TUCSON, Arizona (CNN) — The A-10 Thunderbolt II is a lumbering, old airplane. Taking its first flight in 1975, it was not designed for air-to-air combat like the F-15 Eagle. It’s not sleek or stealthy like the F-22 Raptor. It has never taken a leading role in Hollywood blockbusters like the F-14 Tomcat or F/A-18 Hornet. But what it lacks in performance and good looks, it makes up for with pure brute punching power.
If the F-15 is the Tom Brady of the Air Force, the A-10 is Lawrence Taylor. It is arguably one of the most important post-9/11 aerial fighters in the United States arsenal. It is also close to being put out to pasture.
Better known as the Warthog, the A-10 has fought pitched battles with Iraqi insurgents, the Taliban and more recently, ISIS fighters. But the most dangerous foe the aircraft has is budget sequestration and shifting Air Force priorities, not ground fire. As it stands, the venerable warbird is only surviving year to year and may soon be eliminated.
Budget sequestration has put a serious strain on Air Force funds, and the Pentagon leadership thinks the A-10 is too expensive to maintain under the current spending limits when other aircraft can fill similar roles. And several congressmen involved with military allocations believe other expensive undertakings — like finding ways to neutralize the highly deadly improvised explosive devices U.S. soldiers face in the Middle East — are higher funding priorities.
Looming over the debate is the sleek, super-high-tech, massively expensive F-35 Lightning. The F-35 is the RGIII of the Air Force; like the Washington quarterback, it has a ton of potential but is riddled with setbacks. The original goal was to retire the A-10 as the F-35 came online, but the F-35 is still a long way from deployment.
Despite not having a replacement, the Air Force is still determined to mothball the A-10, which is very popular with soldiers and Marines who have benefited from its air support, and with former A-10 pilot and GOP Arizona Rep. Martha McSally. The military plans to fill the gap with existing aircraft.
The A-10 was designed to carry the massive 30 mm GAU-8 Avenger multibarrel canon. Shooting huge depleted uranium bullets at a high speed, the Warthog’s canon was intended to kill any invading Soviet tanks rumbling into West Germany through the Fulda Gap. Instead, it found its mythology written in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many U.S. military aircraft carry out close air support missions, but the A-10 is the only airplane in the Air Force specifically designed for it. Referred to as CAS in the military, close air support covers ground troops from an enemy advance using an aerial weapons strike. CAS missions buy time for grunts to regroup or get out.
Able to circle over a target for long periods, the straight-winged Warthog is supremely maneuverable at low speeds and altitudes. So when ground troops find themselves in trouble — and too close to the enemy for fighter jets to drop bombs without risking friendly fire casualties — A-10 pilots can skim hillsides day and night, under any type of weather, and accurately and punishingly engage ground targets with its powerful cannon.
And because it was meant to fight in the weeds, the Warthog can take a terrible beating, protecting its pilot with a heavily armored cockpit and backup flight systems. When caught between a rock and a hard place, grunts love the sound of an incoming A-10.
While filling the large shoes of the A-10, specifically designed for close air support, with a fast mover like the F-35 will be challenging, aircraft such as the F-16 and even B-1 bombers — which use modern precision-guided munitions — already perform that role very effectively.
According to the Air Force, during the most recent operations against ISIS, aircraft such as the F-16, F-15 and — in its debut on the battlefront— the F-22 Raptor have been involved in support of anti-ISIS forces. During a briefing in January, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James stated that many strike platforms contribute to the fight, with just 11% coming from the A-10 community.
One of the A-10’s most dedicated advocates is the Arizona congresswoman and retired A-10 squadron commander McSally. McSally was among the first women to fly combat aircraft and chose to pilot the A-10 over planes like the F-15. The Afghanistan War veteran is passionate about the Warthog’s ground support role.
“This is a mission where we show up when Americans’ lives are at risk,” McSally said. “When they’re on the ground, they need help, under fire, and we show up right on the front lines and deliver the firepower so they can live to fight another day.”
She also pointed out that the Warthog still plays its Cold War role, holding the line against a possible resurgent Russian threat in Europe. A dozen A-10s from Arizona are in Romania right now.
Last week the freshman Republican, whose district includes Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, home to 80 Warthogs, fought to keep the plane flying by attaching amendments to the draft 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, funding it for another year.
But that didn’t happen without some debate. A-10 support has been fairly bipartisan, as was some of the opposition to McSally’s amendment.
Among the challengers on Capitol Hill is former Marine officer and fellow first-term Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat. Moulton said he appreciates the A-10 but doesn’t understand the point of keeping an aircraft the Air Force wants to retire at the expense of other important military programs.
“What you never hear from the appeals of the A-10 community is what the trade-offs are — and they are big.” Moulton said during debate on the McSally amendment.
The Iraq War veteran pointed to $682 million the committee had to carve out of this year’s defense budget — or $4 billion over four years.
“It is a good plane, and having some number of them might be a good idea, but it is not the only aircraft that does air support and it’s definitely not the only thing our military needs,” he said.
Moulton instead offered a substitute amendment that would fund a smaller number of A-10s, 119 in all, and shift dollars to other needs, including countering improvised explosive devices, which have devastated front-line infantry troops.
“IEDs were the No. 1 killer of Americans in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.” Molten said, “Far more than will die from (them than in) the rare scenarios where only an A-10 can provide close air support.”
A fellow Marine officer and Iraq vet, California Republican Duncan Hunter, agreed with Moulton that Warthog funds would better be used against IEDs. Hunter said of the money in Moulton’s plan: “Where he’s putting it will save more lives. That’s plain and simple.”
Ultimately, the Moulton amendment fell short during last week’s debate and McSally seems to have saved the A-10 in the short term by arguing that it would be foolish to lose a capability that is working right now.
As the debate continues, the A-10 is still in the fight, prowling the skies of Afghanistan and Iraq waiting to sack the enemy. But its future is far from secure.