A fleet of heavily armored planes used to protect ground troops taking fire - and the workhorses of the 190th Fighter Squadron of the Idaho Air National Guard - could be mothballed as the U.S. Air Force looks for a more versatile aircraft.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II, known affectionately as the Warthog, has come under increasing scrutiny as the Air Force deals with billions of dollars in budget cuts and faces a second round of sequestration cuts.
The fleet of 343 Warthogs includes 187 planes used by the Air Force, 107 by Air National Guard units across the country and 49 by the Reserves. They were assembled between 1978 and 1982, said Col. Tim Marsano of the Idaho Air National Guard, which has 21 of the planes.
"They aren't new aircraft. However, we think they're the best aircraft in the Air Force inventory for what they do," Marsano said. "It's slow-moving and it flies low, just above the heads of the soldiers we're there to support. It's fantastic for what it does."
Built by Fairchild-Republic, a longtime military supplier probably best known for its World War II-era P-47 Thunderbolt, the A-10 is used to target tanks, armored vehicles and other ground targets. The snub-nosed plane features a seven-barrel rotary cannon, the heaviest cannon mounted on a military aircraft, which can fire off 140 rounds of ammunition in two seconds.
Last July, two A-10s flying out of the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan protected 60 soldiers who were ambushed after their lead vehicle turned over during a patrol, the Los Angeles Times reported. While the soldiers lay pinned behind their vehicles, taking fire, the A-10s sprayed the ground with bullets and bombs until the combatants gave up.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told the Senate Armed Services Committee this month that the "A-10 is the best close-air support platform we have today."
The A-10 flies at less than 325 miles per hour and can cruise as low as 100 feet off the ground, said Maj. Mark Falsani of the Idaho Air National Guard. He's logged 3,000 hours in the A-10 over the past 13 years.
"It's very rewarding to fly in this plane. It's very maneuverable and accurate," said Falsani, an Air Force Academy graduate who has served three tours of duty in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has not officially acted to ax the A-10. However, the Air Force announced last month that it could save $3.5 billion over five years if the plane were eliminated.
"Those are cost savings that would be detrimental to our ground troops during the 10 years it would take to develop a new fleet," said U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Crapo said the Air Force would replace the A-10 with the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, a single-engine fighter jet that can be used for ground attack, reconnaissance and air missions with stealth capability. It's that multimission capability that has Air Force brass considering shelving the A-10.
The $400 billion program to build 2,400 of the F-35 fighters is designed to develop a fighter plane that could be used by the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines. The Idaho Guard's Gowen Field in Boise was once in the running to host a training squadron of the jets, but lost out in 2012 to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. State officials had supported the push as a way to bring in new jobs, while neighbors of the site argued that the jets would harm their quality of life.
The F-35 has the capability to take off from and land on runways, and to hover like a helicopter. No single fighter aircraft has had all those capabilities, the Los Angeles Times reported.
At $32,200 an hour, the F-35 is twice as expensive to operate as the A-10, according to the Government Accountability Office.
More immediately, in terms of retiring the A-10s, more F-35s still have to be built.
"The F-35 is not available, and choosing it would leave a gap that would put our ground troops at risk," Crapo said.
He co-sponsored a bill introduced Thursday that would limit the retirement of the A-10 until a sufficient number of F-35As are operational. The bill was referred to the Senate's Armed Services Committee.
No hearings have been scheduled.
FIGHTING FOR THE A-10
Crapo was one of 33 lawmakers from both parties who wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey expressing "deep concern" about removing the A-10 from the Air Force fleet. The letter was also signed by two of Crapo's Idaho colleagues, Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Mike Simpson.
"It would be difficult for the Department of Defense to justify the divestment of the A-10 while the Air Force continues to expend millions of dollars on conferences, air shows and bloated headquarters staffs - while also struggling to meet statutory audit deadlines," the letter stated.
If the A-10 were to be retired, Crapo said he fears it could lead to cuts for the Air National Guard in Idaho and other states.
The A-10 program supports about 6,000 jobs in the Air National Guard in five states.
The plane's elimination without replacement would cost the 1,400-member Idaho Air Guard $32 million a year in federal funds. That includes payroll expenses as well as money for operations and maintenance budgets, Marsano said.
Twice, in 2008 and in 2010, Idaho Air National Guard pilots won a biennial national competition among A-10 units. The Idaho pilots are among the best of the best, Marsano said, and are proud of their accomplishments.
"It would be a shame to lose it," he said. "But we'll comply with anything the Air Force tells us."
John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell