Even as the US Air Force is still banking on saving billions by retiring the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, the service is considering building a brand new aircraft to take over the close air support (CAS) role.
Speaking at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in Orlando, Florida, air force Gen Hawk Carlisle, chief of Air Combat Command (ACC), says a follow-on weapon system for the A-10 is on the table.
Carlisle also announces an upcoming focus meeting with the army, navy and marine corps to solicit input from the services about the CAS mission in future conflicts. Though the air force wants to retire the A-10 in a plan to save $4.2 billion for other programmes, the service will still be required to provide CAS, Carlisle says.
“We have always, throughout our history, been dedicated to defense of the ground force from the air,” he says. The A-10 was designed to fly low and slow and provide cover fire for ground troops with its nose-mounted 30mm cannon. The air force has said it cannot afford to continue operating what officials consider a single-mission aircraft.
However, “another weapons system programme may be something we need to consider as we look at the gaps and seams for the future” of the CAS mission, Carlisle says.
“We’ll continue to look at what’s next, that’s part of the discussion,” Carlisle says. “What provides that close air support in the future is something we’ll continue to look at. It could be a follow-on. It’s a mission we have always been committed to and will stay committed to, so the potential out there is that we will look at that.”
Congress has balked at retiring the A-10 and its potential mothballing has resulted in an emotional backlash from pilots who have flown the aircraft in combat and ground troops who have fought under its protection. The air force initially pitched its retirement as a means of dealing with sequestration cuts and has again suggested the aircraft be retired if those across-the-board cuts go into effect in fiscal year 2016.
The A-10 has gotten a leg up recently as the US has ramped up airstrikes against Islamic state militants in Iraq and Syria, an operation called Inherent Resolve. Carlisle says the A-10 is performing effective CAS missions in support of anti-Islamic State operations.
A fleet of 12 A-10s and 300 airmen recently deployed to Spangdahelm Air Base in Germany to support Operation Atlantic Resolve, which is a security cooperation effort with other NATO countries.
The A-10, however is an aging aircraft that is vulnerable in contested environments where enemy air defenses are present. New aircraft could be necessary to provide CAS in contested environments, which will multiply in the future, he says.
“Contested environment are going to go up because our adversaries know what we can do when we own the airspace and will continue to try to deny that to us,” Carlisle says. “The A-10 is significantly vulnerable in a contested environment than other airplanes.”