A-10A over Germany
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The Precision Engagement modification is the largest single upgrade effort ever undertaken for the USA’s unique A-10 “Warthog” close air support aircraft fleet. While existing A/OA-10 aircraft continue to outperform technology-packed rivals on the battlefield, this set of upgrades is expected to make them more flexible, and help keep the aircraft current until the fleet’s planned phase-out in 2028. When complete, A-10C PE will give USAF A-10s precision strike capability sooner than planned, combining multiple upgrades into 1 time and money-saving program, rather than executing them as standalone projects. Indeed, the USAF accelerated the PE program by 9 months as a result of its experiences in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

This is DID’s FOCUS Article for the PE program, and for other modifications to the A-10 fleet. It covers the A-10′s battlefield performance and advantages, the elements of the PE program, other planned modifications, related refurbishment efforts to keep the fleet in the air, and the contracts that have been issued each step of the way.

A/OA-10 Thunderbolt II: Experiences on the Ground

A/OA-10 at Bagram, AF
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“The Major’s Email: British Harrier Support in Afghanistan, Revisited” examined the statements of a British officer who had criticized British close air support, and openly stated a preference for USAF A-10s over any aircraft the British could deploy in theater.

As we explained at the time, this comes as no surprise. The O/A-10 “Warthog” has the advantage of armored protection, along with a purpose-built design that allows slower speed forward flight and longer loiter time over the battlefield. Not to mention its infamous GAU-8 Avenger 30mm gatling gun that can take apart a tank – or just about anything else in its field of fire. This is what allowed it to do a substantially better job in Desert Storm than fast-moving fighters like the quickly-abandoned “A-16″ F-16 experiment, and it’s currently keeping them very busy in Afghanistan.

It kept them busy in Iraq, too. A July 2003 report in Air Force News quoted Lt. Col. Dave Kennedy:

“Kennedy said during a Pentagon interview that in the first week of the war, close-air support requests went to the Combined Air Operations Center “open-ended” — meaning no specific aircraft type was requested. After the first week, he said, 80 to 90 percent of the requests for close-air support were A-10-specific.”

As one can see, the British Major is hardly alone in his preferences. Why is this?

As this National Defense magazine article notes, fast jets simply aren’t an ideal choice for close air support, and the British aren’t alone in having this issue. US Army Sgt. First Class Frank Antenori discuss his recent experiences in Iraq:

“The aircraft that we have are awesome, but they are too awesome, they are too fast, too high speed. The older technology, the A-10, is far better than the new technology, Antenori said. “The A-10s never missed, and with the F/A-18s we had to do two or three bomb runs to get them on the target,” he said, recalling his recent experiences in combat.”

Dispatches from Afghanistan add an additional edge, and reinforce the point:

The A-10 combines some of the best of today’s high-technology Air Force with a solid, low-tech foundation. The addition of a targeting and laser-designation pod was a huge boost to the plane’s capabilities, but still no substitute for the pilot’s eyeballs.

“Most other aircraft rely heavily on (electronic) sensors to find and target the enemy,” said Capt. Rick Mitchell, deployed here from the Air Force Reserve Command’s 442nd Fighter Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. “In the A-10, it’s not unusual for a pilot to use binoculars.”

“Killer Chick”
flew it home
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Which is not to say that technology is useless. A/OA-10s have made effective and frequent use of LITENING AT surveillance and targeting pods, for instance. Integrating them directly into the aircraft’s systems is a fine idea that lowers pilot workload, and adds scanning range and improved night/bad weather capabilities. While a second crewman would be ideal, and was part of a 1980s “A-10 Night/Adverse Weather” model that was never produced, the sensor pods are clear improvements. Likewise, adding the ability to drop additional precision weapons like JDAM or its WCMD cluster bomb counterpart can only be a plus. On the flip side, A-10s have also been involved in several notable friendly fire incidents, which makes datalink improvements a critical fix.

The difference is that conventional fast jet fighters are forced to depend on these enhancements for effectiveness, because of their aerodynamic design a vulnerability to damage. With the new Precision Engagement additions, the A-10C adds many of the newer fighters’ tricks and weapons, but its cheaper, purpose-built design and stronger protection give its pilots additional options. Those additional options contribute directly to effectiveness in combat, and can still be used if hostile fire or simple technical failure render those technological enhancements useless.

