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Combat vets raise voices for Warthog

– Russell Carpenter owes his life to the ugliest warplane in the Pentagon fleet.

When about 3,000 U.S. soldiers traveling on a dirt road in Iraq came under fire from behind a ridge in the opening weeks of the 2003 American invasion, the retired Air Force chief master sergeant says he called for air support from the only plane that could fly low and slow enough to tell friend from foe: the A-10.

“They would have killed hundreds of our dudes” if it weren’t for the firepower of the A-10, with its seven-barrel Gatling gun that sounds like a buzz saw, Carpenter says.

The trust of several generations of soldiers and airmen in the A-10, known as the Warthog for its snoutlike nose, has propelled opposition to the Pentagon’s plan to retire all 283 of the 1970s-era planes to save $4.2 billion over five years in a time of budget cuts.

The voices of combat veterans have added an extra edge to the hometown lobbying that makes it hard to kill any major weapons program, from tanks the military no longer wants to the troubled new Littoral Combat Ship.

The Defense Department proposal, part of the fiscal 2015 budget request sent to Congress in March, has even become the centerpiece of a political campaign in Arizona, where a former A-10 pilot is running for a U.S. House seat against an incumbent she says hasn’t done enough to save the plane. A base in the district is home to the biggest fleet of A-10s, and pilots are trained to fly them there.

The Air National Guard 122nd Fighter Wing in Fort Wayne flies 21 Warthogs. Officials at the base announced in March that the planes are to be replaced by F-16 fighter jets under the fiscal 2015 budget request.

In a reflection of efforts by lawmakers to save the plane, the House Armed Services Committee will take initial action on the A-10 today when it approves its version of the annual defense policy measure. The panel plans to include a provision barring the department from spending funds to retire the planes unless it keeps them in good condition to fly if needed, according to draft legislation released by the panel.

“It is such an emotional issue,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former Air Force intelligence chief who heads the Deptula Group, a consulting firm in Oakton, Virginia. Given the budget constraints, he said, the decision to retire the plane makes sense.

But top Army officers make clear that they and their troops would miss the A-10’s protection.

“It’s a game-changer,” Gen. John Campbell, the Army’s vice chief of staff, told senatorsMarch 26. “It’s ugly; it’s loud. But when it comes in and you hear that ‘bvvrr,’ it just makes a difference.”

The Air Force says retiring the A-10 won’t put soldiers’ lives at greater risk. The service says newer, faster aircraft – such as the F-16, the F-15E, bombers and, eventually, the new F-35 fighter from Lockheed Martin – can perform the A-10’s principal mission of “close air support,” striking targets on the ground to help soldiers in a land battle.

The A-10’s supporters question whether the military would be willing to use the costly F-35 in such a way.

“You really think they’re going to allow a $200 million airplane to get down in the weeds where’s it’s extremely vulnerable?” asked retired Lt. Col. William Smith, an airline pilot who flew the A-10 in Iraq and Afghanistan.While the A-10 – which the Air Force says cost $18.8 million per plane in today’s dollars – is more vulnerable to enemy aircraft than fighters designed for air-to-air combat, a titanium “bathtub” that wraps around the bottom of the cockpit offers better protection against ground fire.

“There are niche scenarios where the A-10 probably does a better job,” said Col. Douglas Nikolai, the Air Force’s director of operations force management. “In tough budget times, we have to make tough choices. Is it going to cost us lives? That’s open for debate.”