The Islamic State unwittingly forced the U.S. Air Force to continue flying one of ISIS’ fiercest enemies: the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
The Air Force was all set to retire the jet, known affectionately among its crews as the Warthog. Then it was pressed into service last year against the Islamic State in the Mideast, where it drew rave reviews.
“I saw some of the A-10s that are flying bombing missions against ISIL (the Pentagon’s term for Islamic State) when I was at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey last December,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told members of a House appropriations subcommittee during testimony Thursday on the Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget.
The A-10, Carter told the committee, will continue flying until at least 2022.
“We’re pushing off the A-10’s final retirement ... so we can keep more aircraft that can drop smart bombs on ISIL,” he said.
The news was greeted with relief at Gowen Field, where 22 A-10s are based.
“That really helps with unit morale, when it takes away some of the uncertainty we’ve been facing,” said Maj. Chris Borders of the Idaho Air National Guard. “It also makes our planning and logistics much easier.
“The long-range plan does call for phasing out the A-10. We’ll have to adapt and remain agile to meet any threats that we face.”
Initially, the Air Force had planned to decommission Gowen’s A-10s last year. That plan was delayed, but Air Guard officials weren’t sure what the future would hold after the current budget year concludes at the end of September.
Guard pilots, maintenance workers and other staff members are proud of the aircraft and the role the A-10 has played in battle, Borders said. It has worked well against ISIS and for resolving aggression in Europe.
U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, praised the decision to keep flying A-10s.
“The A-10 continues to shine due to its unique close air support capabilities, even while combating new enemies like ISIL,” Simpson said. “There will be a time when it will be replaced; however it continues to merit our support until an appropriate replacement can be identified.”
Local officials said they were buoyed by the action.
“We’re really excited by that,” said Mike Journee, spokesman for the city of Boise, which has forcefully advocated for a continuation of the Idaho Air National Guard’s mission at Gowen Field. “That said, it’s only a short-term reprieve and we want to ensure Gowen continues to have a standalone, follow-up mission.”
Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and members of Idaho’s congressional committee have raised concerns about decommissioning the 22 A-10s based at Gowen Field without assurances that the Air Force will replace the A-10 with another defense jet. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is still under development and which has undergone testing this month at Mountain Home Air Force Base, has been mentioned as one possible replacement. But no decision has been made on whether those planes will end up at Gowen.
“It could be the F-35, or it could be another platform. We want to make sure there’s something here,” Journee said.
Carter told the House subcommittee that the A-10s will be replaced by F-35s on a “squadron-by-squadron basis as they come online, ensuring that all units have sufficient backfill and that we retain enough aircraft needed to fight today’s conflicts.”
Borders said Air Guard pilots get asked all the time which is better, the A-10 or the F-35.
“That’s a difficult question to answer because we’re in the A-10 business,” and those pilots have not flown the F-35, he said.
The Air Force also has talked about moving the Air National Guard operation to Mountain Home to allow for joint training and consolidation with the Air Force base there. City leaders and members of Idaho’s congressional delegation oppose that idea, saying it would have a negative economic impact on Boise and would make it harder to recruit and retain Air Guard members who would face a longer drive to Mountain Home.
“It’s important for the city to continue to have those jobs,” Journee said.