The proposal Monday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Monday to retire the A-10 attack aircraft and the U-2 spy plane was the latest in a series of thus-far unsuccessful attempts to kill the Cold War-vintage systems.
Both aircraft have ardent supporters in Congress and among veterans groups with a track record of fending off the cost-cutters arguing that the A-10 and U-2 have been on duty long past their shelf lives.
The tank-killer A-10 Thunderbolt, better known as the “Warthog” for its ungainly appearance, is especially beloved of the infantry for its GAU-8 Avenger, a 30mm rotary cannon that is the heaviest such weapon mounted on any aircraft.
Various models of the U-2 Dragon Lady have been operating in enemy airspace since 1955, when the first one came out of Lockheed’s famed “Skunk Works” facility in Burbank, Calif., under the guidance of legendary chief engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson.
In presenting the Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposal, Hagel acknowledged that he had an uphill battle in going against the A-10 and the U-2.
Hagel rattled off a number of Air Force modernization programs in the budget but said that “to fund these investments, the Air Force will reduce the number of tactical air squadrons, including the entire A-10 fleet.”
Getting rid of the A-10s would save $3.5 billion over five years and speed their replacement by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the early 2020s, Hagel said.
“The “Warthog” is a venerable platform, and this was a tough decision,” Hagel said, “but the A-10 is a 40-year-old single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield.
As much as old pilots and the infantry love the plane, “it cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses,” Hagel said.
In the case of the U-2, the decision to retire the aircraft was more complicated. “This decision was a close call,” Hagel said.
Only two years ago, the Air Force and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta were lauding the capabilities of the high-flying U-2 and its high-resolution reconnaissance photos as far surpassing those of the Global Hawk drone that was being touted as a replacement.
At the time, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the Global Hawk “was supposed to replace the U-2 for taking pictures from the air and that was the idea, to do it with a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.”
However, at $176 million apiece, the Global Hawks were a budget buster “so we will continue to use the U-2. That's a disappointment to us,” Carter said.
Hagel acknowledged that the Defense Department “had previously recommended retaining the U-2 over the Global Hawk because of cost issues. But over the last several years, DoD has been able to reduce the Global Hawk’s operating costs. With its greater range and endurance, the Global Hawk makes a better high-altitude reconnaissance platform for the future.”
In the battle over the A-10, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., whose husband flew A-10 missions in Iraq, has already rounded up more than two dozen co-sponsors to oppose the plan to kill the Warthog.
Even those Air Force officials leading the move to retire the A-10 admit that they’re doing it with extreme reluctance.
At a roundtable with reporters last year, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of Staff, admitted that “I love the A-10, that was my first fighter, I love everything about the airplane,” Welsh said.“But we’ve got to make some tough decisions here.”