An A-10 Thunderbolt II from the 127th Wing is parked beneath a shelter on a foggy morning Jan. 11, 2014, at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich

An A-10 Thunderbolt II from the 127th Wing is parked beneath a shelter on a foggy morning Jan. 11, 2014, at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert Hanet

Air Force, Pentagon Have More Work to Do Before Ditching the A-10, Watchdog Says

Losing the aircraft would also mean a loss of U.S. combat search-and-rescue capabilities, the Government Accountability Office said in a newly declassified report.

The A-10 “Warthog,” the four-decade-old close air support plane that has proven to be a cat with nine lives, is causing confusion within the Air Force and the Defense Department over how to phase it out.

In the latest in a series, the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday released an unclassified version of an earlier report saying that neither the Air Force nor the Defense Department “have quality information on the full implications of A-10 divestment, including gaps that could be created by A-10 divestment and mitigation options.”

The absence of firm data on the impact of phasing out the plane raises issues about the Pentagon’s general approach to terminating legacy weapons systems, GAO said.

Congress has blocked plans to immediately terminate the A-10, in part because it has proved invaluable in the current campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

“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,” the report to congressional committees said. “The Air Force is taking a number of steps to try to mitigate any potential negative impacts.” But it “has not established clear requirements for the missions the A-10 performs, and in the absence of these requirements, has not fully identified the capacity or capability gaps that could result from the A-10 divestment.”

An example of the gaps that remain unaddressed by current divestment plans, GAO continued, is the Air Force’s failure to identify “how or if it will replace the A-10's role in combat search and rescue missions.”

Read more on the latest from the A-10 debate in this week's Global Business Brief from Marcus Weisgerber
See also: Air Force Wants New Plane to Replace A-10, Fight ISIS
And The Air Force Will Test the F-35 Against the A-10—But Not Until 2018

The Air Force’s recent estimates of cost savings from ending the A-10 have changed. In fiscal 2016, the service predicted $4.7 billion in savings over its five-year budget plan, GAO noted. But in its fiscal year 2017 budget request, the Air Force estimated that retaining the A-10 under its revised divestment plan would cost $3.4 billion over five years. GAO warned that such varying estimates “may continue to overstate or understate the actual figure and may not be reliable.”

The watchdog added: “A high-quality, reliable cost estimate is comprehensive, well-documented, accurate and credible. GAO's analysis found that the Air Force's cost estimate for its fiscal year 2015 divestment proposal partially met best practices for being comprehensive, minimally met best practices for being well-documented and accurate and did not meet best practices for being credible.”

The uncertainty extends to other weapons systems, auditors found, citing the Navy’s recent plans to decommission seven cruisers. “Overall, the department does not have guidance to ensure that the services and DoD are collecting quality information to inform divestment decisions on major weapon systems before the end of their service lives,” GAO said. “Without quality information that fully identifies gaps and associated risks resulting from divestment that can be used to develop mitigation strategies, DoD and the Air Force may not be well-positioned to best balance current demands and future needs.”

GAO recommended that the Air Force fully identify mission gaps, risks and mitigation strategies, and also develop high-quality, reliable cost estimates of the savings from divestment before again proposing to divest its A-10 fleet. The full Defense Department, it added, should establish quality information requirements to guide major weapon system divestments.

Pentagon officials disagreed. “The Air Force considered multiple analyses that showed that divesting any platform from the current Air Force inventory would result in capability and capacity gaps,” wrote Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. Defense also took issue with the report, saying it “already has robust procedures in place” to provide senior leaders with information on the impact of divestment of weapon systems.