by Ray Jaworowski, Senior Aerospace Analyst, Forecast International.
In early 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced plans to retire the U.S. Air Force A-10 fleet over a period of five years. However, the proposal sparked considerable congressional opposition and, in FY15 and FY16 budgetary legislation, Congress blocked the Pentagon from retiring the attack aircraft.
In early 2016, the Air Force indicated that it would begin phasing out the A-10 fleet in FY18, with the type to be completely withdrawn from service by 2022. In early February 2017, though, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said that A-10 retirements would not begin until 2021, with the date for complete withdrawal from service yet to be determined.
Officially, the Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter aircraft is slated to replace the A-10 in the USAF fleet. Some observers, though, are skeptical about the ability of an agile, very fast fighter like the F-35A to fully perform all parts of the close air support (CAS) mission, such as flying slow and low to the ground while absorbing small arms fire.
In late 2016, Congress added a provision to the FY17 defense authorization bill that prohibits the Air Force from retiring any A-10s until the Air Force Secretary and the Air Force Chief of Staff have submitted a report to congressional defense committees on the results of F-35A initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E). The provision also mandates that F-35A IOT&E include comparison tests and evaluation of the F-35A and the A-10C in conducting CAS, combat search-and-rescue, and airborne forward air controller missions.
The effect of the congressionally added provision is that A-10 retirements would likely not be able to get underway until 2019 at the earliest.
Against this backdrop, the Air Force has begun to tentatively explore alternative A-10 replacement scenarios. The F-35A would still be tasked to perform part of the CAS mission, but now some thought is being given to possible ways to supplement the F-35A in the CAS role.
One alternative being explored is the acquisition of as many as 250-300 off-the-shelf light attack aircraft for use in permissive, low-threat environments. Under this effort, which is known as the OA-X program, the Air Force would consider existing aircraft such as the Beechcraft AT-6, the Embraer Super Tucano, and possibly the Textron AirLand Scorpion. A flight demonstration of off-the-shelf options could occur later this year. Another possible contender for OA-X would be a light attack version of the eventual winner of the Air Force’s upcoming T-X advanced jet trainer contest.
The OA-X aircraft would supplement, and not replace, the A-10. For the longer term, the Air Force is considering the A-X2, which would be an all-new, clean-sheet aircraft intended to replace the A-10. It would be used in medium-threat environments.
The outlook for either the OA-X or A-X2 is uncertain, due to budgetary concerns as well as some doubts within the Air Force regarding the need for these programs. So far, the service has made no decisions regarding either effort.
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