The hullabaloo surrounding the future of the US Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt II has been endless.
Its effectiveness on the battlefield has been proven with servicemembers on the ground going as far as calling it their “guardian angel” in the heat of battle. Equipped with an arsenal of weapons, including its notorious 30mm Gatling gun, it’s not hard to see why the A-10 commands such respect.
However, even with its impressive resume, the Air Force continues to float plans to replace the A-10 after 40 years of service.
Even so, a Defense News interview with a US Air Force official indicated that a compromise may be on the negotiating table.
Lt. Gen. James M. Holmes, the US Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, explained that a new light attack aircraft could be introduced that would not outright replace the fleet of nearly 300 A-10s, but instead, supplement them starting as early as 2017.
In doing so, Defense News reports that this new light aircraft, called Observation, Attack, Experimental (OA-X), would give commanders a cheap alternative to fight insurgents, compared to the costs of operating the A-10 and other fighter aircraft.
“Do you believe that this war that we’re fighting to counter violent extremists is going to last another 15 years?” Holmes asked in the Defense News interview. “If you believe it does, and our chief believes it will, then you have to think about keeping a capability that’s affordable to operate against those threats so that you’re not paying high costs per flying hour to operate F-35s and F-22s to chase around guys in pickup trucks.”
However, that doesn’t necessarily preclude the A-10 being outright replaced. Defense Newsreported that the Air Force began floating an A-10 replacement possibility in July. Under the proposal, the Air Force would conduct close air support (CAS) missions with the A-10 with a supporting cheap OA-X in low-threat environments.
Under the proposal, the Air Force would at a later date also acquire a fleet of future A-X aircraft that would perform in medium-threat environments and eventually replace the A-10.
Also on the table was the possibility of pushing back the projected retirement date of the A-10 from 2022 due to the high operational costs of the Air Force’s latest fifth-generation fighters.
It should be noted, however, that the annual cost of the A-10 program costs less than 2% of the Air Force’s budget. In 2014, it was also reported that the A-10 costed about $11,500 per hour to operate — about a third of the hourly cost of the military’s latest F-35 Lightning II.