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Defense Week June 09, 2003

Air Force: No Plan To Retire A-10

By Ron Laurenzo

The Air Force plans to keep the A-10 Thunderbolt II flying until 2028, said the general who was alleged recently to have ordered a subordinate to research how the service could justify mothballing the fleet of 363 ground-attack aircraft.

Asked if he had told one of his subordinates to write a memo "justifying the decommissioning of the A-10 fleet," as stated in an op/ed piece in the New York Times on May 27, Maj. Gen. David Deptula had a simple reply.

"No ... no, no," he said in an interview. "The assertion was that I ordered somebody to write a memo to justify the decommissioning of the A-10 fleet. That is not correct."

Deptula is head of Plans and Programs at the Air Force's Air Combat Command (ACC) headquarters in Langley, Va.

"We plan on keeping the A-10 in the inventory for many, many years to come," he said.

That will be 25 years, to be precise, at least for those A-10s that undergo modifications to extend their projected service life from 8,000 to 16,000 hours. Originally designed to fly 4,000 hours, most A-10s have between 6,000 and 8,000 hours on their airframes, according GlobalSecurity.org, a Website that tracks military systems.

"The aircraft that have the structural mods to them, we're planning on keeping to 2028," Deptula said. "But like everything else that we own, they're not going to last forever."

The A-10, better known as the Warthog, recently chalked up another impressive performance in Iraq, following much-lauded support of coalition ground troops in Afghanistan. It was also a star of Operation Desert Storm. So the Times article by Robert Coram, author of a recently published biography about Air Force Col. John Boyd, caused quite a stir.

Coram, who wrote that "the Air Force is planning to give the A-10 Warthog an ignominious homecoming from the Persian Gulf," based his story on an e-mail train obtained from within ACC.

Reading the mail

The e-mails, which Coram gave to Defense Week, were exchanged between April 8th and 9th between three Air Force officials.

"I have been tasked by Gen Deptula (along with others on other issues) to write a 'persuasive BBP' on terminating the A-10 fleet and Hog Up kill," begins the writer, an ACC civilian, in the first e-mail of the chain, which was leaked to Coram. A BBP is a bullet background paper, or executive summary.

However, the notes contain conflicting information and what appear to be some misunderstandings between the correspondents. Also, like in most e-mail exchanges, grammatical mistakes-especially the use of double negatives, some of which may be intentional-sometimes make it difficult to understand exactly what is going on.

For example, it is unclear whether the correspondents think the Air Force brass want to kill the entire A-10 fleet, or just delete two A-10 modification programs: Hog Up, which would strengthen A-10s and double their service life, and the Precision Engagement Modification, which will give Warthogs digital cockpits, datalinks and the ability to drop satellite-guided bombs.

Also, the official writing the backgrounder describes the A-10 fleet kill as a "nuclear option," an expression for a measure that, like a nuclear weapon, is so drastic that it could only be threatened, not actually used. The writer mentions several other "nuclear" offsets: terminating modifications to the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter, killing Boeing's Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle and reducing flying hours by 5 percent.

According to the official, the decision to kill the A-10 modifications-but not retire the entire fleet-goes higher than Deptula, to his boss, ACC commander Gen. Hal Hornburg, who is alleged in the e-mails to be making the best of a bad financial situation that dictates not all programs can be fully funded.

Modifications on the table

As the Air Force struggles to find money to pay for the increasing maintenance costs of an ageing fleet and still pay for expensive new airplanes such as the F/A-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, it is looking at a host of programs that could be trimmed, Deptula said.

Those options include the modifications to the A-10 and other aircraft as well as adjustments in force structure, he said, ticking off the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-117s, B-1 Lancer and B-52 Stratofortress.

"Part of our roll down here at Air Combat Command headquarters is to continuously look at the force structure and force-structure options," Deptula said. "But a lot of them are hypothetical."

The average age of the A-10 is over 23 years, the same as for the dogfighting F-15C, Deptula said, compared to a maximum desirable average age of 15 years for each aircraft.

"No decisions have been made yet, and I'd emphasize that those A-10 programs are fully funded in the '04 POM," or Program Objective Memorandum, the draft budget that extends through 2009, Deptula said.

"But the bottom line is we gotta recapitalize our geriatric fighter force: our F-15s, F-16s and A-10s, and that's what the F/A-22 and the JSF will do," he said.

Whatever path the service decides to take, the decision will not be made solely in Air Combat Command, or even in the military. Any proposal for changing force structure must get a stamp of approval from the Air Force staff, then the Office of the Secretary of Defense and finally Congress.

"Somebody just doesn't say, 'OK, draft me a memo for canceling the A-10 fleet,' and it happens," Deptula said. "That just belies an ignorance of the process."


Copyright 2003, King Communications Group