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.
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.
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.
"We have to invest now to have those things by the mid-[2020s]," Gen. Welsh said. "Anything that's 'nice to have' has no chance of making the cut. There's a lot of things we'd love to do that we're not going to be able to."
Military analysts say the Pentagon faces plenty of tough choices with its shrinking budget, including the Air Force's KC-10 tanker, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, and Ground Combat Vehicle programs. They note that military pay and benefits also are under the knife in the budget deal, which would include a gradual reduction in annual pay for nondisabled, working-age retirees.
Although congressional lawmakers have been unwilling to alter military compensation, the recent budget deal was "a pivotal moment," said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
"[Lawmakers] have shown that they're actually willing to go there and touch that third rail, that the budget situation is such that they just can't continue to ignore the growing compensation cost issue," Mr. Harrison said.
Although the Pentagon has wanted to close unnecessary bases and facilities, Congress has refused.
The Pentagon could cut from plenty of other areas that would be less painful, but military chiefs have been unwilling to touch them, budget analysts say.
One of those is the radar-evading, supersonic F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet, the costliest program in Defense Department history, at an estimated $400 billion to develop and purchase.
Some analysts say the Pentagon, which plans to buy more than 2,400 F-35s, would reduce retrofitting costs for those already purchased and being produced if it waits several years until the aircraft's testing is completed before procurement.
"The F-35 is an unaffordable disaster, especially on the close air support mission," Mr. Wheeler said.
Another program that analysts say could be cut is the Air Force's Lockheed Martin U-2, a manned surveillance plane that performs the same mission as the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unmanned surveillance plane.
"The Air Force can't continue to hold on to both. It would make sense to retire the older U-2s and keep the virtually brand new Global Hawks in the force," said Mr. Harrison. "But the Air Force doesn't want to let go of the U-2 because it's a manned platform, and the Air Force is still run by pilots."
Meanwhile, the Navy has protected its Littoral Combat Ship program, whose shore-hugging vessels cost about $500 million apiece for a total of more than $30 billion, despite a government study showing that the ship is not survivable if hit by a mine in areas where it most likely would operate.
The Pentagon also has protected cuts to its civilian workforce, which numbers about 800,000 across the country and is at a greater number per uniformed military personnel than at any other point since World War II.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently announced a cut of about 200 civilian staffers from his office, but analysts say it's a "drop in the bucket."
"The Defense Department is dripping with programs that need to [go], because they are unaffordable and too ineffective," Mr. Winslow said.
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