Air Force Mulls Mothballing F-16s if Congress Blocks A-10 Retirement

The House Armed Services Committee inserted $683 million into the 2016 defense bill to stop the Air Force from retiring the A-10 Warthog.

However, Air Force leaders said the service will have to mothball F-16s and delay the deployment of the F-35 in response to the move by the committee.

Service leaders have said for years the Air Force can no longer afford the A-10. The service said it needs to dedicate resources and manning toward the F-35. Congress has since pushed back saying the service must keep the close-air-support aircraft.

U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, explained that the aircraft's historic and recent combat performances require that it serve a longer life span.

"Rigorous oversight, endorsements from soldiers and Marines about the protection only the A-10 can provide, and repeated deployments in support of OIR (Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria) have persuaded Chairman Thornberry and many members from both parties that the budget driven decision to retire the A-10 is misguided,"  according to language in the HASC markup.

Thornberry's mark identifies specific funding to restore personnel, and preserve, modify, and upgrade the A-10 fleet.

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Air Force officials told that the service is looking at various scenarios if the service must keep the A-10 operational. Those options include retiring an unspecified number F-16 fighter aircraft or delaying the deployment of the F-35 by at least a year, service officials said.

The Air Force has been considering plans to move some maintenance professionals from the A-10 program to the F-35.  However, this effort might be complicated if the proposed HASC marks hold up through the ongoing Congressional review process.

In its budget proposal for fiscal year 2016, the Air Force stated its intention to begin retiring the A-10 in FY 2016 "to focus available funding on more urgent combatant commander requirements."

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, a former A-10 pilot, has said: "It's not about not liking or not wanting the A-10. It's about some very tough decisions that we have to make to recapitalize an Air Force for the threat 10 years from now."

Under the Air Force plan, about 164 A-10s would be retired in 2016 but "the A-10 will remain operational and available for deployment until 2019." The Air Force has said the plan would save an estimated $4.2 billion over five years.

The Air Force plans to retire 283 A-10 aircraft over four years from 2016 through 2019, Air Force officials said.

While quick to praise the A-10's service record, Air Force officials have consistently maintained that other aircraft, including the developing F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, will be able to perform close-air support missions.

"Other platforms such as F-15Es, F-16s, AC-130s, B-52s and B-1 bombers have been performing close air support missions," and Air Force official said.

Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has been a vocal advocate for keeping the A-10 in the Air Force fleet. She has publically said that the F-16, the F-15 and the B-1 bomber "cannot replicate the capabilities of the A-10" in performing the close-air support mission for ground troops.

-- Kris Osborn can be reached at