Air Force Gen. Arnold Bunch Jr., the head of Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), said on Sept. 21 that the Air Force remains committed to the close air support (CAS) mission, even as the service proposes the retirement of 42 A-10s in fiscal 2022.

The Pentagon has classified a study that used 2018 and 2019 flight test data to compare the effectiveness of the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 and the A-10 for close air support, airborne forward air control, and combat search and rescue missions.

“CAS is a mission,” Bunch said in response to a question at a press roundtable at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber conference on Sept. 21. “It [CAS] is not an airplane. We have done CAS with B-52s, with B-1s, with F-16s, with F-15Es. We can do CAS with many platforms. We are not stepping away from our commitment as a service to provide close air support to service members.”

“I do not want that attached to any singular platform,” Bunch said of CAS. “With what we have done with precision weapons, with what we’ve done with how we’ve controlled our forward air controllers to communicate back, with the systems that we have set up and our communications systems, we can do CAS in any number of ways. The A-10 has done a very effective job at doing that. That’s why we have a number of them that are still going to be in our inventory for an extended period of time.”

The A-10s “do not cost a ton to operate, and they do provide a valuable niche in some areas, and they do that mission very well,” he said. “But I am not the individual that’s going to tell you that CAS is all A-10. I will tell you that’s evolved over time. Lt. Bunch flying B-52s would not see B-52s at CAS level. Gen. Bunch, watching what you can do with JDAMs and with the precision we have worked our way to, with the weapons we’ve developed, I’m very confident saying that a B-52 can do CAS.”

An analysis by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) points to the possible unavailability of 63 percent of the Air Force’s A-10 fleet for deployments in 2023 because of parts shortages (Defense Daily, Sept. 15).

The Air Force has requested the retirement of 42 A-10s in fiscal 2022 as a first step to downsize the fleet of CAS planes from 281 to 218 to free up funds to devote to research and development for future needs.

The A-10 has been a target of proposed cuts by the Air Force before, including in 2014, when the service requested the retirement of the then-fleet of 334 planes to save $4.2 billion over five years–a proposal that Congress rebuffed.

“The Air Force spends significant money and manpower to keep the nearly 45 year old [A-10] aircraft operational,” an Air Force spokeswoman said last week. “In fact, the Air Force has invested $880 million in A-10 modernization with plans of flying the aircraft into the 2030s.”

Dan Grazier, the Jack Shanahan military fellow at POGO’s Center for Defense Information and a retired U.S. Marine, wrote the POGO analysis with help from the late Pierre Sprey, a defense analyst who had written requirements for the fly-off for the 1960s A-X program, which preceded the development of the A-10.

“I actually agree wholeheartedly with Gen. Bunch that CAS is a mission and not an airplane,” Grazier wrote in a Sept. 22 email. “CAS is a very delicate mission that requires dedicated professionals who specialize in it. The only way the Air Force will have those specialists is to have a dedicated CAS aircraft. That is why we advocate saving the A-10 program at its current levels until a specific replacement aircraft is fielded. Saving the A-10 now is not about the aircraft. It’s about preserving the expertise of the pilots.”

For the POGO analysis, Grazier obtained an A-10 Wing Management Plan slide by Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) from February last year that indicates that 177 A-10s may be unavailable in fiscal 2023.

The Air Force did not dispute the accuracy of the slide and said that it has no plans for a program to replace the A-10.