by recent budgetary cuts.  The need to develop new weaponry and aircraft is clearly paramount to maintaining US conventional superiority over other militaries.  With that said, the DoD must also be sure that older, highly effective platforms are not replaced when they are more than capable of accomplishing the combat objectives tasked to them.  The DoD and USAF should seriously reassess their proposal to abolish the A-10 and look for alternative means of meeting tightening budget constraints.

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