On paper, the Air Force plans to start mothballing the A-10 in 2018, with the last Warthogs sent to the boneyard by 2021. But last month Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said that the retirement of the A-10 would likely have to be delayed further as the military continues to rely on the low-and-slow attack plane for close-air support (CAS) missions flown against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Even more telling, the Air Force Material Command (AFMC) is bringing the depot line for A-10 maintenance and repair back up to full capacity, according to Aviation Week.
The Hawg isn't going anywhere.
"They have re-geared up, we've turned on the depot line, we're building it back up in capacity and supply chain," AFMC chief Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski recently told Aviation Week. "Our command, anyway, is approaching this as another airplane that we are sustaining indefinitely."
Air Force maintainers are also preparing to replace the wings of the A-10 fleet, tapping a $2 billion contract originally awarded to Boeing in 2007, which was intended at the time to keep the fleet flying until 2028. Some corrosion of the planes has been seen at the depots, but Pawlikowski says this is to be expected, especially on an aircraft that has been in service since 1977.
Much of the leadership within the Air Force is keen to retire the A-10 so that the resources used to maintain the fleet can be pumped into the fifth-generation F-35 program. However, the A-10 is the Air Force's only plane with the sole purpose of CAS to protect ground troops. In the current struggle against the Islamic State, a heavily armed and armored attack plane with a long loiter time—and the GAU-8 Avenger 30-millimeter gatling gun that holds 1,350 armor-piercing rounds—is significantly more useful than a stealthy, fast, software-laden fighter like the F-35.
To keep the A-10 fleet of 283 aircraft flying, Hill Air Force Base in Utah, where most of the A-10 maintenance and repair work is done, is continuing to prepare for increased capacity. According to Aviation Week, the A-10 division at Hill has improved the aircraft availability rate from about 63 to 68 percent in the past year, accounting for 87,000 flight hours worldwide in fiscal year 2015.
The Air Force has been pressured by a group in Congress with widespread public support to keep the A-10 fleet maintained and flying CAS missions until an adequate replacement has been realized. Some Representatives have even suggested that the A-10's retirement should be contingent on the F-35—the Warthog's ostensible short-term replacement—being deployed in current conflicts.
"The Air Force has been at war for a long time, and every time we think things are going to slow down for us something else happens," Pawlikowski told Aviation Week. "We struggle with, how do we find that balance between modernization and the sustainment of what we have?"
A controversial plan to replace the A-10 with two aircraft has emerged among Air Force leadership. The tentative strategy would involve using an off-the-shelf turboprop aircraft, such as the A-29 Super Tucano or the AT-6 Wolverine, to fly a supporting role to the A-10 until a new aircraft, either a clean-sheet design or modified existing aircraft, could be developed as a more complete replacement.
With Air Force financial resources already stretched thin from the F-35 program, and an uncertain future budget due to the elections in November, it remains to be seen if the two-plane replacement plan is viable or not.
Whatever the Air Force decides to replace the A-10 with, one thing is clear: The Warthog won't be replaced by anything for some years yet.
(Jay Bennett - Popular Mechanics)