The debate about the future of the US Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolts continues, with one of the creators of the aircraft programme insisting the US will lose its entire cadre of experienced close-air-support airmen if the service retires its battle-tested but ageing A-10s.
“I’d be astonished if there were 5,000 people in the armed forces who actually know and are committed to close [air] support,” says Pierre Sprey, who worked for US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the late 1960s and helped lead the Air Force’s A-10 concept design team.
“This A-10 divestment… is going to scatter [those personnel] to the four winds, and the last few thousand who know how to bring air power to bear, will be gone.”
Sprey made his comments during a seminar on 22 November hosted by Washington-based nonprofit Project for Government Oversight, a group that seeks to uncover government waste and corruption, according to its website. The seminar was also hosted by that group’s affiliate, the Straus Military Reform Project.
The seminar comes amid the latest scuffle in Washington over the future of the Fairchild Republic A-10, a model that some experts say fills a role that newer aircraft can assume.
Nicknamed “Warthog,” the A-10 was developed in the 1970s to destroy enemy tanks and ground vehicles. A-10’s can spray battlefields with up to 4,200 30mm shells per minute from its nose-mounted, seven-barrel GAU-8 Avenger Gatling gun.
But A-10s are slow compared to attack aircraft and vulnerable to ground-to-air and other threats.
In mid-October the Air Force said it could save $3.5 billion over five years by cutting its fleet of 326 A-10s, according to reports.
Those cuts would prevent the service from slashing funding for newer “multi-role” aircraft like General Dynamics’ F-16 and Lockheed Martin’s F-35.
The F-35, in particular, was designed as a multi-mission aircraft, with different versions being produced for the Air Force, Marines and Navy.
Another speaker at the event, Charles Myers, former director for air warfare at the Department of Defense, says the Air Force would be better served cutting funding for bomber aircraft and other “strategic assets”, of which he says the US has ample supply.
“We have enough strategic capability to take over the whole world,” he says during the seminar.
On 15 November, a group of lawmakers led by New Hampshire Republican senator Kelly Ayotte sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel urging that A-10s not be cut.
“The A-10 provides close air support capability unmatched by any other aircraft in the Air Force's inventory,” says the letter. “It would be unconscionable to further cut an asset like the A-10 for budget reasons.”
Experts have argued that newer aircraft can perform many of the same functions as “single role” A-10s.
Mark Gunzinger, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces transformation and resources, told seminar attendees that the US should consider having more “flexible”, multi-mission aircraft, which could mean moving away from “single-mission” aircraft like the A-10.
“I don’t know what the next war is going to be like, but I do know its not going to be like we planned for and it is probably not going to happen in the time and place when we least expect it,” says Gunzinger, who is currently senior fellow at nonprofit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments,. “We need capabilities that are flexible and can adapt to conditions…and perform a wide-range of missions.”