The Warthog isn’t used to being rescued.
More often than not, the U.S. Air Force’s oldest attack jet does the rescuing, screaming down valleys in Afghanistan to provide air support to American troops in combat. Though beloved by infantrymen, the Pentagon wants to get rid of the A-10 Warthog to tighten its budgetary belt by $4.2 billion over five years, and to make way for more advanced fighters.
But for some legislators, the savings aren’t worth taking the jet off the battlefield. Call them the Warthog Caucus – the informal group of lawmakers that coalesces around the aircraft whenever it nears the budgetary chopping block.
Advocates in the House helped pass a National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 that would include $683 million to keep the ‘Hog flying; the Senate bill, being debated this week, would approve $355 million for the jet while specifically requiring the Air Force to keep no fewer than 171 of the nearly 300-aircraft fleet ready for combat.
Though the Air Force says cutting the Warthog would allow it to conform to sequester-level budget cuts, the money allocated by Congress comes from the Overseas Contingency Operations account, a controversial, off-budget pot of money intended to fund wars that legislators increasingly rely upon to bolster the Pentagon’s budget.
“It’s not the best way, but sequestration is the law of the land right now,” said Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
McSally, a retired Air Force colonel, became the first American woman to fly in combat, when she flew the A-10 in Iraq in 1995 as part of Operation: Southern Watch. Her southern Arizona district includes Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which is home to three A-10 squadrons.
“In the most complex fight on the ground, continuous airpower overhead can be the difference between life and death,” she said in an interview, noting that many who defend the aircraft have a stake in the A-10’s legendary durability and combat prowess – Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), the Warthog’s champion in the Senate, is married to a retired A-10 pilot. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former naval aviator, flew bombing missions over Vietnam, and has long championed the A-10.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) isn’t a fighter pilot, but he’s seen the A-10 in action at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Georgia, which hosts two Warthog squadrons. He defends the jet based on its merits, he said, not his parochial interests.
“Moody is a diversified base with a lot of insurance policies,” he said, including bombing and gunnery ranges, which often host training and exercises. “The reason I’ve been so outspoken on the A-10 is its quality.”
Originally designed to destroy Soviet tanks as they stormed through the Iron Curtain, the Warthog found a second life providing close air support in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its wide wings allow for maneuverability at low speeds, and its 30mm Gatling cannon – the largest mounted on any aircraft, with bullets taller than beer bottles – allow it to deliver firepower without dropping a bomb, which could endanger U.S. troops in close combat.
The Air Force argues that the F-35 Lightning II – the branch’s sleek, stealthy and superlatively expensive next-generation fighter – will be able to carry the Warthog’s torch.
McSally disagrees. She said the F-35 is less lethal than the Warthog, and thinner-skinned; and while it’s faster, it guzzles gas, resulting in less time spent providing fire support, she said.
Compare the F-35’s cannon to the A-10’s, she said: the A-10 carries 1,174 rounds for its gun. The F-35A – the model the Air Force says will take the A-10’s place – carries 180 for its smaller, 25-millimeter cannon.
“That’s one trigger pull, okay?” McSally said. “People like to fairy-dust that away.”
Another key difference between the aircraft: While the F-35 is years overdue and billions over budget, the A-10 is being used to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.
McSally hastened to clarify the F-35’s importance: Without next-generation fighters to clear the skies and suppress air defenses, the A-10 can’t do its job. But when it must, she said, there’s no better aircraft.
“Close air support is never going to be a clean videogame, no matter how sophisticated our weapons systems are,” she said.
Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, isn’t so sure. Thanks to precision ordnance, most aircraft – including unmanned aircraft – are capable of dropping bombs within meters of their intended targets, he said.
“It’s hard for me to believe that our nation still needs, in the long run, an aircraft that was designed to be pointed at a target when we have all these other aircraft that can drop with that degree of precision,” said Gunzinger, a retired Air Force colonel and bomber pilot.
He mentioned the Small Diameter Bomb, a slender bomb specifically designed for use in close quarters. “Do we really need guns when we’re going to have better weapons in the future that can hit with greater precision?” he said. The Pentagon recently approved the SDB for production and deployment with the F-15 Strike Eagle.
While he agrees that the A-10 is a tough cut, he said it’s a cut that Congress forced the military to make, and that preserving the A-10 comes at a cost.
“If the Air Force can’t retire the oldest fighter it has, then where should they look? They’ll have to look in modernization funding,” he said, meaning the F-35 could face additional delays.
Isakson agreed that sequestration has proved painful for the Air Force: “They have a job to do, and it’s been forced on them by us, so we bear some responsibility,” he said. But he insisted that the Air Force could have made cuts elsewhere in its budget.
“There’s no single replacement,” he said.
The Air Force did not respond to requests for comment.