The Air Force plans to retire its legendary A-10 Warthogs within the next five years and it’s still not clear how the service will be able to provide troops on the ground with the level of close air support that the A-10 brings to the fight.

Although Congress has prevented the Air Force from retiring all or part of its A-10 fleet five times since 2014, the opposition from lawmakers appears to be softening. The House version of the Fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act would allow the Air Force to retire 42 A-10s, but it would pause further cuts to the A-10 fleet until the service tells Congress how it plans to keep aircrews proficient in close air support using other aircraft. 

The Air Force has other aircraft that can fly close air support missions, including F-16s, F-15Es, B-1 bombers, AC-130 gunships, and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told Task & Purpose.

The Air Force also recently announced it will replace A-10s at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, and Gowen Field Air National Guard Base in Idaho with F-35s and F-16s respectively, signaling that the service is moving full speed ahead with its efforts to retire the A-10.

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Precision-guided weapons allow all Air Force combat aircraft, including B-52 bombers and MQ-9 Reapers, to conduct close air support missions to troops on the ground, said Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies think tank.

An Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon flies over Fort McCoy, Wis., on Aug. 13, 2021. The fighter jet was participating in the Northern Lightning 2021 exercise at nearby Volk Field, Wis. F-16s also dropped 500-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions for the first time at the Fort McCoy impact area during the exercise. Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center hosted approximately 50 aircraft and nearly 1,000 members of the National Guard, Air Force, Army, and Navy as part of the training exercise. Air Force aircraft also regularly fly over Fort McCoy for training operations. (Photo by Kevin Clark, Fort McCoy Multimedia/Visual Information Office)
An Air Force F-16 dropping a 500-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition during a training exercise. (Kevin Clark, Fort McCoy Multimedia/Visual Information Office)

“It is imperative to understand that close air support, or CAS, is a MISSION and NOT an aircraft,” Deptula wrote in an email to Task & Purpose. “If you are a friendly force coming under attack by enemy ground forces, and the enemy forces are put out of action, the friendly force does not care about the origin of the weapons that put the enemy forces out of action.”

Over the past several years, Air Force officials have suggested the F-35 could provide close air support to troops on the ground, albeit in a different way than the A-10.

“The F-35 will not do close air support mission the same way the A-10 does,” Frank Kendall III, then serving as the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2016. “It will do it very differently. The A-10 was designed to be low, and slow, and close to the targets it was engaging, relatively speaking. We will not use the F-35 in the same way as the A-10.”

However, the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO, has uncovered an Air Force memorandum that the service does not require any active-duty, Reserve, or National Guard F-35 pilots to conduct close air support training.

In fact, the Air Force’s most recent Ready Aircrew Program Tasking Memorandum, which tells commanders which missions pilots should be trained to do and how many training sorties they need to fly to be proficient in them, describes close air support as a secondary mission that F-35 pilots must merely be familiar with, according to POGO, a non-partisan watchdog group.

Two F-35 Lightning II’s bank after receiving fuel over the Midwest Sept. 19, 2019. The two aircraft were in route to the 158th Fighter Wing out of the Vermont Air National Guard Base, South Burlington, Vt., the first Air National Guard unit to receive the aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Ben Mota)
Two F-35 Lightning II’s bank after receiving fuel over the Midwest Sept. 19, 2019. (Master Sgt. Ben Mota/U.S. Air Force)

“Just to drive home the point: No F-35 pilot of any experience level in any component of the Air Force is required to fly a single close air support training mission in 2023 or 2024,” POGO senior defense policy fellow Dan Grazier wrote in a February report.

Outside of its fleet of A-10s, the Air Force does not have a single squadron dedicated solely to providing troops with close air support, said retired Air Force Col. Derek Oaks, who led an A-10 squadron in Afghanistan.

The A-10’s 30mm cannon allows it to attack targets within 100 meters of U.S. troops, much closer and more effectively than other Air Force aircraft, said Oaks, who has nearly 3,000 flight hours in the Warthog.

While F-15s, F-16s, and other multirole aircraft can fly several types of missions that include close air support, they are not as effective as single-mission aircraft, such as the A-10, he said.

“As a CAS pilot, I did some air-to-air awareness, I would never say I was an air-to-air pilot, because I wasn’t,” Oaks said. “I understood basic fighter maneuvers, but I was not going to talk or act as Effectively as an F-15 guy or an F-22 guy, because they’re the experts at it. I was not the expert, and I didn’t want to be the expert. That was their job.”

a-10 warthog small diameter bomb loadout
An A-10 Thunderbolt II takes off for a test mission with 16 GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, April 19, 2023. (William R. Lewis/U.S. Air Force)

Oaks added that although a surgeon might understand an anesthesiologist’s job very well, that doesn’t mean that the surgeon should try to be an anesthesiologist.

Despite the Air Force’s concern that the A-10 is too old and slow to survive against advanced Chinese air defenses, Oaks argues that the Warthog would have some advantages over other U.S. aircraft in a war against China.

Not only can A-10s carry many more weapons than other U.S. Air Force combat aircraft, but they also burn fuel much slower than more modern fighters, so they would be much less reliant on aerial refueling tankers than F-15Es, F-16s, or F-35s, Oaks said. A-10s also can take off and land from small runways, and that would become invaluable if China destroyed large U.S. Air Force installations.

With its large cannon, the A-10 could potentially be used to destroy Chinese ships, he said.

“We could do CAS in a contested environment, we would just have to approach it differently,” Oaks said. “You have to worry about electronic warfare, you have to worry about air threats, and you have experts who know how to do that. It’s the same thing as Afghanistan, you’re just employing different experts.”

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