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GAO report blasts Air Force justification for A-10 retirement

The Air Force based its plan to retire the A-10 on an inaccurate projection of cost savings, and will run into a capability gap associated with providing close air support, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Thursdaytoday.

The GAO's report punches holes in the Air Force's justification for its controversial decision to retire the attack jet, saying planners did not "fully assess" the cost savings associated with the A-10 divestment. For example, the Air Force's projection of saving $4.2 billion over five years by retiring the jet did not include the increased workload on other aircraft tasked with picking up the slack. On the other hand, the savings could be more, because the Air Force didn't include savings from canceling software upgrades and other modifications to the aircraft, the GAO said.

"Without a reliable cost estimate, the Air Force does not have a complete picture of the savings it would generate by divesting the A-10 and does not have a reliable basis from which to develop and consider alternatives to achieve budget targets or assess the impact on other missions such as air superiority or global strike," the GAO said in the June 25 report.

Congress tasked the GAO with reviewing the Air Force's plan in the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. The agency briefed cCongressional defense committees on its report in April, shortly before the House Armed Services Committee marked up its version of the fiscal 2016 defense bill, which included an amendment from Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, to block the Air Force's plan.

The GAO report does not recommend any action, instead reviewed the Air Force's planning behind its decision. The agency will continue to study the plan for a report later this year.

The agency states that the Air Force made the plan to retire the A-10 based on a "strategy-based, portfolio-wide" review of its fleet and a need to cut its budget. The Air Force's guidance prioritized fifth-generation aircraft, readiness and multi-role aircraft over the A-10.

To further justify its decision, the Air Force warned Congress it would need to find alternative paths to finding the $4.2 billion in savings, including cutting other aircraft fleets. However, these warnings were "illustrative only" and were not fully considered as a possible alternative within the service, according to the GAO.

The report also joins other critics in blasting the Air Force for cutting the jet because it would create capability gaps in the service's need to fly close air support mission. The service has said it could fill the gap in close air support with other aircraft able to fly the mission. However, the report states an internal Defense Department planning scenario showed cutting the A-10 "would increase operational risks" in 2020 before the F-35 is fully capable in close air support.

Additionally, the report highlights the A-10 as is the only aircraft that can conduct the combat search and rescue "Sandy" mission, in which the aircraft would escort helicopters in enemy territory to recover personnel. Lastly, the A-10 is the best aircraft to counter "swarming" enemy boats that threaten U.S. warships. The Air Force is considering moving A-10 personnel to F-16 and F-15E units to focus more on close air support missions, and study whether those aircraft can fly these missions, but that move isn't finalized.

The A-10 is also used to train joint terminal attack controllers, meaning cutting the aircraft could reduce the amount of training these airmen receive, the GAO wrote.

The Air Force reviewed the GAO report this spring, and in response said it did not take issue with most of the information in the report, but criticized the GAO for not looking at the decision's impact on the entire fleet, specifically the issue of manning.

"While the complexities of the Air Force's difficult budgetary decision is fairly represented in the report, the context in which that decision was made can only be understood by better assessing the risks to air superiority and global strike that retaining the A-10 fleet presents," the Air Force wrote in response to the report.

The Air Force wrote that it needs to cut the A-10 to have enough personnel to stand up the F-35, based on a January report from the Pentagon's Capabilities Assessment and Program Evaluation report that found the service would not have enough personnel to stand up the F-35 and maintain legacy aircraft.

However, the GAO responded that since the report didn't exist when the Air Force first decided to retire the A-10, it was not a part of the service's original decision making.

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