The Defense Department and the Air Force do not have quality information on the full implications of A-10 divestment, including gaps that could be created by divestment and mitigation options, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a new report.

In report GAO-16-816, GAO said Wednesday without a clear understanding of the capability or capacity gaps and risks that could result from A-10 divestment, it is also unclear how effective, or necessary, the Air Force’s and DoD’s mitigation strategies will be. For example, although the Air Force has several efforts underway to generally mitigate the loss of capabilities that would result from A-10 divestment, it has not identified how, or if, it will replace the A-10’s role in combat search and rescue missions.

The venerable A-10. Photo: Air Force.
The venerable A-10. Photo: Air Force.

GAO found that capability gaps could exist in the following missions: close air support (CAS), forward air controller airborne (FAC(A)), combat search and rescue (CSAR) “Sandy”, joint terminal attack controller training (JTACT) and counter fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft (CFF) and air interdiction. Among those, GAO said Air Force FAC(A) training requirements are higher for A-10 pilots than those of other service aircraft. GAO also said the A-10 is currently the only aircraft assigned to the CSAR “Sandy” mission, which involves aircraft and pilots specifically trained to coordinate rescue action, escort helicopters on combat rescue missions and suppress enemy forces.

GAO said the Air Force’s recent proposal to postpone full A-10 divestment until 2022 mitigates some near-term capacity gaps, but divestment may still create capacity gaps and gaps in the service’s ability to conduct missions currently carried out by the A-10. Moreover, GAO said, the Air Force has not yet clearly identified gaps and resulting risks that could be created by A-10 divestment, so it is not well-positioned to determine appropriate mitigation strategies.

The Air Force’s ability to determine the effectiveness and necessity of its mitigation strategies is currently limited because it does not have clear requirements for CAS, though it has recently begun examining them. GAO said one of the difficulties in establishing a CAS requirement is that it is a fluid mission that can vary considerably according to circumstances. Unlike some missions where there are defined targets in known locations, GAO said CAS depends on the actions and interactions of enemy and friendly ground forces, making it more difficult to analyze. CAS is one of the A-10’s core missions.

GAO believes the Air Force did not meet all best practices in estimating cost savings from A-10 divestment, which affected its ability to determine comparable alternatives. In its fiscal year 2015 divestment proposal, GAO said it found the Air Force’s cost estimates partially met best practices for being comprehensive and minimally met best practices for being well-documented and accurate while not  meeting best practices for being credible.

Since the Air Force’s cost estimate did not meet best practices in these areas, GAO said the 2015 proposal potentially overstated or misunderstood the actual savings from A-10 divestment. Additionally, GAO said Air Force officials stated they used similar practices to estimate cost savings when developing budget requests for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, thereby continuing to potentially overstate or understate the actual savings from A-10 divestment.

The Air Force non-concurred with GAO’s recommendation that the service develop quality information that fully identifies gaps in capacity or capability resulting from A-10 divestment before it again recommends A-10 divestment. The Air Force told GAO that the office failed to highlight service analysis that indicated the A-10 divestment was the most acceptable strategy, specifically citing two classified documents as evidence that it had the necessary information to support its divestment decision.

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a proponent of the Air Force keeping the A-10, said Wednesday in a statement that the GAO report confirms the service’s flaws in its A-10 retirement plan.

“I’ve fought for and won full funding for our entire A-10 fleet and to make the retirement of any A-10 condition-based, not-time based,” McSally said. “I’ll continue to work to make sure our provisions, including a mandated A-10/F-35 fly-off, get signed into law.”