The Air Force spent a lot of time trying to mothball the A-10 Thunderbolt II over the past few years. After realizing there is no reliable close-air support (CAS) alternative to the airframe, however, Congress fought the Air Force at nearly every turn.
The plane, dubbed the Warthog for its snoutlike nose and the distinctive sound of the GAU-8 Avenger 30mm cannon around which the aircraft is built, is slower than other tactical jet aircraft. Its max speed is 439 mph, while the F-16 tops out at 1,350 mph. What the Warthog lacks in speed, it makes up for in durability, featuring 1,200 pounds of titanium armor plating around the cockpit and its necessary systems. The A-10's ability to take a beating from ground fire while providing such close support makes it the perfect CAS aircraft.
The move to retire the A-10 came while American forces were pulling out of Afghanistan and were already out of Iraq. Under budgetary pressure, the Air Force wanted to replace the A-10 mission with the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose abilities were designed for the entire battlespace. The rise of ISIS and new combat roles for ground forces in the region saved the Warthog from the boneyard. The A-10 was designed to work in tandem with ground forces and theater commanders are seeing more and more demand for the unique support the bird provides.
"When you're talking to a 19-year-old man with a rifle, who's scared on the other end of a radio," another Air Force A-10 pilot says in the video. "You know he doesn't care about fiscal constraints, 'big picture' Air Force policy, the next fancy weapons system coming down the pipeline. He cares about being saved right then and there."
U.S. Air Force Combat Control JTACs from the 21st Special Tactics Squadron call for close air support from a A-10 Thunderbolt II while attending the Air Force's JTAC Advanced Instructor Course (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)
The Pentagon is due to submit its 2017 budget proposal to Congress next week and officials tell Defense One the life of the plane will be extended because of that demand. Congress criticized the Air Force for attempting to retire the A-10 without a replacement plan.
As part of the most recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress mandated the Air Force couldn't retire the plane without an independent study to find a replacement with the "ability to remain within visual range of friendly forces and targets to facilitate responsiveness to ground forces and minimize re-attack times … the ability to operate beneath low cloud ceilings, at low speeds, and within the range of typical air defenses found in enemy maneuver units … the ability to deliver multiple lethal firing passes and sustain long loiter endurance to support friendly forces throughout extended ground engagements."