When Air Force leaders arrive in Washington next week for the Air Force Association's annual Air & Space Conference, an airframe not scheduled for a panel discussion is one that grabbed many a headline over the past year: the A-10 Thunderbolt.
The close-air-support plane, dubbed the Warthog, had been targeted for retirement by the brass until Congress dictated otherwise. Air Combat Command commander Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle is scheduled to address the AFA conference on 5th generation warfare, which means the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – a platform touted as CAS-capable – could come up.
Military.com asked ACC if any A-10 talk was planned but did not hear back.
Observers suggest that the Air Force may be hoping to avoid unwarranted attention on the A-10, which they have repeatedly sought to divest to save money amid automatic spending caps.
"You've got to know when to fold," said Richard Aboulafia, vice president and aviation analyst for the Teal Group in Virginia. After the heat the Air Force took from lawmakers and others for trying to mothball the A-10 fleet it's no surprise they're not looking to highlight it at AFA, according to Aboulafia, who shares the Air Force's view that the A-10's time has passed.
Tony Carr, a retired Air Force squadron commander who writes on air power on his own site, JohnQPublic.com as well as Business Insider, comes down on the side of the plane's advocates, but he also sees its absence at AFA as a leadership move to duck the conversation.
"My guess is that the decision was made to avoid talking about it because it's considered a contentious subject and leaders don't want to make statements that can later be turned against favored narratives one way or another," Carr told Military.com in an email.
"But when you consider the role the A-10 has been playing against ISIS and in Europe, it's really a huge disservice to a great many airmen that it's not going to be prominently discussed," he said.
The A-10 has some very powerful and vocal champions. Ground troops have sung its praises for its ability to deliver hell to enemy forces squaring off against them in relatively close quarters. Politicians, meanwhile, want to keep the squadrons active and located in their home states.
The Air Force maintains the Warthog has no role in future combat operations in contested airspace. It's a single-mission platform and the F-35 Lightning is advertised as a multi-mission aircraft that, in addition to air combat and bombing, should also be able to carry out CAS.
The F-35 as an able CAS plane has its doubters, but even that does not justify holding onto the A-10, if the Air Force engaged an enemy with its own air power in the future, according to Aboulafia.
The A-10's slower speed – an advantage when it comes to loitering over an area and targeting enemy assets – means it would have to be protected by faster moving fighters if it were to survive against an enemy with its own air force.
Pit the aircraft against a conventional enemy with fighter planes and anti-aircraft missiles, says Aboulafia, ant the A-10 would not last.
"Dedicated CAS makes no sense unless you're dealing with [airpower] defenseless enemies," Aboulafia said.
Still, such thinking did not stoop Carlisle from telling reporters eight months ago that the Air Force is thinking of developing a new CAS-dedicated aircraft.
Carlisle's made his comments even as the fight over the A-10's future was in full swing, so it may have been a way to placate the aircraft's advocates.
"If the USAF was serious about fielding a dedicated attack follow-on to replace the A-10, I think we'd see a formal program in the works by now," said Carr. "It's clear now that the Air Force sold itself and everyone else on the idea that the F-35 would replace the A-10 in its close air support role, and is now backpedaling on its previous claims as it becomes evidence the F-35 will never be able to provide the level of service the A-10 does."
The Air Force has been accursed of playing down the A-10's effectiveness on the battlefield.
A video feature on an A-10 squadron conducting combat ops in Afghanistan was shelved earlier this year for months, and made it into the public eye only when someone leaked it.
The dramatic footage included video of ground combat and the aircraft being called in to strike insurgents, according to Carr, who wrote about the feature, called "HAWG," on his website.
"I haven't been able to definitively reconstruct the chain of events that led to the video's production and release just yet, but sources have confirmed to me that it was created by Combat Camera," he said.
Air Force leadership, he understands, declined to release the video "because it was inconsistent with the public narrative of downplaying the A-10 in expectation of the move to retire it."