The Air Force will probably seek to delay by "a few years" the retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt II -- the close air support plane beloved by ground troops and championed by some in Congress as a platform that needs to stay in the air fleet.
Known by its unofficial moniker, "the Warthog," the service had in recent years tried to divest the muscular aircraft to make room for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- a stealth fifth-generation fighter that officials argued could do the close-air support mission.
Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, said changes in the production rate of the F-35 Lightning II coupled with increased demand on aircraft means the A-10 will likely remain in the inventory longer than originally planned.
"We will probably move the retirement slightly to the right," Carlisle told reporters during a breakfast with defense reporters on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. "Eventually we will have to get there -- we have to retire airplanes. But I think moving it to the right and starting it a bit later -- maybe keeping the airplane around a bit longer -- is something that's being considered."
Lawmakers with personal and political connections to the Warthog weighed in later in the day.
Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, a retired Air Force colonel and A-10 pilot -- and the first woman to fly combat missions when the men-only restriction was lifted -- was skeptical of the apparent reprieve, calling it an administration ploy to continue "to whittle away at a critical capability."
"Over the last 3 years, the administration has already mothballed the equivalent of four A-10 squadrons, leaving us with only nine to carry out the critical missions for which the A-10 is best suited," said McSally, who flew the aircraft over Iraq and Kuwait during Operation Southern Watch and in combat missions over Afghanistan. "We just invested over $1 billion to keep this asset flying until 2028. Until there's a suitable replacement, we absolutely need to keep this life-saving capability in the air."
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, pointed out how only last year the Air Force had predicted the plane wouldn't survive in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Gen. Michael Hostage, Carlisle's predecessor, had said in July 2014 that he "can't send an A-10 to Syria. It would never come back." Yet the aircraft has proven its worth in combat – and in those places, the senator said.
"I look forward to reviewing the Air Force's budget request early next year as it relates to the A-10," Ayotte said. "If the Air Force decides to end its campaign to prematurely divest the A-10, it would be a great day for our ground troops and a terrible day for America's enemies."
But if Air Force leaders continue to push for the Warthog's retirement, Ayotte said she will continue to press Congress to keep the aircraft flying.
Under the original plan, about 164 A-10s would have been retired next year, though some would have remained operational until 2019. The Air Force has said the move would have saved an estimated $4.2 billion over five years. Overall, the Air Force expected to retire 283 A-10s between 2016 through 2019.
Carlisle indicated on Tuesday he expects some of the aircraft will still be divested during that time to transition those squadrons to F-16s, "but I think the majority [of A-10s] we'd move a couple of years, two to three years" beyond 2019.
"There's a whole lot of people that are going to make these decisions, from both the Air Force perspective and the Department of Defense, and then Congress ultimately has the final say," he said.
Congress in recent years repeatedly rejected the Air Force's requests to retire the venerable Warthog. In April, lawmakers put $683 million into the defense bill to keep the A-10s in the inventory -- a move the Air Force said would force it to mothball F-16s and delay the deployment of the F-35. New combat missions against ISIS in the Middle East and show-of-force exercises against Russia in Europe also forced the service to reconsider the timeline.
The Air Force is currently flying missions over Syria and Iraq, as well as in the Horn of Africa, Libya and Afghanistan, where the U.S. expects to stay on at least a year longer than planned, Carlisle said. Notably, a dozen A-10s are flying missions out of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, he said.
Other aircraft can and do conduct close-air support, Carlisle said, including the F-16, F-15E and coalition planes. "They're all doing very good close-air support, but the A-10 is a fantastic platform and it's doing fantastic work," he said.