Air-Minded: End of the Road (Updated)

3/17/14: I added some new information and corrected a couple of errors. Scroll to the bottom for the update.

Well, the end of the road for the A-10, that is. And the U-2.

People keep asking me what I think of the Pentagon’s plan to retire the A-10. As I said in a previous post, I don’t see it as the end of the world. The Warthog was going to be gone by 2028 anyway. Under the latest five-year budget plan, it’ll be gone by 2020. The USAF has to carve out money for the F-35, and it has to come from somewhere.

Here, finally, is a chart detailing the USAF’s five-year plan. The chart shows, location by location and fiscal year by fiscal year, aircraft to be retired. The military fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30; when the chart references FY15, for example, that’s the fiscal year that starts this October. If you look at Arizona, you’ll see that the USAF plans to retire a total of 83 A-10s over a two-year period starting October 2014 and ending September 2016. That’s the entire Davis-Monthan AFB fleet, gone by mid-2016.

FY15-adjustments

The wing at Davis-Monthan trains pilots to fly the A-10. The chart implies that the last trainees will graduate by September 2016; no new A-10 pilots will be trained after that date. Warthog squadrons at other bases in the USA and overseas will be gone even sooner, by September of next year: Moody AFB, Georgia; Boise ANGB, Idaho; Osan AB, South Korea. Air National Guard units in some states will keep their Warthogs a little longer: Michigan to September 2017, Missouri to September 2018, Indiana to September 2019. And that’s it. Not quite all the way to FY2020, but close enough.

The U-2s at Beale AFB in California are slated to be gone by September 2016. With other scheduled cuts, 500 aircraft in all will be retired by FY2020. The Aviationist offers this summary:

Over the next 5 years, along with the about 340 A-10s and 33 U-2s, the “adjustment” will cut about 70 F-15Cs, 119 MQ-1 drones, 6 E-8 Joint Stars planes, 7 E-3 AWACS, and 7 EC-130 Compass Call aircraft; such aircraft will be partially replaced by some upgraded F-16s, made available as new F-35s replace them, and 36 MQ-9 Reaper drones, while all the remaining fleets will (more or less) be upgraded.

Focusing locally, the cuts at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson will be substantial. Up to now, as mentioned, DMAFB has been the USAF’s A-10 schoolhouse. It’s also home base to the EC-130 Compass Call. Both aircraft will be gone in two years.

What’ll be left at Davis-Monthan? A small helicopter rescue unit, a few plain-vanilla C-130 transport aircraft, 12th Air Force headquarters (which oversees USAF operations and relations in Central & South America and the Caribbean), and the famous “Boneyard” (where all these soon-to-be retired aircraft will join those that went before them). Davis-Monthan lost the bid to be the training base for the F-35 (Luke AFB in Phoenix edged us out), and I’m afraid our base, a major employer in Tucson, will become a ghost town. I don’t see it going away — 12th Air Force and the Boneyard will keep it alive — but it won’t be the bustling center of activity it has been.

As for the F-35 and whether it’ll be capable of fulfilling the A-10’s close air support mission, please permit me a momentary deviation from the party line. You didn’t think the USAF wanted to kill the A-10 just because it’s ugly and slow, did you? No, it’s because the USAF never wanted to fly close air support in the first place.

The fighter I flew, the F-15 Eagle, experienced a host of problems early on. It was over budget and overweight, plagued by systems that didn’t work as advertised and a shortage of spare parts and engines. In some quarters it was considered a failure and many predicted its early demise. By 1978 we were well on our way to fixing all the problems, and from that point to today the F-15 has been a total success, not only the best air superiority fighter ever but the only fighter to date to achieve a perfect combat record, over a hundred kills and no losses. There’s no doubt in my mind the F-35 will follow a similar curve, and that by 2020 it’ll be a damn good fighter.

But the day the USAF willingly commits a squadron of F-35s to provide close air support to some Army general’s ground troops will be the day rivers flow with whiskey and T-bone steaks grow on trees.

Update (3/17/14): Per this article in yesterday’s Arizona Daily Star, I see that I was a bit too pessimistic about future USAF plans for Davis-Monthan AFB.

First of all, with regard to DMAFB’s A-10s, I misread the chart above. It shows the removal of 55 A-10s over the course of the next two fiscal years. Those are the two active USAF A-10 squadrons, which will be gone by September 2016. But there is a third, an AF Reserve squadron with 28 assigned A-10s. That unit is scheduled to remain, with its A-10s, until FY19, when it will transition to F-16s. It is possible that the reserve unit will train small numbers of replacement A-10 pilots for ANG units around the US, one of which (in Indiana) will also remain until FY19. A few A-10s, then, will remain at DMAFB until some time between October 2018 and September 2019. By September 2019 at the latest, the reserve unit here will be flying F-16s.

I was also wrong about the complete closeout of EC-130 Compass Call operations at DMAFB. I thought there were only 7 or so aircraft, but in fact there are 15. So approximately half the fleet is retiring by September 2015, not the entire fleet.

The impact on DMAFB and Tucson will still be significant. Two-thirds of the current A-10 fleet will be gone in two years, and likely less than that. Half the EC-130s will be gone in one. In four years, the few remaining A-10s will be replaced with F-16s. I’m not aware of any USAF plans to base other aircraft at DM, at least for now. Compared to today, tomorrow’s Davis-Monthan is going to feel like a ghost town.

© 2014, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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