The net result is an A/OA-10A Thunderbolt II/ “Warthog” platform that is a worthy successor to its P-47 Thunderbolt/”Jug” namesake, whose top 10 aces all survived World War II.

The “Hog” is the best western close air support aircraft by a very wide margin, and the A-10C upgrades make it the best close-support aircraft in the world. It’s likely to remain so well into the future, despite competition from the upgraded Sukhoi SU-25/28 “Frogfoot”/”Scorpion”, or boasts from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program that their aircraft will be able to replace it.

The A/OA-10 Precision Engagement Modification Program

A-10 cockpit, before
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To date, A-10 fleet upgrades have been somewhat patchwork and piecemeal. The A-10C PE program changes all that. The entire A-10 fleet will be modified over 4-5 years, and an April 2/07 GAO report estimates the A-10 Precision Engagement program’s total overall cost at around $420 million.

Lockheed Martin Systems Integration – Owego is the A-10C Precision Engagement program’s prime contractor and systems integrator under the direction of the A-10 program office (508th Attack Sustainment Squadron), leading a team that includes Northrop Grumman of St. Augustine, FL; BAE Systems of Johnson City, NY; and Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) of San Antonio, TX. The Air Force awarded the Precision Engagement development contract to Lockheed Martin in 2001, and as the prime contractor Lockheed is expected to deliver a total of 356 kits over 5 years, at an estimated cost of $168 million. Lockheed Martin received the production contract in February 2005, with the first production kits delivered to Hill AFB in March 2006.

While the program was originally supposed to consist of several spirals, these plans were modified in light of USAF requests and needs. The program now consists of 2 increments, with JTRS fielding left as an open item to be addressed once the JTRS AMF equipment is available.

A-10 PE, Increment 3.2

A-10C, partly upgraded
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The Maryland ANG(Air National Guard) 175th Wing at Warfield ANG Base in Baltimore, MD was be the first unit to convert to the modified aircraft and integrate them into normal operations, beginning in September 2007. They received Increment 3.2, which will include the PE kit described below plus datalink capability (14 months early), basic JDAM and WCMD compatibility (9 months early), the Spiral 1 PE kit described below, and targeting pod compatibility.

Each Spiral 1 Precision Engagement kit consists of a new cockpit instrument panel. A new computer called the Central Interface Control Unit (CICU) adds new cockpit controls and displays, including a pair of 5×5 inch multi-function color displays that include moving digital map functions. The new integrated Digital Stores Management System (DSMS), meanwhile, keeps track of weapons and launches them; it will be linked into applications as diverse as video from the targeting pod, weapons status reports, and the data link. These upgrades require a major change to the aircraft’s wiring, and consume a lot more power. Not to worry, though; a second DC generator will double the A-10′s generator capacity.

For the pilot, a new stick grip and right throttle provide true hands-on-throttle and-stick (HOTAS) fingertip control of aircraft systems and targeting pod functionality. Using the HOTAS, the pilot can designate the targeting pod to monitor an area of interest, confirm target identification, and provide laser guidance to weapons from his A-10 or from another platform – all without taking his hands from the controls. Upgrading 6 of the A-10C’s 11 pylons to ‘smart’ weapons capability via MIL-STD-1760 is the final piece of the basic infrastructure upgrades.

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Key add-ons build upon these initial steps, and targeting pod integration is touted as the final piece of spiral 1. PE Program modifications will allow the A-10 to carry either the Northrop-Grumman/ Rafael LITENING AT or the Lockheed Martin Sniper XR targeting pod on an underwing pylon as fully integrated devices, with connections to all of the aircraft’s other systems. The pods, which include long-range TV and infrared cameras with zoom capabilities and a laser target designator, will enable the pilot to identify targets from medium altitudes on the order of 20,000 to 30,000 feet day or night, then illuminate them for homing, laser-guided or GPS guided bombs. During the initial deployments in Iraq, their heat-sensing capability has even proved useful for finding buried land mines, which tend to retain a differential heat signature because they’re made of different materials than the earth around them.

The targeting pods will help reduce mistaken attacks on friendly forces and noncombatants by giving the pilot a closer look at potential targets, and experience with other jets indicates that their stabilized, “point and stare” capabilities are likely to prove especially important in urban operations. Eventually, they will allow A-10 aircraft to engage targets from a higher altitude using advanced sensors and targeting pods and precision guided weapons, including the JDAM and their companion WCMD kits for cluster bombs.

