A proposal from the Department of Defense to ax the Air Force’s entire fleet of A-10 Thunderbolts is receiving criticism from multiple fronts with questions over how the move will impact military bases and defense contractors.
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The Pentagon’s 2015 budget, unveiled by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday, includes a significant reduction in the Army, changes to military pay and benefits and other moves. The budget proposal calls for an Army of 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers by 2019, down from the current level of 522,000.
Retiring the A-10, nicknamed the Warthog, will save $3.5 billion over five years, Hagel said. The Air Force has a fleet of more than 300 Warthogs that provide air support for ground troops. Meanwhile, the Pentagon also plans to ground its U-2 spy planes, replacing them with the unmanned Global Hawk.
For now, Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) can compete for Thunderbolt Life Cycle Program Support contracts to do work for the fleet A-10 aircraft. The Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman two work orders worth $24 million in November, and one of the contracts called for the defense company to maintain the A-10 until at least 2028.
Randy Belote, a spokesperson for Northrop Grumman, said it’s “much too speculative at this point” to comment on potential impacts to the A-10 program.
Boeing’s work for the A-10 includes production of replacement wings. The aerospace giant said it remains unclear how much of an impact the Pentagon’s proposal would have on its A-10 program or the Macon, Ga., plant where new wings are made.
With Boeing phasing out work on the CH-47 Chinook helicopter and C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft in Macon, the plant is slated to have 100 people working on the A-10. The plant previously had 500 total positions for work on all three aircraft.
According to Boeing spokesperson Michelle Shelhamer, the company has an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract to conduct wing replacement. Boeing currently has 173 wings on contract through 2016. The IDIQ contract has a cap of 242 wings.
“It’s too early for us to speculate on the potential impact,” Shelhamer added, referring to the future of the A-10. “Of course, we would be pleased to see continued support for our program.”
Marina Malenic, an industry reporter for defense and security consultant IHS Jane’s, believes the A-10’s retirement, if approved, would have a very limited impact on the industry, since companies in the supply chain are more involved in other military aircraft and commercial jets. The real question is the impact on jobs in the areas surrounding military bases, she said.
“Because of the previous round of consolidation in the defense industry, we really don’t have any more companies that are dependent on one plane,” Malenic added.
Eyeing Lockheed’s F-35
The A-10, which entered service in the 1970s, was designed to take out Soviet tanks. While it hasn’t been in production for years, the aircraft is known for being proficiently used to conduct close-air support missions, up through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hagel said it was a “close call” to drop the A-10, but he backed the decision to retire what he called an outdated aircraft. The Air Force has indicated before that it could retire the A-10 with Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on the way. Its plan calls for replacing the A-10 with the F-35 in the early 2020s, Hagel said.
But the F-35 has run into several hiccups. The Marine Corps, which is expected to be the first branch to utilize the new fighter jet, still hopes to have its first F-35B squadron ready by December 2015, even though ground testing was halted in September.
Malenic said the A-10 largely has a single purpose, while the F-35 will be a multi-purpose fighter jet.
The plan to end the A-10’s military career is seen as a cost-effective way of putting the jets aside, she added, since remaining Warthogs will be inexpensive to store. In the event they are called into service again, the A-10 is a simpler platform for training pilots compared to other aircraft.
“This is a very parochial issue,” Malenic explained. “Some communities around military bases rely on the A-10’s existence for jobs. We’ll likely see resistance in Congress.”
Pushback in D.C.
Several lawmakers, including Arizona Congressman Ron Barber, a Democrat, are urging the Air Force and Pentagon to hold off on retiring the A-10, saying it will be a while until the military can hand off the aircraft’s close-air support duties to the F-35.
The A-10 Warthog has a significant presence in Arizona. Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson houses about 80 Warthogs, and work on the A-10’s wings is conducted there. If the A-10 is indeed retired, Warthogs will be stored at the base.
According to the Tucson Sentinel, Barber told reporters Monday in Tucson that the F-35 “is a long way off” and isn’t “designed to do what the A-10 does best.”
“I have consistently fought that proposal and will continue to do so,” Barber said in a separate statement. The A-10 “plays a crucial role in protecting our troops on the ground -- a role that cannot be suitably replicated by any other aircraft in the military inventory,” he added.
Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire was a major proponent of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014, which barred the military from retiring any A-10 aircraft during the year. Under the law, only A-10s slated for retirement as of April 2013 can be grounded.
Ayotte, whose husband was an A-10 pilot, said scrapping the Warthog is a “serious mistake.”
“Instead of cutting its best and least expensive close air support aircraft in an attempt to save money, the Air Force could achieve similar savings elsewhere in its budget without putting our troops at increased risk,” Ayotte said.