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Air Force Can't Afford F-35 But Wants a 'Super' A-10?

U.S. Air Force leaders have recently signaled an interest in developing a new aircraft dedicated to the mission of close air support as a replacement to the venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II, commonly known as the Warthog.

Before he retired this summer, the service's then-chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh -- a former A-10 and F-16 pilot, acknowledged the lack of funding and personnel for such a program but nevertheless touted the idea with defense reporters in Washington, D.C.

"I'd love to build a new CAS airplane right now while we still have the A-10," he said.

"A lot would depend on how much resources you have, how much time you have. We don't think this would take that long to do. We don't think it's that complicated of a design problem,” he added, given the aircraft is "optimized for the low-to-medium threat environment, not a high threat environment."

The Cold War-era aircraft features titanium armor that protects pilots and parts of the flight-control system, a nose-mounted GAU-8 Avenger 30mm Gatling gun that fires armor-piercing and high explosive incendiary rounds well suited for vehicles and other ground targets, and pylons under the wings and fuselage for precision-guided bombs missiles, according to the Military.com equipment guide.

But a new CAS aircraft would need newer technologies to evade increasingly sophisticated threats in electronic warfare and air defense.

During his confirmation hearing in June to become the Air Force's new top officer, Gen. David Goldfein said he supports the service's current plan to keep the A-10 in the inventory at least until 2022 -- a proposal that came after back-to-back years of unsuccessful campaigns to retire the aircraft in favor of multi-mission fighters and bombers also capable of performing close air support.

Goldfein also highlighted the low, slow-flying plane's limitations on the battlefield.

"Why is it I only get a minute and a half of trigger pull on a 30mm bullet? Why don't I get 10 minutes?" he said. "Why is every bullet not precision-guided? Why do I spend so much time in having to figure out who's actually friend and foe on the ground when we have technology to be able to help us do that? Why is it that I have to do all the work on collateral damage estimates when I have a machine that can help me do that?"

The Air Force has gone so far as to start planning what the requirements for a new "super" A-10 might look like -- one of three options in an approach that also involves considering upgrading the existing fleet or modifying an existing commercial platform such as Raytheon's T-X plane and the A-29 Embraer EMB Super Tucano (recently purchased by the U.S. for the Afghan air force), according to an article by Kris Osborn, managing editor of the website Scout Warrior.

"We are developing that draft requirements document," Lt. Gen. James Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, has said, Osborn reported. "We are staffing it around the Air Force now. When it's ready, then we will compare that to what we have available, compare it to keeping the A-10, compare it to what it would take to replace it with another airplane, and we will work through that process."

Even so, the Air Force has repeatedly identified its top three acquisition programs as the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter made by Lockheed Martin Corp., the KC-46A Pegasus refueling tanker being developed by Boeing Co. and the as-yet-unnamed B-21 long-range strike bomber being developed by Northrop Grumman Corp.

And it's struggling to pay for those.

Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made this point clear in March when the panel debated the Air Force's budget request for fiscal 2017, beginning Oct. 1.

"The shortfall in this year’s budget has forced the Air Force to make a number of  painful and undesirable decisions," McCain said. "The most significant was to slow procurement of the F-35A by 45 aircraft over the next five years. This budget-driven decision will likely increase the cost of this already costly aircraft, while exacerbating what defense experts call the modernization 'bow wave' for other critical Air Force programs over the next 10 years, which the Air Force admits it cannot afford at current funding levels."

At least one outside expert, Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group, has argued the Air Force's push for a new "super" A-10 is really just a novel way to argue for mothballing the aircraft for good, according to an article by Valerie Insinna, a reporter at Defense News.

Whether this is true and, if so, will be successful remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: Congress seems to have little interest in retiring the A-10, especially while it's being used to strike the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and has gone to great lengths to restrict the Air Force's ability even to divest some of the 283 remaining aircraft in inventory.

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