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A-10 Wing Replacements Depend on Budget, Air Force Says

A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II departs after receiving fuel from a 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker in support of Operation Inherent Resolve on Oct. 6, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Michael Battles)
A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II departs after receiving fuel from a 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker in support of Operation Inherent Resolve on Oct. 6, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Michael Battles)

Whether the A-10 Thunderbolt II fleet gets new wings depends on the fiscal 2018 budget, the Air Force said Thursday.

New wings for the Cold War-era ground-attack plane -- known for its iconic gun designed to shred tanks and its tough titanium armor designed to take hits and keep flying -- remain in limbo.

According to a report from the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), Todd Mathes, the civilian program element manager for Air Combat Command, recently told a room of 100 individuals involved with the program that the wing replacement "was not going to happen."

In light of the report, the Air Force said no decision is final.

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"Pending approval of the FY18 appropriation, the Air Force plans to use the $103 million authorized in the FY18 [National Defense Authorization Act] to award a contract, establish a new wing production line and produce four additional A-10 wings, which is all that money funds," Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told Military.com.

"Establishing the production line will enable the Air Force to procure additional wings if the decision is made to do so in budgets beyond FY18," she said in a statement.

Stefanek added, "Statements by current ACC and Air Force leaders in support of retaining A-10 capability are a matter of record."

The service has struggled with its message on how it plans to keep the fleet flying since the aircraft's retirement was delayed until at least 2022.

Facing financial pressure, the Air Force -- 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.

Congress deemed the move to retire the A-10 premature and quickly pushed back.

In 2016, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the A-10 retirement would be delayed until 2022 after lawmakers complained that losing the aircraft would deny the military 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.

The decision once again angered enthusiasts of the plane and lawmakers, such as Arizona Republicans Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot, and Rep. Martha McSally, who flew A-10s during her Air Force career.

It's been back-and-forth ever since.

"From my view and my experience, if we need that capability until a proven, tested replacement comes along, nine squadrons is the absolute minimum," McSally said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in June.

Air Force officials have said the service can commit to maintaining wings for six of its nine A-10 combat squadrons through roughly 2030.

In September, Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, told Defense News that if the A-10 fleet does not receive new wings before the service life of the current wings runs out, some squadrons will begin retiring.

Pawlikowski's comments came after the head of Air Combat Command, Gen. Mike Holmes said in an interview that reducing the number of squadrons is a possibility.

Holmes "explained that we currently only have funding to replace the wings of 173 A-10s," or roughly six squadrons, ACC spokeswoman Capt. Carrie Volpe told Military.com in June.

"Gen. Holmes didn't confirm that we are indeed retiring three A-10 squadrons," Volpe said in an email at the time. "The plan for how those wings will be specifically allocated to some or all of the squadrons has not been finalized."

This is -- and has been -- the Air Force's mantra for months: If there's money, it will get done.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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