The U.S. Air Force has given up on trying to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft at least until 2022 and likely well beyond, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
After repeatedly losing the battle with Congress over continued funding for the aircraft, Carter said that the fiscal 2017 proposed budget for the Pentagon was putting off the next fight over retiring the aircraft known as the “Warthog” to generations of ground troops until 2022.
Even then, Carter said the Air Force and the Defense Department would approach sending the A-10s to the “boneyard” for outdated aircraft carefully, given the aircraft’s strong performance in Iraq and Syria and likely continued support in Congress unless there is a radical makeover in the membership.
Committee members possibly assumed that keeping the A-10s in the Air Force fleet was a given. Carter was not asked about the aircraft but addressed the issue in his prepared remarks.
“We’re pushing off the A-10’s final retirement until 2022 so we can keep more aircraft that can drop smart bombs on ISIL,” Carter said, referring to another acronym for ISIS.
“In addition to changing when A-10s will be retired, we’re also changing how it will happen,” he said. If Congress agrees, and if the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is ready by 2022 to take on the ground attack role, the A-10s will be retired piecemeal, he said.
“The A-10s will be replaced by F-35s only on a squadron-by-squadron basis as they come online, ensuring that all units have sufficient backfill and that we retain enough aircraft needed to fight today’s conflicts,” Carter said.
The defense secretary had suggested earlier this month in an address to the Washington Economic Club that the Air Force proposal to begin retiring the A-10s in 2019 would be pushed back to 2022, but his statements Thursday were the first to Congress.
Proponents of the A-10 call it the world’s best ground attack aircraft and had argued that retiring the aircraft made no sense during the continuing conflicts against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Spokesmen for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve have repeatedly pointed to the “devastating” effects the A-10s were having on ISIS, particularly in taking out tactical vehicles and oil delivery trucks commanded by the militant group.
Currently, the Air Force has about 300 A-10s, and about 80 of them are in three squadrons at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
In a statement last month, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that Carter’s projection of a delayed A-10 retirement was “a credit to the brave airmen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and military installations across the country who are providing unmatched close-air support in critical missions throughout the world.”