A new analysis by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) points to the possible unavailability of 63 percent of the U.S. Air Force’s A-10 fleet for deployments in 2023 because of parts shortages.
The Air Force has requested the retirement of 42 A-10s in fiscal 2022 as a first step to downsize the fleet of close air support 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 wrote in a Sept. 15 email. “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.
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, but the service did say that it has no plans for a program to replace the A-10.
Boeing [BA] built new wings for 173 A-10s under the 2007 A-10 Enhanced Wing Assembly Replacement program worth $1.1 billion. That effort began in 2011 but halted in fiscal 2019 after the re-winging of the 173 planes.
Under the A-10 Advanced-Wing Continuation Kit (ATTACK) program, the Air Force has planned to re-wing dozens of additional A-10s.
The slide Grazier obtained said that the AFMC goal “remains to defer and reduce groundings until ATTACK wings can recapitalize fleet.”
“The A-10 fleet is missing more than new wings,” Grazier wrote in the POGO analysis. “A-10 squadrons are also missing central interface computer units, integrated flight and fire control computers, radios, hydraulic actuators to control flight surfaces, and all replacement parts for the 30mm GAU-8/A cannon. Part shortages for the cannon are so acute that at one squadron there are anywhere between three and eight aircraft that can’t shoot at any given time. The parts are missing because Air Force leaders have not renewed contracts with the suppliers, according to a source within the A-10 community.”
In 2019, the Air Force said that it wanted to redesign the A-10’s computer, the Central Interface Control Unit (CICU), to improve processing power and reliability of the unit, which manages pilot graphics and communications (Defense Daily, Aug. 13).
The Air Force has said that the CICU box’s electronics are prone to vibration effects from the A-10’s General Electric [GE] GAU-8/A Avenger 30 mm cannon. The Air Force has looked to put the unit, located outside the gun, in another place that is not as vulnerable to heat and vibration.
The new computer is to be the Central Interface Control System (CICS), and the Air Force said that it plans to award a CICS contract in fiscal 2022 to deliver “a state-of-the-art processor affording a reliable, maintainable and capable foundation should there be future A-10 modernization programs.”
While some in Congress have favored upgrades to the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 to enhance its ground attack, A-10 advocates believe that the F-35 will not fare well in the “low and slow” close air support role.
“The F-35 can never be a true replacement for the A-10 for several reasons,” Grazier wrote in a Sept. 14 email. “The F-35 doesn’t have the legs to be an effective partner for ground troops. It can’t carry enough munitions to go the distance even if it did, and I doubt the troops on the ground will trust it the way they should because they will rarely ever get to train with it due to its low readiness rates. More importantly, if the A-10 is retired before a dedicated replacement is fully fielded, the Air Force will lose its close air support expertise. Many attack pilots will simply drop papers.”
“Those [pilots] that stay will be spread out among the multirole communities and their knowledge will get diluted,” according to Grazier. “Commanders of the multirole squadrons will be unlikely to devote much valuable training time to the mission and instead focus on the roles they find more interesting. Close air support skills are remarkably perishable. It took less than five years from the end of World War II to the beginning of the Korean War for the Air Force to essentially completely lose its close air support capabilities. Only a new A-X program will ensure the Air Force has a dedicated attack community specializing in close air support.”
Grazier said that the “impetus will have to come from there because there is little interest among the Air Force leadership.”
“The original A-X program happened over the objections of most of the Air Force leaders, so the next one will follow a historical precedent,” he said.
As an alternative, some defense observers are proposing that the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps assume budgetary authority for acquiring fixed wing close air support aircraft.