Sen. Kelly Ayotte, leader of the congressional push to keep the A-10 flying, is calling out the Air Force. The service claims it won’t have enough mechanics to keep both F-35A Joint Strike Fighters and A-10 Warthogs flying safely and thus may miss the F-35’s politically important Initial Operating Capability milestone for the F-35A because Congress won’t retire the A-10.
“Suggesting that we must prematurely retire the A-10 to fulfill long-anticipated maintenance requirements for the F-35A is a false choice. There are a variety of steps the Air Force can take to maintain the combat-proven and cost-efficient A-10, while also providing sufficient maintenance personnel for the F-35A, [which] is not estimated to reach initial operating capability until 2016,” Ayotte told us in an email.
“Rather than threatening to unnecessarily undermine the maintenance of the F-35A—which the Air Force has said is one of its top three acquisition priorities—I hope the Air Force will listen to our ground troops and end its dangerous and misguided effort to deprive our troops of the A-10, which is the aircraft that is most likely to help them survive a firefight with the enemy.”
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, head of the huge F-35 program, first told reporters about the threat to F-35A IOC on Oct. 30.
In the conference room where the F-35 program makes its biggest decisions two signs mark the wall. They count down the days to Initial Operational Capability of the F-35 for the Marines and for the Air Force: 244 days for the Marines’ F-35B and 641 for the Air Force’s F-35A.
“Up until today, things were looking pretty good,” Bogdan told us.
For those who don’t follow this stuff on a regular basis, IOC means a military service believes the weapons it has bought are ready for use if needed.
Among the requirements the Air Force has laid down is that the F-35A fleet must have a ready pool of 1,100 qualified mechanics to keep them flying. Without that pool the fleet could not be kept in a high enough state of readiness to qualify for IOC.
The A-10 is an aging aircraft that requires its own healthy maintenance corps. The A-10 fleet eats up experienced mechanics that the Air Force planned to train for F-35A work. Why does their level of experience matter? Because it takes much longer — nine to 12 months longer — to train new maintainers to work on the advanced systems of the F-35 than it does to train those who are experienced.
F-35 critic and Pentagon budget expert Winslow Wheeler neatly summarized the view of those who don’t buy the Air Force arguments in a piece that just ran in War Is Boring:
“In truth, even if all goes perfectly for the F-35, it will finish its combat-realistic operational testing only in 2019 — the traditional point for declaring IOC and a criterion the F-22 had to pass in December 2005.
“Moreover, even in 2019 the F-35A will not be equipped to perform its very limited close air support abilities. That date will only come in 2021, when weapons most appropriate to the close support mission will be available, tested and certified for the F-35. As with the F-22, it will be many years after the Air Force says the aircraft is ready for combat before the F-35 can actually go to war.
The simple truth is that the Air Force does not think the close support mission for troops in combat is a prime responsibility. It never wanted to buy and operate the A-10 in the first place, and it protests that other — unsuitable—aircraft are good enough for the job.”
I believe there’s been a sea change in Air Force attitudes about Close Air Support and that Wheeler is wrong that the service does not consider this a prime responsibility. Add the savings that can accuse from retiring the A-10 — an estimated $3.7 billion — and the Air Force leadership offers pretty compelling arguments for retiring the A-10 and moving to the F-35A.
But Capitol Hill sources believe the Air Force or Bogdan’s office just aren’t trying hard enough to close the mechanics’ gap.
The program “had a plan a year ago to do just this” — namely field enough mechanics without retiring the A-10 — a Hill aide tells me. “The second fact to know is, there are a whole bunch of ways to address that shortage,” including mobilizing National Guard and Reserve mechanics, or hiring private contractors by amending deals with F-35 maker Lockheed Martin.
To get some idea as to relations between the Air Force and some Hill experts working on this issue, here’s how our source described a recent meeting with Air Force experts.
“They were incoherent to contradicting themselves to just kinda sad,” the source says. When asked if they couldn’t use contractors to take care of the shortfall, the service replied that: “We can’t deploy contractors.”
But before the planes are in IOC they won’t be deployed. “That just shows you how little they thought this through,” the Hill aide says
The Air Force briefers also said that getting contractors security clearances would take too long, a year or so. “But it’s now down to four months” to get a top secret (TS) clearance, this aide says.
Bottom line for this Hill aide seems pretty clear: the Air Force wants to cause problems because that increases pressure on Congress to approve the service’s plans to retire the A-10. “From the beginning, it has seemed to me like they are trying to make this as difficult as possible.”