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Audit hits Air Force on faulty analysis to retire A-10s

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A government audit faults the U.S. Air Force for failing to identify all of the risks posed by eliminating the A-10 attack plane, recommending the military develop reliable cost estimates of potential savings before again proposing divestment of the fleet.

“Divestment decisions can have far-reaching consequences and should be based on quality information,” says a report published Wednesday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

“While A-10 pilots are recognized as the Air Force experts in providing close-air support to friendly forces, the A-10 and its pilots also perform other missions that are important to ongoing operations or to combatant commander operational plans, and divestment will result in reduced capacity and capability in these other areas.”

For several years, the Air Force has proposed retiring the A-10 Thunderbolt attack plane — of which there are 21 at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Operations related to the jet support 180 full-time jobs and nearly 300 part-time jobs there. The military says replacing the fleet with the F-35 joint strike fighter by 2021 would save more than $4.7 billion.

The proposal has met significant opposition from lawmakers, including those in the Michigan delegation. In recent spending bills, Congress temporarily blocked plans to mothball the A-10, also known as the Warthog.

Lawmakers also requested the independent study by the GAO of the military’s platforms for “close-air support” – those attacks by aircraft such as the A-10 on hostile ground or naval forces located near friendly forces.

Republican Rep. Candice Miller of Harrison Township, whose 10th Congressional District includes Selfridge, said the GAO report underscores what she’s heard from troops – that the fleet performs a critical mission filled by no other aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory.

“Any attempt to divest the fleet without a suitable replacement would be a shortsighted cut that would severely impact our ability to protect our troops on the ground around the world,” Miller said in a statement.

“Until a suitable replacement can be identified, it is critical that we not only protect the A-10 fleet, but continue to invest in the maintenance and modernization of the aircraft.”

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, in a response included with the report, disagreed with the GAO’s recommendations, saying the Air Force considered multiple analyses. It found that phasing out the A-10 was the “most acceptable” strategy for adapting to expected budget cuts while “controlling risk across all Air Force mission sets,” James wrote.

“The Air Force takes exception to the assertion that it made the decision to divest the A-10 without knowledge or understanding of the associated risk or capability gaps,” she wrote.

James referred to the A-10 elimination decision as a “difficult” one. She disputed the GAO’s suggestion that the Air Force needs to develop a “high-quality, reliable cost estimate” and department-wide guidance establishing that certain criteria be met before proposing divestment of major weapon systems.

“The DoD already has robust procedures in place to provide this information,” James wrote.

Additional details supporting James’ response were deemed classified and not included in the public report.

In February, the Pentagon said the Air Force would push back completely retiring the 283-plane fleet by three years – until 2022. The fleet has seen an increase in demand from military commanders in the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

The GAO notes Air Force documents showing that the loss of A-10 squadrons would outpace the F-35 squadron gain, assuming the F-35s are delivered and ready for operations as scheduled. The F-35 program has experienced performance and scheduling problems.

The GAO says the Air Force began a review in March that includes examining its fighter-capacity requirements but, until it has that baseline, the Air Force cannot determine the full extent of capacity gaps and associated risks that would incur under its current A-10 divestment proposal. The A-10 also has “unique” capabilities not replicated in fighters such as the F-35 or F-16, according to the GAO.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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