Integration with ROVER devices carried by ground troops also becomes possible, allowing front line forces to communicate using annotated map displays and specific positional data.

SADL screen
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Another very significant Increment 3.2 upgrade involves Raytheon’s SADL data link. SADL was added after the A-10 Precision Engagement program requirements were finalized, which is usually a predictor of trouble. Instead, it went from requirements to delivery in just 17 months, thanks to a general sense of urgency and extraordinary contractor efforts. Those efforts included hardware purchases by Lockheed Martin before they had a government contract to do so, putting their funds at risk but ultimately shortening project completion by 6 months. Back in February 207, Major Drew English, the USAF program manager for A-10C Precision Engagement, told Military Aerospace Technology that:

“I would say the biggest [change] we have coming impact wise is the data link. It will shape our tactics and it bring us into a new era, probably as much as night vision goggles did when we got those in the mid-’90s”

SADL automatically sends and receive data from the Army Enhanced Position Locating and Reporting System (ePLRS) that is part of FBCB2, a.k.a. “Blue Force Tracker.” This means that friendly troops on the ground receive the plane’s position and altitude, while the 5 closest “friendlies” will show up on the aircraft’s heads-up display and/or multi-function cockpit displays at the beginning of an attack. SADL also offers Link 16 integration with other fighters and air defense systems, allowing the A-10C to automatically known receive position data for enemy aircraft, air defenses, and other targets – including targets beyond its range of sight. Link 16 and SADL share information via gateways, which are land-based or airborne portals that permit the transfer of information between different formats.

A-10C pilot Capt. Rich Hunt of the Maryland Air National Guard’s 175th Wing said from Al-Asad AFB, Iraq:

“Previously, for me to keep track of all the other airplanes that are around me or to help us perform the mission, I would literally have to write those down with a grease pencil inside my canopy or write them down on a white piece of paper on my knee board in order to keep track of all that… Now I have a color display that has all of the other airplanes that are up supporting the same mission across all of Iraq right now. And they are all digitally displayed through that data link on my map. So now, especially at night when awareness is a little bit lower, I can look at that beautiful map display and know exactly what other airplanes are around me.”

He also praised the ROVER downlink capability, allowing the aircraft to transmit the live video feed to a joint terminal attack controller on the ground, and the new JDAM capabilities:

“In Iraq that is especially important because it’s a very difficult situation when we provide close-air support in such a densely urban environment. By the controller being able to look through my targeting pod real time, we can compare exactly what we are looking at and make sure we have an absolutely 100 percent positive identification of the target… Sometimes we find ourselves where we have to destroy a terrorist stronghold location. But in the house across the street are friendly Iraqi civilians. We know we have to destroy the stronghold, but we don’t want to cause any collateral damage whatsoever. So the JDAM has been outstanding for us. Between the situational awareness data link, the targeting pod with the ROVER down link to the controller on the ground and the JDAM, the A-10C on this deployment has been an amazing success for us.”

The USAF adds that:

“A command and control platform — such as the 12th Air Force Air Operations Center here — can send digital communication via SADL to the A-10C for a variety of purposes. Tasking messages, targeting information, threat warnings, and friendly locations can all be sent and received by the A-10C. Additionally, the A-10C is the only platform with the ability to task other fighter platforms to attack targets.”

Given past A-10-related friendly fire incidents, the appeal of a system like SADL is obvious.

Together, these Increment 3.1 and 3.2 additions create an A-10C aircraft that looks the same on the outside, but offers a very different set of capabilities and can be used in very different ways.

The Air Force has been conducting flight-testing of the A-10C at Eglin Air Force Base, FL, and at Nellis Air Force Base, NV, since early 2005. Operational Testing Certification (OT Cert) begins in July 2007, with Air Force operational test and evaluation center Operational User Evaluation (AFOTEC OUE) in August 2007 that includes a final look at JDAM integration and the SADL datalink. If everything continues to go well, operational fielding begins in early September 2007 and The AFOTEC report will follow in October 2007.

