It's official — the US Air Force has no idea what it's doing trying to retire the A-10

On Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office released a scathing report about the US Air Force’s half-baked plan to replace the A-10, essentially concluding that the Air Force had no good end game in sight.

“The Department of Defense (DOD) and Air Force do not have quality information on the full implications of A-10 divestment, including gaps that could be created by A-10 divestment and mitigation options,” the report from GAO, a nonpartisan entity, states.

The A-10, a relic of the Cold War-era, flies cheap, effective sorties and is well suited to most of the US’s current operations. But surprisingly, it’s not really the plane itself that’s indispensable to the Air Force — it’s the community.

U.S. A-10s and F-16s take part in an Elephant Walk in South Korea | US Air Force photo

U.S. A-10s and F-16s take part in an Elephant Walk in South Korea | US Air Force photo

Ground forces know A-10 pilots as undisputed kings of close air support, which is especially useful in today’s combat zones where ground troops often don’t have an artillery presence on the ground.

But there are other planes for close air support when it comes down to it. The B-1 Lancer has superior loiter time and bomb capacity compared to the A-10, but it turns out, close air support is only one area where the A-10s excel.

The report finds that A-10 pilots undergo many times more close air support, search and rescue, and forward air control training than any other community of pilots in the force.

While the Air Force seems determined to replace this community, and reallocate their resources elsewhere, the report finds that the cost estimates used to justify the retirement of the A-10 just don’t make the grade.

According to the GAO, “a reliable cost estimate is comprehensive, well-documented, accurate, and credible.”

The report finds that the Air Force’s cost estimates for replacing the A-10 are almost comprehensive, minimally documented, and just plain not credible.

Indeed we have seen some pivots on the Air Force’s official position on the A-10. At one point, they wanted to retire it stating that the F-35 would take over those capabilities, but then the Senate told them to prove it.

More recently, we heard that the Air Force wants to replace the A-10 with not one, but two new planes, one of which would be developed specifically for the role.

US Air Force members troubleshoot an electronic error on an A-10 Thunderbolt II on April 25, 2007, on the flightline at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq. | US Air Force

US Air Force members troubleshoot an electronic error on an A-10 Thunderbolt II on April 25, 2007, on the flightline at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq. | US Air Force

What the GAO recommends, however, is that the Air Force come up with a better, more concrete plan to mitigate the losses in capability caused by the A-10’s mothballing.

Lawmakers were not shy about the relief the report brought to the complicated question. Perhaps the best testimony came from Congresswoman Martha McSally, a former A-10 pilot herself:

“Today’s report confirms what I’ve argued continuously — the Air Force’s flawed and shifting plan to prematurely retire the A-10 is dangerous and would put lives in danger… I’ve fought for and won full funding for our entire A-10 fleet and to make the retirement of any A-10 condition-based, not-time based.”

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