Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh came under heavy fire on Thursday from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over plans to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II, which has found renewed purpose in combat against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
McCain called the ongoing attempts by the Air Force to retire the 1970s-era A-10 a “folly,” when it has proven the “most effective close air support (CAS) system we have” in the current fight against ISIL and the Air Force has no plan to replace it.
The Air Force has argued that the F-35A eventually will assume the A-10’s CAS mission, but Welsh said on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the long-delayed fifth-generation fighter will not. He said legacy F-16 and F-15E aircraft are helping with the CAS heavy lifting in the air campaign against ISIL.
“The mission capability of the A-10 will not be replaced by the F-35,” Welsh said. “We will do that work that the A-10 is doing today with the F-16 and the F-15E predominantly.”
McCain said called that assertion “unfortunately disingenuous.”
The Air Force scrapped plans to retire the highly regarded A-10 this year, but plans to begin divesting it in fiscal year 2018 because it is costly to maintain even after a good portion of the fleet has been rewinged, among other service life extensions. Air Force officials also contend the A-10 would not survive in a contested environment in which the enemy has integrated air defense systems because it flies low and slow and is highly visible to radar.
“You have nothing to replace it with,” McCain said. “Otherwise you‘d be using the F-15s and the F-16s, which you have plenty of but you’re using the A-10 because it’s the most effective weapons system. This is really unfortunately disingenuous.”
McCain insisted that the A-10 has flown the majority of airstrikes against ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria, although the Pentagon has not publicly identified specific aircraft that performed the daily list of bombings it publishes. Welsh said that the A-10s were not taking on the majority of strikes, though they did perform a high profile mission to destroy a convoy of ISIL fuel trucks. A squadron of A-10s has been deployed to Turkey since October.
“That, again, flies in the face of reality,” McCain said. “The A-10s are flying the most effective and least costly missions in Iraq and Syria.”
“Those are not the facts,” Welsh said, adding that the Air Force would prefer not to retire the aircraft, which is beloved by pilots and ground troops that have received cover from its 30mm rotary cannon. Unfortunately, the service is under congressionally mandated budget caps and does not foresee a way to maintain or replace the aircraft, Welsh said.
“We don’t want to retire it, senator, but the Air Force has to get bigger to do all this, period,” he said.
“The facts are on the ground in the destruction of the enemy by the A-10,” McCain shot back.
“You have no replacement for it and for you to sit here and say that you do flies in the face of reality,” McCain said. “It’s really embarrassing to hear you say something like that when I talk to people who are doing the flying, who are doing the combat, who say the A-10 is by far the best close air support system we have.”