A-10 PE, Increment 3.3

A-10C fires cannon
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A second fielded Precision Engagement release will provide for CNS/ATM, full smart weapon integration, more software upgrades, additional improvements as a result of feedback from earlier flight tests, and some maintainer functional improvements.

Releases to test were scheduled for August 2007 and December 2007, with fielding expected around May 2008.

Overall PE kit production ran to 2008. Squadrons released their jets for modification at Hill AFB, UT for upgrades, and they returned about 90 days later as A-10Cs. Installation work was scheduled to run until 2009.

A-10 Fleet: Other Planned Improvements

In service to 2028

The A-10C PE program is only part of the effort required to keep the Reagan-era fleet of A-10s battle-worthy out to 2028. A separate $2.02 billion dollar wing replacement program is underway, a multiple-award $1.72 billion contract covered overall fleet maintenance and some upgrades from 2009-2019, and more technology inserts and structural modifications were planned. The GAO’s April 2007 report placed the potential total cost of upgrades, refurbishment, and service life extension plans for the A/OA-10 force at up to $4.4 billion.

The Pentagon began pushing to retire the entire fleet early in the FY 2015 budget. If that effort fails, possible upgrades could include electronics and engines, as well as structural work.

The USAF planned to replace the “thin skin” wings on 242 aircraft with new wings, and that effort is now underway. The cost was originally estimated at $1.3 billion, but the June 2007 contract was for $2 billion. This effort will help to extend A-10 service lives to 16,000 flying hours.

At some point, the A-10s would need to install Joint Tactical Radio System-based (JTRS) radios. As of April 2007, JTRS AMF was only in the bid phase, and as of 2014 it was not a required USAF standard.

To improve the A-10′s overall power and maintainability, the USAF hoped to eventually upgrade the existing General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofan engines. Components of the existing engine will be replaced; in particular, a more efficient fan section with wider blades would be installed by General Electric along with digital engine controls. Flight testing of the revamped engine was slated to begin in FY 2008, and production in 2009-2010. Instead, this effort was downgraded in priority and deferred.

An April 2/07 GAO report places the potential total cost of upgrades, refurbishment, and service life extension plans for the A/OA-10 force at up to $4.4 billion.

Contracts & Key Events

Unless otherwise specified, all contracts are awarded to Lockheed Martin in Owego, NY as leader of the A-10 Prime Team; and they are issued by the Headquarters Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill Air Force Base, UT.

FY 2014

Attempted retirement of the fleet.

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July 15-18/14: Political. The Senate Appropriations Committee approves a $489.6 billion base FY 2015 budget, plus $59.7 billion in supplemental funding. It includes $338 million to keep the A-10C fleet in service. Barring a Presidential veto and Congressional cave-in, that pretty much sets things in stone – the A-10 will survive for one more year. Sources: Arizona Daily Independent, “Senate Appropriations Committee saves A-10 in 2015″ | Reuters, “US Senate defense funding bill rejects some Pentagon cost-cutting” | Verde Independent, “Congress takes another step toward saving A-10 fighter from budget ax”. See also DID, “FY15 US Defense Budget Finally Complete with War Funding”.

June 19-20/14: Political. The full House vote on HR 4870 would preserve the A-10 for one more year, after 300-114-17 passage of a June 19/14 amendment to “prohibit use of funds to divest, retire, transfer, or place in storage, or prepare to divest, retire, transfer, or place in storage, any A-10 aircraft, or to disestablish any units of the active or reserve.” Sources: GovTrack.US, “House Vote #322 in 2014″.

June 10/14: Political. The House Appropriations Committee votes 23–13 against Rep. Jack Kingston’s [R-GA-1] amendment to transfer $339 million from the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance account to sustain the A-10 fleet. Former USAF pilot Chris Stewart [R-UT-2] was one of the speakers in favor from both parties, and he outlined the inherent issues with the close-air support mission, but it was to no avail.

The House Armed Services Committee had a different viewpoint (q.v. May 8/14 and DID’s FY15 budget cycle), and so did the Senate (q.v. May 23/14). What really matters is what the House end up approving by final vote, but these kinds of losses can hurt political momentum.

May 23/14: Political. The Senate Armed Services Committee has completed the mark-up of the annual defense bill, which passed by a 25-1 vote. The section relevant to the A-10 is explained this way:

“Prohibits the Air Force from retiring or preparing to retire any A-10 or Airborne Warning and Control Aircraft (AWACS), or making any significant changes in manning levels in FY15.”

