This story was updated April 27 at 10:52 a.m. to correct which missions are moving from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona.
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona appears poised to trade its stalwart fleet of A-10C “Warthog” attack planes for a new special operations wing.
The move follows years of debate in Washington over the future of the A-10, which the Air Force plans to retire by the end of the decade in favor of more advanced fighter jets. Bringing in a special operations wing would keep jobs at the Tucson installation while taking it in a different direction than the service had planned.
A service spokesperson said Tuesday the Air Force is still “working through the details” of the new organization, which is listed in the service’s fiscal 2024 budget request as the “492nd Power Projection Wing.”
It’s unclear what, precisely, the wing will do. Most wings that fall under Air Force Special Operations Command oversee multiple specialized aircraft — from the AC-130 gunship to the U-28 surveillance plane — that allow troops to move around warzones quietly and quickly, and with the substantial firepower needed to protect ground forces.
Members of Arizona’s congressional delegation raised the prospect of a new “special operations capability” with a flying mission at Davis-Monthan in a public letter to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall earlier this month.
The bipartisan group of Arizona lawmakers — Sen. Mark Kelly and Rep. Ruben Gallego, both Democrats; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent who caucuses with Democrats; and Rep. Juan Ciscomani, a Republican — said they are encouraged by the service’s vision and urged transparency as its work moves forward.
“The Air Force has laid out an ambitious timeline for executing this transition at Davis-Monthan through a series of facility reviews, military construction and incoming flying missions,” the group wrote in its April 6 letter. “Delivering on this five-year plan requires meeting a number of targets that must be consistently met to avoid delays that negatively impact the base and the local economy.”
Davis-Monthan will continue to host the Compass Call electronic attack mission with a slightly smaller fleet of new EC-37B jets, which will replace the 40-year-old EC-130Hs, and the combat search-and-rescue mission using the fixed-wing HC-130J Combat Kings and the new HH-60W Jolly Green II helicopter.
Lawmakers said Davis-Monthan will still employ around 11,000 airmen in five years, the same size workforce as it has now, despite changes to its core missions. The Air Force must still work through its official basing process before making any firm decisions to bring new missions to Tucson.
The service’s pivot to establish a new special operations wing at Davis-Monthan indicates it has ditched an earlier plan to move the test and training enterprise for A-10s from Nellis AFB, Nevada, to Arizona. It still expects to move those units for the HH-60 fleet to Arizona.
The service plans to continue downsizing its A-10 fleet from 260 to 218 aircraft by the end of September 2024, with the rest to follow over the next five years. Congress ended its yearslong opposition to retiring the A-10 last December, paving the way for divestment of the venerable close air support platform that has protected ground troops on the front lines of America’s wars for decades.
A-10 retirement is one piece of the Air Force’s broader vision to modernize its inventory with equipment that would be most useful and durable in a potential conflict with China. Critics argue the Warthog would be too vulnerable against advanced surface-to-air missiles and lacks the long-range strike capabilities needed for war in the Pacific.
“The A-10 is a great airplane … in an uncontested environment,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. said in March. “The challenge is, we’re going to be in more contested environments in the future.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.