An A-10C Thunderbolt II makes a bombing run at mock targets June 12, 2015, during the Sabre Strike training exercise in Rukla, Lithuania.

An A-10C Thunderbolt II makes a bombing run at mock targets June 12, 2015, during the Sabre Strike training exercise in Rukla, Lithuania. (James Avery/U.S. Army)

The Air Force lacks reliable data for its projected cost savings from phasing out the A-10 Thunderbolt, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Thursday.

“Without a reliable cost estimate, the Air Force does not have a complete picture of the savings it would generate by divesting the A-10 and does not have a reliable basis from which to develop and consider alternatives to achieve budget targets or assess the impact on other missions such as air superiority or global strike,” concluded the unclassified version of the report released to the public.

The GAO provided congressional defense committees with a preliminary summary of the classified report in April.

The A-10, known as the Warthog, was developed in the early 1970s and is used only for close air support, such as attacking tanks or other ground targets that lack air defenses. The Air Force has sought to retire the A-10 and rely on aircraft such as the new F-35 joint strike fighters slated to arrive later this year, but Congress has favored keeping it in the fleet.

Last week, the Senate approved spending for the A-10 in the annual defense authorization bill, although President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the measure. The A-10 is a heated issue for the Air Force, which has proponents for keeping the aircraft among its ranks.

In January, Maj. Gen. James Post, then vice commander of Air Combat Command, told a group of about 300 airmen at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base that any airman who voiced support to Congress for keeping the A-10 was committing “treason.” Post later apologized but was removed from his position in April over the comment.

The Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, released an analysis in February that found the Air Force had released selected statistics to make it appear the A-10 had been more dangerous to American troops and Afghan civilians than other aircraft. POGO found that, when measured by unintended deaths per 100 sorties in Afghanistan, the A-10 was safer than any other aircraft except the AC-130.

The GAO report found that Defense Department and Air Force “strategic guidance prioritized, among other things, fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-35, readiness and multirole aircraft, while placing a lower priority on single-role aircraft like the A-10.”

The Air Force used this guidance as a basis for developing its fiscal year 2015 budget request, and thus “concluded that the benefits of divesting the A-10 outweighed the cost of retaining it,” the report said.

Even though the Air Force has not fully assessed the cost savings linked to retiring the A-10, the service has estimated that phasing it out would save $4.2 billion over five years.

The GAO analysis, however, found that the Air Force’s alternatives for replacing the A-10 were “rough estimates,” and that the estimated savings “may overstate or understate” the actual figure. For example, phasing out the A-10 could increase the operational tempo of remaining aircraft used for close air support, thus increasing their lifetime costs.

On the other hand, more than $4.2 billion might be saved because the Air Force estimate didn’t include costs for things such as software upgrades or potential enhancements needed for the A-10 if it continued to be used.

The report also concluded that the A-10’s retirement would create potential gaps in close air support but that DOD is planning to address those gaps.

The reduction in capacity for close air support would be mitigated by the gradual nature of the A-10’s phase-out and by the introduction of the F-35 into the fleet, according to the Air Force.

However, the GAO report said the Air Force’s analysis shows that phasing out the A-10 “would increase operational risks in one DOD planning scenario set in 2020.” The report does not explain that scenario.

“Divestiture of the A-10 could also contribute to gaps due to the training focus of its aircrews, its wide range of weapons and its operational capabilities, including its ability to operate in austere environments and under the weather,” the GAO said.

The report did not include recommendations, but the GAO will issue a detailed assessment of phasing out the A-10 later this year. Twitter: @WyattWOlson

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.

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