That isn’t as comprehensive or as long-term as Sen. Ayotte’s S.1764 bill (q.v. Nov 21-Dec 5/14), but it fulfills the same purpose in the immediate term. If the measure remains in the Senate’s FY 2015 NDAA bill, it will have to be reconciled with similar but different provisions in the House bill (q.v. May 8/14). Bottom line? Unless these measures are stripped from the final bill in either the House or the Senate, the A-10C fleet isn’t going anywhere just yet. Sources: US Senate Armed Services Committee, “Senate Committee on Armed Services Completes Markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015″.

May 8/14: Political. A 41-20 voice vote in the House Armed Services Committee changes the language of Rep. McKeon’s A-10 compromise, and institutes terms that are similar to HR.3657. Ron Barber [D-AZ-2] and Vicky Hartzler [R-MO-4] and Austin Scott [R-GA-8] from HR.3657 are the amendment’s sponsors, and they’ve added interesting requirements. One example would have the Comptroller General’s Office assess the cost per-plane for close air support missions, as part of the set of activities necessary before retiring the A-10s. The F-35′s high operating costs, and heavy depreciation due to its high initial cost, would cripple it in any comparison with the A-10. The F-35′s figures per mission would probably be at least 100% higher, and could easily be worse than that.

May 5/14: Political. House Armed Services Committee chair Buck McKeon [R-MO] proposes a compromise measure that would require “Type 1000 storage” for the retired A-10C fleet. Planes kept in that condition can be recalled to duty and fly again within 30-120 days, because after the initial removal and proper storage of key items like engines and weapons, no parts can be pulled without the express permission of the program office at Wright-Patterson AFB. That’s significantly better than Type 2000/4000 storage, but a step below Type 3000 “temporary storage” planes that receive engine runs, tow-outs to lubricate their bearings, and fluids servicing every 30 days.

Defense News estimates the cost for the 283-plane fleet at $25.7 million over 5 years ($12.17M initial storage + $283k/year + $12.17M refurb every 4 years). Sources: Air Force Magazine, “Living Boneyard” | Defense News Intercepts, “The Price of Storing the A-10 in “Type-1000″ Storage” | House Armed Services Committee, “McKeon Releases Full Committee Mark”.

Feb 24/14: Scrap the A-10Cs. The announcement isn’t a surprise (q.v. Sept 15/13), but Chuck Hagel’s FY 2015 pre-budget briefing explains the official justification for removing the A-10 fleet:

“For the Air Force, an emphasis on capability over capacity meant that we protected its key modernization programs, including the new bomber, the Joint Strike Fighter, and the new refueling tanker. We also recommended investing $1 billion in a promising next-generation jet engine technology, which we expect to produce sizeable cost-savings through reduced fuel consumption and lower maintenance needs. This new funding will also help ensure a robust industrial base – itself a national strategic asset.

To fund these investments, the Air Force will reduce the number of tactical air squadrons including the entire A-10 fleet. Retiring the A-10 fleet saves $3.5 billion over five years and accelerates the Air Force’s long-standing modernization plan [to replace it with the F-35]…. the A-10… cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses. And as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, the advent of precision munitions means that many more types of aircraft can now provide effective close air support, from B-1 bombers to remotely piloted aircraft. And these aircraft can execute more than one mission.

Moreover, the A-10’s age is also making it much more difficult and costly to maintain. Significant savings are only possible through eliminating the entire fleet, because of the fixed cost of maintaining the support apparatus associated with the aircraft. Keeping a smaller number of A-10s would only delay the inevitable while forcing worse trade-offs elsewhere.”

The A-10′s original concept did, in fact, aim to survive and operate in the face of advanced fighters and air defense, which makes Hagel’s statement questionable. Expect to see others question Hagel’s use of the term “effective” as well. The A-10 remains peerless in the close support role, and the use of fighter guns for close-in attacks on the front lines remains reality. That isn’t possible for drones, and it’s problematic for the vulnerable F-35A, which carries only 14% as much ammunition (only 180 rounds) in a lesser caliber. It would be possible to defend the decision by saying that the USAF is downgrading Close Air Support in order to build up other capabilities, but that isn’t how the Pentagon is selling this. Sources: US DoD, “Remarks By Secretary Of Defense Chuck Hagel FY 2015 Budget Preview Pentagon Press Briefing Room Monday, February 24, 2014″.

