A Government Accountability Office report released last week added fuel to A-10 proponents’ arguments to keep the aircraft a staple of Air Force fleets.

For several years, the Air Force has tried to retire the A-10—commonly called the Warthog—in an effort to save money that could be funneled toward readiness, operations and procurement priorities, but the GAO says those savings may be overstated and divestment could lead to operational gaps.

The House Armed Services Committee, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, agreed to stop the Air Force from retiring its A-10 fleet as a cost-saving measure. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.
Over the past few years, Congress has stopped the Air Force from retiring its A-10 fleet as a cost-saving measure. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

In the fiscal year 2015 budget request, the service estimated that scrapping its Warthogs could save $4.2 billion over its five-year budget plan. However, GAO said that estimate might be off the mark. For instance, should the operational tempo for other close air support platforms increase, the Air Force may find itself paying more money to fuel and maintain those aircraft than it would have for the A-10.

“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,” it said.

Furthermore, the retirement of the A-10 will create gaps in close air support and other missions, the report found. The Defense Department is taking steps to mitigate some of that risk, such as phasing A-10 divestment over several years while F-35s are fielded, but the F-35 will have limited close air support capabilities until years after it is introduced in 2016.

“Divestiture of the A-10 could also contribute to gaps due to the training focus of its aircrews, its wide range of weapons, and its operational capabilities, including its ability to operate in austere environments and under the weather,” the report said.

The A-10 is the only Air Force fighter that conducts the “Combat Search and Rescue Sandy” role, in which the A-10 escorts helicopters to injured troops and defends personnel as they are recovered. It’s also the best aircraft to counter swarms of small boats, the report said.

The Air Force hasn’t figured out how to cover those missions just yet. It’s considering moving A-10 pilots and maintainers to F-16 and F-15 units that would focus on close air support missions and is studying whether those jets could take on the CSAR role, the GAO said.

After the report was released, the biggest A-10 supporters in Congress took a victory lap. Lawmakers have continually rejected the Air Force’s plans to divest the Warthog, a trend that continued this year as House and Senate included funding for the aircraft in the fiscal year 2016 authorization and appropriations bills working their way through Congress.

“This report underscores the concerns I have been raising for years about the Air Force’s misguided attempts to prematurely retire this vital aircraft,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in an emailed statement. “The A-10 is the best close-air support weapon in our arsenal and is playing an important role in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and in NATO’s effort to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. As the GAO confirms, any premature divestment of the A-10 would not only fail to achieve the Air Force’s purported cost savings, but also leave us with a serious capability gap that could put the lives of American soldiers in danger.”

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a former A-10 pilot who led House efforts to keep the plane, said the GAO report helps to prove that retiring the Warthog would yield negative consequences.

“Today’s report confirms what I have worked to highlight over months of hearings: that retiring the A-10 without a replacement would create dangerous capability gaps and put American lives at risk,” she said. “Not only did GAO find that divesting the A-10 would eliminate our ability to conduct Close Air Support, Combat Search and Rescue, and other critical capabilities, but that the Administration’s budget justification for doing so is based on incomplete information. While this report is welcome news, it will not eliminate the threat to the A-10, and I’m going to continue to fight to make sure we keep these vital capabilities.”

The GAO plans on releasing a more detailed report on A-10 divestment later this year.