A-10 Warthog faces elimination. Will Congress save it again?

A-10 Warthog is old, expensive, and hard to maintain. The Pentagon wants the plane axed in the 2015 budget. But powerful lawmakers, once again, are coming to its defense.

Greg L. Davis/US Air Force/Reuters/File
Two US Air Force A-10A Warthogs, in flight during a NATO Operation Allied Force combat mission, April 22, 1999. Once again, the Pentagon aims to retire the venerable 'Tank Killer,' as defenders in Congress line up to extend its tenure.

The A-10 “Warthog” is facing elimination. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is proposing to eliminate funds for the venerable ground support aircraft in the Pentagon’s 2015 budget. The move would save $3.5 billion over the next five years, according to Secretary Hagel – money the Air Force needs to help pay for newer weapons, such as the F-35.

Is this finally the end for the A-10? Maybe – the plane is old, slow, and ungainly. It’s low-tech in a high-tech world, an ancient piece of US iron in an air combat environment vastly different from the one for which it was designed.

But it would be a mistake to write the Warthog off. It is a tough survivor, in both the skies and the halls of Congress. The Department of Defense has tried to kill the aircraft before, and failed.

Look at the reaction of Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan to see why this is so. Senator Levin is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, though he is retiring in the fall. There are 24 A-10s based at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in his home state. He also remembers how Congress pushed for the A-10's original production, over some military objections, and has voted to keep the plane alive over the years.

“The A-10 has a vital capability, and we must ensure that we maintain that capability,” said Levin, earlier this week. “Those who propose eliminating the A-10 have a heavy burden of proof. Any such proposal will receive close scrutiny.”

The Republic A-10 is officially named the “Thunderbolt II," after the ungainly ground support Thunderbolt of World War II. Designed in the early 1970s, it is a cross-shaped aircraft built around a 30-mm cannon, the heaviest such weapon in the air. The plane is heavily armored against ground fire. The pilot, for instance, sits in a titanium tub. It’s intended to attack enemy tanks and other armored vehicles.

The Air Force of the era was not enamored of the plane. It was slow and ugly, as opposed to the service’s fast and graceful fighters. Originally, Air Force leaders tolerated its development because they saw it as a way to keep the Army out of the close air support mission, according to a National Defense University student thesis written in 2003. Eventually they discovered that the A-10 “had picked up enough congressional and [Office of the Secretary of Defense] support to resist the dominant ‘high-tech’ USAF culture,” wrote NDU student Arden Dahl.

Fast forward to the 21st century. The A-10 had played a crucial role in the Gulf War, destroying more than 900 Iraqi tanks and hundreds more military trucks and other vehicles. It provided suppressive gunfire to support troops in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it was also 40 years old and increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain. The advent of precision-guided munitions meant that many Air Force aircraft could attack enemy ground forces engaged in combat.

That meant the plane’s time might be up.

However, in recent years Congress has repeatedly pushed back against Pentagon efforts to cut the aircraft and its associated Air National Guard units.

The powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Levin, has A-10s in his state, which has helped. In 2012, lawmakers rejected a plan to pull A-10s out of Michigan, for instance. The Arizona congressional delegation has also united in support of the aircraft, which is a mainstay at Davis-Monthan Air Base near Tucson.

One of the A-10s' most vociferous defenders is Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, whose husband flew the aircraft in the Gulf War. Last September, she blocked the nomination of Deborah Lee James as secretary of the Air Force until the service responded in writing to questions about the A-10’s future. She later relented but has continued to watch warily as the service decided to do away with the program.

She has pledged to fight the forced retirement.

“Instead of cutting its best and least expensive close air support aircraft in an attempt to save money, the Air Force could achieve similar savings elsewhere in its budget without putting our troops at increased risk,” Senator Ayotte said this week.

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