FY 2015 Budget: Retire the fleet

Nov 21-Dec 5/13: Political. House and Senate members introduce bills in each chamber that would restrict the USAF’s ability to retire its A-10Cs. The Senate’s S.1764 is introduced by Kelly Ayotte [R-NH], While the House’s HR.3657 is introduced by Vicky Hartzler [R-MO-4]. Both have cosponsors from each party, but they’ll need more cosponsors to improve the chances of getting to a vote and being passed into law.

The core condition in both bills is that the USAF must have a fleet of F-35As with Block 4A software, including integration with the GBU-53 Small Diamater Bomb II or equivalent capability, all certified by an audit by the Comptroller General that also says that there are enough F-35s to replace the A-10s. In practice, that would defer A-10C retirement to 2025 at least, and might even push all the way to the A-10′s planned 2028 retirement.

FY 2013

APKWS laser-guided rockets added; A-10s out of Europe.

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Sept 26/13: TLPS. Northrop Grumman Technical Services in Herndon, VA receives an estimated maximum $11.3 million task order under a combined firm-fixed-price and cost-plus-fixed-fee engineering support contract. They’ll provide evaluations, analysis, repair designs, and/or testing to support the requirements for the A-10 aircraft structural integrity program and maintenance of operational safety, suitability, and effectiveness. All funds are committed immediately.

This award is a result of a competitive acquisition under the Thunderbolt Life Cycle Program Support contract, but only 1 bid was received.

Work will be performed at Hill AFB, UT, although various portions of the work will take place at subcontractor facilities, and work is expected to be completed by Sept 18/16. The USAF Life Cycle Management Center/WWAK at Hill AFB, UT manages the contract (FA8202-09-D-0003, 0012).

Sept 25/13: Political. Sen. Kelly Ayotte [R-NH], whose husband Joe was an A-10 pilot, puts a hold on the nomination of Deborah Lee James to be Secretary of the Air Force, until she gets clear and acceptable answers regarding the USAF’s proposal to kill the platform. Sources: Defense News, “Ayotte Blocks Air Force Secretary Nominee Over Possible A-10 Cuts”.

Sept 20/13: Political. House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Ron Barber [R-AZ-02] initiates a letter signed by 8 colleagues, calling the A-10:

“…a critical capability…. In Operation Desert Storm, the A-10 was responsible for the destruction of 4,000 military vehicles and artillery pieces. In Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the A-10 has performed nearly one third of the combat sorties…. The Department of Defense must maintain its ability to wage ground combat and support those at the tip of the spear.”

The letter is co-signed by Reps. Rob Bishop [R-UT-01, HASC on leave to Rules]; Paul Gosar [R-AZ-04]; Vicky Hartzler [R-MO-04 HASC]; Jack Kingston [R-GA-01, Ways & Means]; Candice S. Miller [R-MI-10]; C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger [D-MD-02, Intel.]; Austin Scott [R-GA-08, HASC]; and Mike Simpson [R-ID-02, Budget/ Approp.]. Sources: Rep. Ron Barber Release | Full letter [PDF].

Sept 17/13: Political. Gen. Mike Hostage reiterates to reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference that the A-10 may be on the chopping block, and repeats the point about savings only becoming substantial when you remove entire fleets. He adds:

“You can’t get your money out of installations because they won’t support [base realignment and closure]. You can’t get money out of people fast enough. It takes about a year to get savings out of people.”

Gen. Welsh’s address
click for video

Sept 15/13: End of the A-10? USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, is quoted as saying that “You can cut aircraft from a fleet, but you save a lot more money if you cut all the infrastructure that supports the fleet.”

That’s a step beyond initial reports about the Strategic Choices and Management Review, and current reports have the USAF considering the removal of all 343 A-10Cs, all 59 KC-10 tankers, and more of the 249 or so F-15C/Ds. The CRH successor to the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters is also up for review.

