Endangered species: ‘Warthog’ faces extinction as Air Force eyes Pacific

Two A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft pilots fly in formation during a training exercise March 16, 2010, at Moody Air Force, Ga. Members of the 74th Fighter Squadron performed surge operations to push its support function to the limit and simulate pilots' wartime flying rates. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Benjamin Wiseman)Two A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft pilots fly in formation during a training exercise March 16, 2010, at Moody Air Force, Ga. Members of the 74th Fighter Squadron performed surge operations to push its support function to the limit and simulate pilots’ wartime flying rates. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Benjamin Wiseman)

The Air Force’s A-10 “Warthog,” which provides close air support for ground troops, has survived enemy anti-aircraft fire for decades but is about to be downed by the budget cutter’s pen.

With combat envisioned in the Asia-Pacific region, there is little room for a “tank killer” like the A-10 Thunderbolt — nicknamed “Warthog” because of its look — and other long-treasured weapons systems in a Pentagon budget facing deep reductions, officials say.


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The budget cuts also could reduce production of the KC-10 Extender tanker aircraft, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the Ground Combat Vehicle.

“Do we want a ready force today or a modern force tomorrow? That’s the dilemma. You can’t have both,” Gen. Mark Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, said last week at the American Enterprise Institute. “If you lose a counterinsurgency action, it’s embarrassing. If you lose a full-spectrum conflict, it will be catastrophic.”

Officials are considering retiring the Air Force fleet of 324 A-10s by 2015, which would save about $3.7 billion a year in operational, maintenance and logistical costs. At least three times as many F-16s would have to be cut to get the same amount of savings, Gen. Welsh said.

Lt. Col. Brian Burger fires off a flare while banking into a high-angle firing position during a training exercise over Razorback Range at Fort Chaffee Maneuver Training Center, Ark., June 4, 2012. The 188th Fighter Wing, nearing its second deployment to Afghanistan with the A-10 Thunderbolt II, regularly conducts training with joint terminal attack controllers from different branches of service to sharpen its close air support skills and to conduct efficient training with JTACs. Burger is an A-10 pilot and the 188th Operations Group commander. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Ben Bloker)

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The downsizing would affect those who fly and support A-10 units based in Idaho, Arizona, Florida, Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, Georgia, Nevada, Michigan, Missouri and South Korea.

Introduced in 1977, the A-10 has supplied about 25 percent of close air support to ground troops in battle over the past decades, making it a lifesaver in the 1991 Persian Gulf War as well as the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

“Is the A-10 the best at close air support? Absolutely,” Gen. Welsh, a former A-10 pilot, said Friday at a Pentagon news conference. “[But] we can do it with other aircraft. Those other aircraft do other things for us.”

Supporters of the Warthog say other aircraft can perform close air support only in a “second-rate manner” and service members fighting on the ground would end up suffering the most from its elimination.

“The A-10 has proven successful in every single war we’ve fought since Desert Storm in 1991,” said Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Project on Government Oversight.

“In 2000, name one person who said the next war we would fight would be in Afghanistan and would be a ground war,” Mr. Wheeler said. “Anybody who says they know what the next war is going to be like and therefore we need ‘X’ and should discard ‘Y’ is a person with an agenda.”

The Pentagon already had cut its budget by nearly $500 billion over the next decade when automatic spending cuts called sequestration began this year, requiring an additional $500 billion, 10-year reduction in defense spending.

A budget deal proposed last week would put about $32 billion back into defense spending for the next two years but leave in place annual cuts of $50 billion for the next seven years after that.

The 2014 defense authorization bill includes language that aims to protect the A-10 from the chopping block, but the Air Force — facing annual spending cuts of $12 billion — is likely to win the fight to retire the Warthog by 2015 because of lack of support by senior military officials, Mr. Wheeler said.

Air Force officials say they need to focus on aircraft to win future wars, namely the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46 tanker and the Long Range Strike bomber.

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