Air Force appears to concede that the F-35 can't (and won't) replace the A-10 Warthog

The amount of money that we’ve flushed into the development and deployment of the F-35 Lightning all-weather, stealth multirole fighter is now enough to fund the budgets of several small to mid-size nations. But for all of that, the program has experienced one setback after another, including one in April that threatened to ground the entire fleet. Even with that issue resolved, a later test of six of the new, stealthy fighters revealed that only one of them was capable of a rapid, ready alert launch.

This has led to inevitable, unfavorable comparisons to the aging but highly reliable A-10 Warthog. In fact at one point, the military even scheduled a face to face “grudge match” testing the two craft against each other in close air support scenarios. That process is still rolling out but we’re getting a pretty good idea of how it’s going from the supply chain side of the military. While no official announcement has been made, an article from Instapundit pointing us to this piece from Popular Mechanics shows that the Warthog “ain’t going anywhere.”

On paper, the Air Force plans to start mothballing the A-10 in 2018, with the last Warthogs sent to the boneyard by 2021. But last month Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said that the retirement of the A-10 would likely have to be delayed further as the military continues to rely on the low-and-slow attack plane for close-air support (CAS) missions flown against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Even more telling, the Air Force Material Command (AFMC) is bringing the depot line for A-10 maintenance and repair back up to full capacity, according to Aviation Week.

The Hawg isn’t going anywhere.

“They have re-geared up, we’ve turned on the depot line, we’re building it back up in capacity and supply chain,” AFMC chief Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski recently told Aviation Week. “Our command, anyway, is approaching this as another airplane that we are sustaining indefinitely.”

The original pitch which seemed to justify the vast expense of developing the F-35 was that it was so multi-functional that it would replace most of the current fighters. These results aren’t saying that the Lightning is completely worthless (even though pilots have been comparing it unfavorably to the F-16) but it appears to be seriously lacking in the area of close air support for troops in a combat zone. The Warthog is better armored, if a bit slower, and stable in low altitude support roles. Its 30-millimeter cannon holding 1,350 armor-piercing rounds makes it ideal for those sorts of missions and it can take more of a beating than the lightweight, stealthy Lightning. In short, it’s doing a critical job for any potential boots on the ground scenarios which the F-35 simply isn’t as good at.

The news about the supply chain orders is probably more definitive than any formal announcement. We apparently aren’t going to be able to do without the Warthog so any savings on that front to defray the monstrous cost of the F-35 will not be realized. If they are setting up maintenance shops and spare parts lines for “indefinite service” as that announcement indicates, we’d better take a fresh look at the military budget. The A-10 is apparently here to stay and it’s going to cost plenty to keep those birds in the air for the next several decades.