The KC-10 option seems to make zero sense as a “single-role” retirement, as it’s far more capable and multi-role than the smaller KC-135s, giving it especial value in the huge Pacific theater. It’s also the USAF’s key insurance against a grounding of its 1950s-era KC-135 aerial tanker fleet – which may explain the decision. If the USAF is trying to protect its KC-46 program, removing any operational insurance for the aged KC-135s makes the KC-46 program that much harder to mess with, or even to delay.

The F-15Cs, on the other hand, have had serious aging out problems, including maneuvering restrictions, and even a months-long grounding after one of the planes broke in 2 in mid-air. The F-22 Raptor fleet’s small size means that retiring the F-15Cs would be a big hit to US air superiority assets, but the multi-role F-15E Strike Eagles can perform the air superiority role almost as well. It’s just a continuing data point in the long-term downsizing of American TacAir. Sources: Defense News, “USAF Weighs Scrapping KC-10, A-10 Fleets” and “USAF General: A-10 Fleet Likely Done if Sequestration Continues”.

Sept 4/13: Wings. Boeing announces a $212 million follow-on order for 56 A-10C replacement wings, bringing total orders so far under the $2 billion program (q.v. June 29/07 entry) to 173 of a maximum 242.

Work will be performed at Boeing’s plant in Macon, GA. Sources: Boeing, Sept 4/13 release.

Aug 12-13/13: Cut the USAF? Prof. Robert Farley makes a condensed argument for abolishing the USAF as a separate service, in advance of his book “Grounded! The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force.” Farley argues that the USA needs air power, but not a service that’s divorced from the ground and naval forces they support. A misguided focus on strategic effect, which he argues hasn’t panned out in wartime experience, will interfere and has interfered with effective contributions to a land/ sea/ air team.

Michael Auslin of the neoconservative AEI think tank responds, arguing that the USAF’s space role and global fast-reaction capabilities make it a unique asset that can reach areas far inland where the Navy cannot go, and go overseas in a way the Army is unable to. An independent Air Force, he says, will wring every advantage out of the air and space domains, just as the Navy does at sea.

Here’s the thing. What if the USAF is seen as a non-team player, one who consistently short-changes the needs of other services? It then becomes very hard to argue that the USAF is in fact wringing every advantage out of the aerial domain for the USA. At a time of significant budget cuts, cutting an entire service offers much bigger administrative savings than removing aircraft fleets, and removing fleets the other services see as their top priorities could create a level of friction that will place that kind of radical option on the table. Sources: War Is Boring, “America Does Not Need the Air Force” | Breaking Defense, “Why America Needs The Air Force: Rebuttal To Prof. Farley”.

Aug 6/13: Combat. An engagement in Afghanistan illustrates the A-10′s strengths, and underscores why high-altitude bombing simply isn’t going to replace what it does on the front lines:

“Even with all our (top-of-the-line) tools today, we still rely on visual references,” said the lead pilot, who is on his first deployment from Moody Air Force Base, Ga. “Once we received general location of the enemy’s position, I rolled in as lead aircraft and fired two rockets to mark the area with smoke. Then my wingman rolled in to shoot the enemy with his 30 millimeter rounds.”…. “We train for this, but shooting danger-close is uncomfortable, because now the friendlies are at risk,” the second A-10 pilot said. “We came in for a low-angle strafe, 75 feet above the enemy’s position and used the 30-mm gun — 50 meters parallel to ground forces — ensuring our fire was accurate so we didn’t hurt the friendlies.

The engagement lasted two hours that day, and in that time, the A-10s completed 15 gun passes, fired nearly all their 2,300, 30-mm rounds, and dropped three 500-pound bombs on the enemy force.”

As a reference point, the F-35s the USAF wants to use as replacements can’t fly as slowly for visual references, are highly vulnerable to battle damage, and carry just 180 25mm cannon rounds. Sources: USAF, “Bagram pilots save 60 Soldiers during convoy ambush”.

Front-line reality

Aug 5/13: Political. Defense News reports that the 4-month Strategic Choices Management Review will report that the USAF could eliminate most of its older C-130E/H transports, and 5 of 55 tactical A-10, F-15, or F-16 squadrons (up to 120 jets, based on 24-plane squadrons).

