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GAO questions Air Force plan to scrap A-10 Warthog

In a report released Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the Air Force and Department of Defense (DOD) have not fully assessed the consequences and risks of the planned retirement of the Air Force's fleet of A-10 “Warthog” aircraft.

The 39-year-old A-10 is designed to provide close air support, ground attack, forward air control and combat search-and-rescue missions.

The A-10 is currently the only aircraft in the DOD's arsenal assigned to conduct combat search and rescue, where pilots escort helicopters, engage enemy forces and coordinate rescue operations.

But the Air Force has long sought to off-load the A-10, and divert the resources, personnel and funds to newer aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The GAO report said that in the face of budget cuts in 2015, the Air Force wanted to accelerate the retirement of its A-10 fleet to “maximize cost savings” and shift the A-10’s missions to other aircraft.

In its 2015 budget request, the Air Force said it would save $4.2 billion over five years if it retired the A-10 fleet.

Congress wrote language in the Air Force’s budgets for 2015 and 2016, prohibiting it from using any funds to retire aircraft in either of those years.

The Air Force’s new proposal is to divest itself of its entire fleet of A-10 Warthogs by 2022. But the GAO said the Air Force and DOD still “do not have needed information on the full implications of A-10 divestment.”

“Divestment decisions can have far-reaching consequences,” that can affect military operations, the report said, “and should be based on quality information.”

The GAO says the Air Force “has not yet clearly identified gaps and resulting risks that could be created by A-10 divestment.”

The GAO recommended that the Secretary of the Air Force “develop quality information” that fully explains capacity and capability gaps, and identify risks, if the A-10 is retired.

The GAO also said the Air Force should revisit its cost savings estimates to better understand how much money, if any, might be saved if the A-10 is retired.

The Air Force disagreed with the GAO’s assessments.

In a letter to the GAO, the Air Force said retiring the A-10 was “the most acceptable strategy to remain within the Air Force budget authority while controlling risk across all Air Force mission sets.”

The Air Force also “[took] exception to the assertion that it made the decision to divest the A-10 without knowledge” of potential risks.

The DOD also disagreed with the GAO report, saying it has “robust procedures in place” to provide leaders with the information they need on combat system effectiveness and risks.

Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information told AMI Newswire the Air Force wants to get out of the business of providing close air support, a primary A-10 mission and big reason why it wants to retire the planes.

"Air Force leadership largely hates the close air support mission,” Smithberger said, "and has used intimidation — including General Post's infamous comment that those who speak in support of the A-10 are 'committing treason’ — and taking apart A-10s to try to quash both the A-10 and the close air support mission.”

In April 2015, Air Force Maj. Gen. James Post was reprimanded and relieved of his command after an inspector general’s investigation into remarks he gave at conference at Nellis Air Force base, where witnesses said Post told Air Force officers that if they lobbied Congress to keep the A-10 flying, they would be “committing treason.”

In a 2015 letter to Air Force Secretary Deborah James, Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R- N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), said the Air Force’s decision to reduce maintenance spending on its A-10 fleet had created a “readiness deficit.”

The letter also said the Air Force “admitted that the reduced A-10 maintenance funding in FY 2015 was based on a decision to retire the A-10 fleet.”

Ayotte and McCain called the reductions “short-sighted” and the senators worried the Air Force was attempting a “backdoor divestment of the A-10 fleet.”

The Air Force reversed course, and requested an increase in maintenance funding in 2016.

In a January 2015 press briefing, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said the A-10 was an emotional issue, both in Congress, and among pilots, but not for Air Force leaders.

Welsh said A-10 retirement was "a sequestration-driven decision."

"It's not about not liking or not wanting the A-10," Welsh said.

"It's about some very tough decisions that we have to make to recapitalize an Air Force for the threat 10 years from now," he said.