Air Force Chief: Shelving A-10 Makes 'Eminent Sense' Given Budget Constraints

By Dan Parsons
The Air Force’s highest ranked officer said the contentious decision to divest the entire fleet of A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft is the only option that allows the service to perform its core missions within the budget allowed by Congress.
Retiring the A-10 fleet will save the Air Force $4.2 billion. “It’s not emotional. It’s logical," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said April 23 in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "It makes eminent sense from a military perspective if you have to make these kinds of cuts,” he said.
The decision is unpopular on Capitol Hill and may be reversed by lawmakers whose districts are home to A-10 units and maintenance facilities.
Members of both houses of Congress have promised to amend the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act with language that would block shelving the close air support aircraft.
Getting rid of the entire fleet was necessary to achieve large-scale savings, Welsh said. If the service kept only the Warthogs that have been fitted with new wings in recent years, it would save only $1 billion. The additional $3.2 billion in savings would pay for half of the service’s annual flying hours, he said.
“We decided to do that because we can’t find billions of dollars of savings in many places,” he said.
The service considered cutting hundreds of aircraft from both the F-15 and B-1 fleets. It also considered pushing the purchase of the F-35 outside the five-year defense plan, “which drives [up] costs in lots of other areas, by the way. ... We looked at all those options, we took each one independently and ran it through an operational analysis … and we came very clearly to the conclusion that of all those horrible options, the least operationally impactful was to divest the A-10.”
The A-10 was developed in the 1970s to provide close-air support for ground troops. It was intended to destroy tanks on the plains of Europe if the Cold War ever escalated to a full-blown conflict.
Designed to fly low and slow to cover ground troops, the A-10 is unlikely to survive a high-threat, contested airspace, Welsh said. While the A-10 is only capable of performing one mission, the F-15, F-16, B-1 and AC-130 all can perform close air support, he said.
The Air Force has five key mission areas: maintaining airspace superiority, global strike, intelligence gathering, strategic airlift and providing command and control. Eliminating the A-10 was the only option that yielded a fleet’s worth of savings without irreparably damaging the service’s ability to fulfill those missions, Welsh said. He said the decision was made only after cuts to each mission set were considered.
When the service capped its F-22 buy, it had to support the fifth-generation fighter with another aircraft to be able to provide a “theater’s worth of air superiority,” Welsh said. Until the F-35 comes online, the F-15C Eagle is filling that role.
“We are cutting F-15s out of the fleet this year as part of the budget cuts, but we can’t eliminate the entire fleet because we won’t be able to do the air superiority mission and our combatant commanders won’t accept that.”
To achieve savings equal to killing the A-10, the service would have to divest 363 F-16 fighters, which is equivalent to 14 squadrons. Achieving air superiority in a large-scale conflict with the resultant level of fighters “would be almost impossible to achieve,” Welsh said.
“Fleets let you save big money,” he added. “You get rid of logistical infrastructure and all the back supply channels, all those things that cost a whole lot of money.”
Air Force planners also looked to its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets for budget savings. But the number-one item on combatant commanders’ wish lists — and the equipment that is perennially in short supply — is ISR, Welsh said.
“We are already cutting ISR in this budget, from every mission area, but they would not support us cutting any more than projected,” he said of regional commanders.
Cuts were considered also to global strategic airlift. Because both the Air Force and Army are reducing end strength as a result of budget cuts, Welsh considered reducing the number of airlift assets in kind. Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno balked at the notion because a smaller Army needs to be more flexible and mobile, Welsh said.
The Air Force also considered cutting its current and future fleets of aerial refueling tankers, Welsh said. Cutting the KC-10 fleet was a viable option, but was ultimately decided against because fulfilling the need for aerial refueling with the smaller KC-135 would be “ugly,” Welsh said. It would have taken three times as many KC-135s to achieve the same savings as divesting the KC-10 fleet and at that level, the mission could not be accomplished, Welsh said.
Because the Air Force is the only service capable of providing command and control capabilities throughout an entire theater, no one in the Pentagon advocated cutting systems in that area, Welsh said. That left only strike platforms to supply the necessary savings.
The bomber fleet is aging but necessary, so neither the B-2 nor B-52 were considered for major cuts, Welsh said.
Measured cuts are being made to each core mission area without wholly eliminating any other fleets or capabilities.
The Air Force is cutting its desired modernization programs by half, Welsh said. A few key programs are being protected from deep cuts out of necessity, however. Those include the KC-46 tanker, the F-35 joint strike fighter and a future long-range strike bomber.
Those programs have been spared the budget ax “for operational reasons, so that we make sure we have a viable Air Force 10 years from now,” Welsh said.
“We’re doing everything we can to maintain that balance between being ready to do the nation’s business today and being capable of doing it 10 years from now against threats that are clearly getting more capable and in some cases are getting more complicated,” he said.
Budget projections for 2015 from just three years ago were $20 billion higher than what the Air Force actually requested for next fiscal year, Welsh said. Designing an Air Force that in three years could operate with a 20 percent reduction in funding called for significant adjustments to force structure and aircraft fleets and is one reason why the divestment of aircraft seems dramatic, he said.
“Trimming around the edges as we made our budget proposal just was not going to work,” he said. “We had to look at some pretty dramatic things. … One of those things was cutting fleets of aircraft.”

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Tactical Aircraft

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