The U.S. Air Force has recently appeared more open to the idea of developing a future close air support aircraft to replace the legacy A-10, despite ongoing efforts to retire that very aircraft to save money. Air Combat Command’s 2015 strategy document, unveiled this month, recommends keeping the door open for a new dedicated CAS aircraft. “We must also continue to develop a balanced close air support (CAS) capability across all [Global Precision Attack] platforms, explore opportunities for a future CAS platform, and enact specific initiatives to ensure we maintain a CAS culture throughout the [Combat Air Force],” the strategy document reads. Furthermore, when asked earlier this year about the possibility of eventually fielding a new dedicated CAS aircraft, ACC Commander Gen. Hawk Carlisle told reporters at the Air Force Association Air Warfare symposium, “We’re thinking about it.”
The Air Force remains locked in an ongoing battle with Congress over the retirement of the A-10. Previously undergoing an extensive wing replacement effort to keep the aircraft in service longer, the Air Force decided to cancel A-10 upgrades and remove the aircraft from service in hopes of saving over $4 billion over five years. The Air Force has said it would rely more on strike aircraft, namely the F-35, after the A-10 is retired.
Congress was not happy with the Air Force’s proposal, and has prevented efforts to retire the aircraft ever since. Funding was added in the FY15 budget to keep the aircraft operational, and lawmakers have recommended the same for the FY16 budget. House authorizers went as far as to include funding to restart the wing replacement program in FY16, but that funding was not added by House or Senate appropriators. The Air Force has said keeping the A-10 would mean delaying F-35 deliveries and targeting the F-16 and B-1 fleets for cuts.
The crux of the debate is ultimately the budget. When the dollars were flowing, the Air Force was content to continue procuring F-35s while upgrading the A-10 to maintain a robust CAS capability. When the budget crunch came, the service took the approach of trying to gut entire fleets of aircraft to protect higher priorities like its future bomber or the F-35. Of course Congress has rejected practically every force structure proposal coming from the Air Force, such as retiring the Global Hawk UAV or the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. With the help of some congressional leverage, the Air Force now plans to hold onto the U-2 longer, until its unmanned counterparts can provide adequate intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance coverage to combatant commanders.
Perhaps the A-10 will follow a similar path. Congress has clearly expressed its desire to keep the legacy aircraft operational for the time being, which could open the door for additional A-10 upgrades, including the wing replacement program. If upgraded A-10s begin flying again, Congress would likely push the Air Force to keep them around until a comparable replacement capability is available that would prevent any CAS capability gaps. That replacement could very well be a new dedicated CAS aircraft.