Carlisle: Keeping A-10 in Fleet Hinders Air Force Modernization
“Keeping legacy fleets around when we’ve tried to divest them has an impact on modernization,” said Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command. “If we keep those, we’re keeping maintainers, we’re keeping [operations and maintenance] costs, we’re keeping program depot maintenance. We’re doing all of those things for those A-10s and that money can’t be put into F-35s,” Carlisle said following his keynote at the Air Force Association’s 2016 Air Warfare Symposium.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II, nicknamed the “Warthog,” entered into service in the 1970s. The recent fiscal year 2017 budget request delayed the controversial retirement of the platform to 2022. Previous budget requests sought to divest the Warthog fleet, which ran into opposition in Congress. Service officials have estimated that it will cost the Air Force $3.4 billion to keep the platform in the inventory over the next five years.
When transitioning to modern airframes, the best way to take full advantage of the service’s tight resources is to retire full fleets, as opposed to keeping small numbers of different platforms in service longer, Carlisle told reporters. “If you’re going to use the resources you have the best, the best thing to do is take out an entire fleet,” he said. “That’s what we tried to do with the A-10 because then you can take out the logistics infrastructure, you can take out the training infrastructure, and you get more bang for your buck.”
The decision to keep the A-10 has forced the service to ask for industry’s help with F-35 maintenance.
“The A-10 community has continued to ensure that the A-10 is in the inventory,” said Jeff Babione, executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 program at Lockheed. As a result of that decision, the Air Force does not have enough maintainers to work on both the F-35 and A-10, he said. To fill that need, Lockheed Martin, along with its industry partners, have gone to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and taken over maintenance of an entire wing, he noted. Eventually the company plans on having 400 Lockheed technicians working at the base to sustain 47 international F-35s, Babione told reporters.
Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, said having contractors involved in maintenance support at Luke is not a long-term solution to the maintainer shortfall. However, increasing manpower and building up the skill set among service members could take several years, she added.
Maj. Gen. Thomas Deale, the director of operations at Air Combat Command, who has flown combat missions with the A-10 in Iraq and Afghanistan, said while the aircraft has proven itself to be an “exceptional” platform, “we have literally flown the wings off of it.”
The aircraft will have to be divested at some point because of its age, the stress that have been placed on it over the years, and the Air Force’s inability to keep up with the platform’s increasing operations and maintenance costs, he said.
“Likewise, when we look at the highly contested environments, it’s not one that the A-10 was designed for, it’s not one that it’s going to have access to,” he said. “The F-35 is going to be incredible in close-air support. It is not going to do it the same way that the A-10 does, but the A-10 is not going to have the sensor integration,” spatial awareness or ability to share information across the joint force that the F-35 does, he said.
“As we’re going towards recapitalization of the force with a smaller force structure, we’ve got to make sure we get the biggest bang out of our buck, and that’s going to drive us to a multi-mission solution,” Deale said. “The days of having the luxury of unique, specialized capabilities are fleeting.”
The service could face similar issues as it starts to develop and produce the long-range strike bomber, according to Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.
The Air Force currently has three legacy bombers in its fleet — B-52s, B-1s and B-2s. The B-52 was introduced in the 1950s and the newest, the B-2, is already 25 years old, he said. As the new bomber comes on line, one of the legacy platforms — probably the B-52 or B-1 — could face retirement, he told reporters.
“When we get the LRS-B in production and start delivering it, it will be very, very difficult” to keep all of the bombers in the fleet, he said. “We couldn’t maintain four bombers if we wanted to.” The best way to save resources would be to divest of an entire fleet, he added, echoing Carlisle’s comments about the A-10 and F-35.
Unless the service receives a significant increase in resources or manpower, it won’t be feasible to keep them all, he said. At the same time he asked why the Air Force would necessarily want to try to keep those aircraft in service well beyond their anticipated combat lives.
“At some point in time those legacy bombers will need to be retired,” Rand said. While the Air Force hasn’t made any firm decisions on when that will happen, “we’re going to start the discussion so that we’re well informed and that we’re prepared.”