Air Force Balks at Retirement of A-10 Warthog, Studies Reduction in F-35 Numbers

By Allyson Versprille

Increasing demand for the A-10 Warthog means the Air Force may have to delay its controversial plans to retire the aircraft by two to three years, the leader of Air Combat Command said Nov. 10.

"One of our challenges today is capacity. If you look at the demand signal that's placed on the United States Air Force across all of our mission areas, the demand signal has gone up," said ACC Commander Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle.

Because of this increasing demand on the service's fleets, it is likely thatthe retirement of the majority of the Air Force's A-10s will be delayed beyond the previously stated goal, Carlisle told reporters in Washington, D.C. The service was aiming to cease operating the plane in 2019, its officials have said.

"We have to retire airplanes, but I think moving it to the right and starting it a bit later, and maybe keeping the airplane around a little bit longer is something that's being considered," he said.

Potentially keeping the A-10 in service longer is a result of several present-day circumstances including the continued fight against ISIL, and military commitments in Turkey, Yemen, Africa, Libya and Afghanistan as well as a slower than expected F-35 procurement rate, Carlisle said.

He recently deployed A-10s to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to assist in the fight against the Islamic State. "I'm the one that's sending them," he said."I have A-10s and I will use them because they're fantastic airplanes. Their guys are incredibly well-trained and they do fantastic work in support of the joint warfight."

Carlisle's comments and the recent deployment of A-10 squadrons to overseas theaters comes in stark contrast to his predecessor at ACC Gen. Michael Hostage, who said in 2014 before his retirement that theA-10 was no longer suitable for combat in the Middle East. "I can't send an A-10 to Syria. It would never come back," he said. 

The Air Force's desire to retire the A-10 and replace them with F-35s as they come online has been controversial in Congress and among the Warthog's fans. They are skeptical that the F-35 can provide the same kind of close-air support as the A-10. Air Force officials have countered that they would like to keep the low and slow flying aircraft, but with tight budgets, the service can't afford to keep it in its inventory.

Some A-10 squadrons will be retired sooner and replaced by F-16s coming out of Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Carlisle added.

Growing threats have tested the Air Force's current capacity, which is significantly lower than it has been historically, he noted. At "the height of Desert Storm we had 180 fighter squadrons. ... Today we have 55."

The challenge is playing a role in the service's decision to potentially reduce the number of F-35s it buys. It had originally planned to procure 1,763 but Congress has since asked the Air Force to reexamine that number. The service is currently working on a report, which it owes to Congress 180 days after the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act is enacted, he said.

"We're going to look at wargaming, what kind of capacity we need, what combination of fourth- and fifth-generation capability [we need], what long-range strike bomber does with respect to the ground attack or the precision attack capability — we're looking at all of those things," Carlisle said.

"As we look to the future and what we're going to do, I think there is a decision to be made on how many F-35s we are going to buy." However, "it's way too early to make that decision."

Carlisle said that a more natural time frame to determine whether or not to reduce that number is when the F-35 is fully operational and capable. The service is planning to declare initial operating capability in 2016 between August and December, and will have its first Block 4 aircraft in about 2021.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Tactical Aircraft

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