The Air Force may cut the entire A-10 fleet because it can no longer afford single-mission planes. (Master Sgt. Mark Bucher/Air Force)
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The Air Force could save about $3.5 billion over five years by cutting the entire A-10 fleet, and then would rely on other aircraft for close-air support.
The Air Force, in written responses to questions from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said the savings from cutting the fleet of 326 A-10s would largely come from fixed costs, such as training and infrastructure.
“Only by divesting entire fleets (vertical cuts) will we achieve savings measured in billions rather than ‘just’ millions of dollars,” the Air Force said in the response. “Additionally, the savings from an entire fleet divestiture prevents the AF from having to eliminate newer, more capable, multi-role aircraft such as the F-16 or F-35.”
Air Force officials said last month that the service may cut the entire fleet of Warthogs because it can no longer afford single-mission planes.
“A-10 was my first fighter ... I love the airplane,” Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said in response to questions from Ayotte at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month. “It is the best airplane in the world at what it does. It is not the best at a lot of other things. It’s capable in many areas. If we’re going to look at what we must divest, not what we want to divest, but what we must divest, we have to be very honest with ourselves inside the Air Force about how much we can afford.”
The prospect of cutting the A-10 fleet prompted Ayotte to place a hold on the nomination of Deborah Lee James to be the next Air Force secretary. Ayotte, whose husband Joe was an A-10 pilot, released the hold Oct. 17. An aide said Ayotte will support James’ nomination as it moves through the committee and then hits the Senate floor now that the Air Force has responded to her questions about the A-10.
In a 19-page response, the Air Force says that any plans to cut the A-10 fleet are “predecisional” and said that the close-air support mission can be done by other aircraft, such as the AC-130, F-15E, F-16, B-1 and B-52.
“A-10 capabilities already exist on multi-role platforms,” the response says. “The evolution of targeting pods, precision guided munitions, and the refinement of tactics, techniques, and procedures have enabled other platforms to provide the capabilities once considered unique to the A-10.”
The A-10’s operation and maintenance costs from fiscal 2010 through 2012 were the cheapest among the Air Force’s fighters that handle the ground attack role. In fiscal 2012, operation and maintenance for the A-10 cost about $1.1 billion, with the F-15E’s budget at about $1.3 billion and the F-16C/D’s at $3.1 billion, according to the responses.
The A-10’s availability for fiscal 2012 was lower than the F-15E, though, at 66.52 percent, compared with 69.80 percent for the Strike Eagle and 64.42 percent for the F-16s.
The Air Force said that while the A-10 has performed “superbly” in Afghanistan and boasts features such as the largest caliber gun, other aircraft can excel in close-air support as well. For example, the B-1 has the longest loiter time and most ordnance; the A-10 is less ideal for ballistic munitions such as the GBU-12 or GBU-54; and other, faster aircraft such as the F-16 can cover larger engagement areas, according to the service.
Plans to cut the A-10 have also raised the ire of ground troops, who have said that it is integral to the current fight. The Air Force said Army, Navy and Marine Corps leaders were briefed in September about the possibility of cutting the A-10s, and no other service has expressed interest in taking over the fleet.
Pilots are still being trained on the A-10 and upgrade programs such as wing replacements are moving forward, the Air Force said.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.