The US Air Force (USAF) has scaled back a request to retire its ageing Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support (CAS) fleet in hopes that lawmakers resistant to the full divestment will allow a partial fleet retirement, congressional and military sources told IHS Jane's on 11 November.
The USAF is now asking for permission to retire 72 A-10s, or three active-duty squadrons, in fiscal year 2015 (FY 2015), according to two congressional aides. A gradual phase-out would then occur over the next five years.
The first aide, a House Republican staffer, said key lawmakers in the lower chamber have been receptive to the proposal, first fielded in October. The second aide, a Senate Republican staffer, acknowledged that resistance to any A-10 retirements remains firmer in the upper chamber. However, the new proposal "stands more of a chance than trying to [retire] the whole fleet," the aide said.
US military leaders recently warned that Congress's opposition to A-10 retirement is undermining the air force's goal to make its new fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter combat aircraft operationally deployable in August 2016.
"Up until recently, 2016 IOC [initial operating capability] was looking pretty good," Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 programme manager, said on 30 October. The USAF now expects a shortage of fully trained maintenance personnel because the A-10 mechanics it had planned to train quickly for F-35 work may have to remain with the legacy programme.
A combination of new and experienced maintainers was expected to complete F-35 maintenance training to meet the need for 1,100 personnel at the outset of IOC. The USAF had planned to retire the A-10 and anticipated that many of the experienced maintainers, who are retrained more quickly than novices are able to go through full-up training, would come from the A-10 career field.
In its FY 2015 budget proposal, the USAF favoured procurement of new platforms and retirement of less survivable aircraft in order to keep pace with adversaries' increasing technological sophistication, officials said in January. However, various special interests in the US Congress have found ways to stall those plans throughout the latest legislative session.
So far, the Pentagon has requested it be allowed to scrap the entire A-10 and Lockheed U-2 fleets. The Pentagon projects that the A-10 cut would save USD3.5 billion and free up hundreds of experienced personnel for other career fields.
Despite certain critics' outspokenness, congressional aides tell IHS Jane's that the A-10 retirement issue is not viewed as particularly partisan within the halls of Congress. Given its parochial nature, the battle over A-10 will likely take longer to resolve and will involve stranger bedfellows than many of the typical partisan wranglings on Capitol Hill.
When Congress returns for a regular session in January 2015, the Senate Armed Services Committee's retiring Democrat chairman will be replaced - likely by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. The state is home to about 80 A-10s at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Just two days after US elections resulted in his party's recapturing control of the Senate, McCain said there was "no doubt" Congress will prevent the A-10's retirement.
Another key congressional proponent of the aircraft, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, recently called the air force's claims about F-35 IOC challenges stemming from the A-10 a "false choice". She has said that maintenance personnel could be drawn from other career fields. However, USAF sources tell IHS Jane's that recent increases in demand for legacy aircraft like F-16s in Europe as well as the Middle East have narrowed their alternatives for redirecting experienced personnel to the F-35.
The vast majority of senators and members of both parties are not strongly committed to either keeping or retiring the A-10, so much political work will have to be done before an agreement is reached.