Cold War-era 'Warthog' targeted for retirement

Md. Air Guard has flown A-10 ground-attack plane in Afghanistan and Iraq; Air Force favors multirole aircraft

(Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun )
November 20, 2013|By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Newspapers

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, a snub-nosed ground-attack plane that the Maryland Air National Guard has flown in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the latest aircraft to find its way onto the Pentagon's endangered weapons list.

Outfitted with a seven-barrel Gatling gun the size of a Volkswagen Beetle in its nose, the Cold War-era plane has a reputation for tearing apart armored tanks and clearing the way for troops on the ground with its massive 30-millimeter rounds of ammunition.

But the unsightly plane — it's nicknamed the Warthog — has been in the cross hairs of Pentagon officials in recent years. The Air Force, better known for aerial dogfights and dropping GPS-guided bombs, would rather invest its diminishing funds elsewhere.

With billions of dollars in budget cuts and a possible second round of sequestration looming, the military faces tough decisions: keep funding proven planes of the past or invest in high-tech 21st-century weapons.

The Pentagon has yet to release its latest budget or officially signal that the Warthogs are on a kill list. But last month, the Air Force disclosed that eliminating the fleet of 326 aircraft would save about $3.5 billion over five years.

Taking no chances, A-10 supporters in Congress rushed this week to offer an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would effectively prohibit any additional A-10 retirements until 2021 or later.

Thirty-three lawmakers, including Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County, wrote to the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs last week to express "deep concern" about retiring the A-10.

Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, blocked the confirmation of the White House nominee for Air Force secretary until she received answers about the plane's fate.

There's even a Facebook group called Save the A-10, which has garnered more than 4,000 supporters since August.

The situation serves as a harbinger of the battles to come in an age of budget austerity. The military says it must slash, or "divest," its older arsenal to save money. But because these entrenched programs support troops and provide thousands of jobs across many states, Congress has continually come to their rescue.

The Pentagon already faces budget cuts of $487 billion over 10 years, and now it must cope with the threat of an additional $500 billion in cuts from sequestration. The military services are going through an unprecedented process of developing two budgets for 2015 — one with sequestration and one without.

Sequestration cuts would reduce Pentagon spending $52 billion next year. When it comes to programs such as the A-10, some in Congress feel there are better places to cut.

"It would be unconscionable to further cut an asset like the A-10 for budget reasons — increasing the risks our service members confront in ground combat — when equivalent savings could be achieved elsewhere in the Air Force budget without reducing operational capabilities," the lawmakers wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

The Air Force spends millions of dollars on "conferences, air shows and bloated headquarters staffs," they wrote.

But the Air Force has said major savings — measured in billions rather than millions of dollars — can be made only by cutting an entire fleet. That way, the infrastructure that supports the fleet, which encompasses thousands of jobs, can also be cut,.

The A-10 program supports 6,000 jobs in the Air National Guard, which flies 90 A-10s in five states including Maryland. Guard officials have expressed dismay at the prospect of killing the plane.

A spokesman for the Maryland Air National Guard did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The state guard has lost one aircraft already this year: the C27J Spartan turboprop, which it used in airlift missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also to respond to wildfires in California, the 2010 Haiti Earthquake and Hurricane Katrina.

No one questions the A-10's success at close-air support. The plane, which once was built in Hagerstown by the now-defunct Fairchild, is considered one of the best at protecting troops on the ground. Pilots do that by laying down fire on enemy tanks, vehicles and strongholds with the high-powered Gatling gun.

The A-10 was designed by Fairchild in the 1970s around the gun, the heaviest rotary cannon ever mounted on an aircraft. Pilots can shoot short bursts that unleash 140 rounds of ammunition in two seconds. To do so, it must fly low and slow over the battlefield, making it susceptible to ground fire.

But the plane is designed to keep flying even if parts of the wing or one of its engines has been blown to shreds. And the cockpit is surrounded by a bullet-resistant titanium tub. The aircraft has been routinely upgraded over the years.

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