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A-10 'Brrrts' Another Retirement Volley: Here's What's Next

The A-10 is a Cold War-era ground-attack plane known for its iconic gun designed to shred tanks and for its tough titanium armor designed to take hits and keep flying.

That durability is noticeable not only on the battlefield, but also increasingly on Capitol Hill, where supporters of the Thunderbolt II, popularly known as the Warthog or simply Hog, have seemingly succeeded in dissuading Air Force officials from renewing attempts to retire the snub-nosed plane.

The Air Force's fiscal 2018 budget request released this month calls for keeping its fleet of A-10s -- which stood at 283 as of Sept. 30 -- in service for at least five more years.

To recap: The service -- facing financial pressure driven by spending caps known as sequestration -- made multiple attempts in recent years to retire the Warthog to save an estimated $4 billion over five years and to free up maintainers for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the stealthy fifth-generation fighter jet designed to replace the A-10 and legacy fighters.

In 2016, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the A-10 retirement would be delayed until 2022 after lawmakers complained that doing so would rid the military of a "valuable and effective" close-air-support aircraft.

However, fiscal 2017 budget request documents showed the Air Force still planned to remove A-10 squadrons in increments between 2018 and 2022 to make room for F-35A Lightning II squadrons coming online.

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Members of Congress, notably Arizona Republicans Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot, and Rep. Martha McSally, who flew A-10s during her Air Force career, fiercely opposed the move, and included language in the bill that would prohibit retirement of the Warthog until the Air Force could prove the F-35 is able to perform similar missions as effectively on the battlefield.

In October, Air Force Materiel Command chief Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski said the depot line for the A-10 was cranking back up as part of an effort to keep the Cold War-era aircraft flying "indefinitely."

The planes, which entered service in 1976 and have deployed to the Middle East, Europe and the Pacific, have played an outsized role in the air campaign that began in 2014 against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, helping provide close-air support for Iraqi and U.S. partner forces on the ground. (A-10 fans describe the distinctive sound its seven-barrel 30mm GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon makes when firing as "brrrt.")

So the retirement push appears to have dissipated -- at least, for now.

Indeed, the Air Force's budget request for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 includes modest funding for A-10 modifications in coming years. The service over the past decade worked with Boeing Co. to replace the wings on 173 of the aircraft as part of a program scheduled to wrap up this year.

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For fiscal 2018, the service asked for $6 million in procurement funding to upgrade the A-10 with the latest version of the satellite-based transponder known as the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, to comply with a Federal Aviation Administration rule for the new technology, according to budget documents.

In addition, the service requested $17.5 million in research and development funding to test the ADS-B Out software on the A-10 squadrons through 2022, budget documents show.  

This work "extends the viability and survivability" of the aircraft, according to an Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Hope Cronin. "As long as we can continue to fund these fleets, they will be survivable and lethal."

Through the wing replacement program and maintenance work, the Air Force wants to preserve the longevity of the aircraft, potentially by doubling its life from 8,000 flight hours to 16,000 flight hours.

In an interview with FlightGlobal earlier this year, then-Air Combat Commander Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle suggested new wings on the plane could keep it flying into the 2030s.

Cronin couldn't say whether this program would be expanded into future years.

"This is exactly why we need long-term budget stability and flexibility -- no longer reacting to make tradeoff decisions year to year," she said. "We're not in the position right now, but we don't know" what could happen next year.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the total cost savings measure of an estimated $4 billion over five years. 

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