The USAF’s problem is that Congress wants to cut money, but won’t countenance closing bases. They’re also not receptive to aircraft retirements, which has left the USAF with several squadrons’ worth of unflyable planes that can’t be retired. FY 2013 budget proposals to retire 22 C-130Hs and shut down two A-10 squadrons were blocked by Congress. Sources: Air Force Times, “AF considers scrapping A-10s, KC-10s, F-15Cs, CSAR helos”

June 18/13: Basing. As part of budget cuts (q.v. Feb 1/12 entry), a ceremony at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany inactivates the 81st Fighter Squadron and its A-10Cs. The ceremony marks the end of A-10 operations in Europe.

The A-10 was originally designed for combat in Europe, and was seen as a crucial fast-reaction asset that could stop heavy armored thrusts through NATO’s defenses. Now, the 52nd Fighter Wing is left with only F-16 fighters on its roster. Considering the situation in Europe, and likely threats, wouldn’t it have made more sense to remove and retire F-16s? That would have left the A-10s as an inexpensive but uniquely reassuring deterrent for NATO’s eastern flank, with fast deployability to the CENTCOM AOR if needed. Pentagon DVIDS.

Europe, Adieu

April 2/13: APKWS guided rockets. Eglin AFB announces successful tests of the APKWS laser-guided 70mm rocket from an A-10C, marking the 2nd test from a fixed-wing aircraft (a Beechcraft AT-6B was the 1st). For the final A-10C test sortie, 2 APKWS rockets were fired at a surface target at altitudes of 10,000 and 15,000 feet. The first rocket hit within inches, and the 15,000 foot shot hit within 2 meters despite a 70-knot headwind.

The USAF used a US Navy rocket launcher, because the guidance section adds 18″ to the Hydra rocket. If the USAF continues to move forward with APKWS on the A-10C and F-16, they’ll buy the Navy’s modified launchers to replace their 7-rocket LAU-131s. The US Navy is preparing to qualify APKWS on the MQ-8C VTUAV, USMC AV-8B Harrier II V/STOL jets, and F/A-18 family fighters. Pentagon DVIDS.

FY 2012

A-10C fleet cut; 1st re-winged A-10C rolls out; A-10C flies on biofuel; Thales acquires Scorpion HMD.

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Nov 5/12: Thales buys Scorpion HMD. Thales announced that it has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Gentex Corp.’s Visionix subsidiary for Helmet Mounted Displays (HMD) and motion tracking. Products include “Intersense” motion tracking, and the Scorpion HMD that equips American A-10Cs. Thales has a strong position in helicopter HMDs with its TopOwl, but it hasn’t had quite as much luck with fighter HMDs. Visionix has good technologies, which can help Thales improve that position against the Elbit/Rockwell joint venture VSI, and secondary competitors BAE systems and Saab Group.

Visionix will operate as a subsidiary of radio supplier Thales Communications, Inc., a Thales USA company that operates independently under a proxy agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense. Its management team will remain, and they’ll continue to operates from Aurora, IL and Billerica, MA. Thales Group.

July 12/12: Boeing calls South Korea’s KAI “a key supplier on the A-10 Wing Replacement Program,” while discussing the Korean company’s role in delivering AH-64D Block III attack helicopter fuselages. Boeing is a huge customer for KAI, who supplies parts for commercial jets and F-15s, as well as helicopter fuselages, A-10 wings, etc.

July 10/12: Lockheed Martin Corp. in Owego, NY receives a $7.3 million firm-fixed-price contract for repair service for the A-10 central interface control unit (CICU), and related Circuit Card Assemblies. This computer is also knows as a Signal Data Processor, and the idea is to provide a support bridge, while the USAF gets ready to perform maintenance in-house.

Work will be performed in Owego, NY, and will be complete by Sept 9/12. The USAF GLSC at Hill AFB, UT manages the contract (FA8251-12-D-0005). See also FBO.gov announcement.

June 29/12: Liquored up. An A-10C from Eglin AFB, FL flies using a cellulosic alcohol derivative, called “Alcohol-to-Jet.” That trick works better for the jets than it does for the pilots, apparently. The fuel comes from Colorado’s Gevo, Inc., and can be had for the bargain price of just $56 per gallon.

The $700,000 flight was just a test, obviously. The A-10 is a good test platform for this sort of thing, because its fuel system was segregated in order to help the plane survive hits. The system allows the 2 engines to run off of different fuel supplies, allowing simple performance comparisons. If a test fuel creates failures, the plane can still make it back on one engine. Daily Mail | Terra.com.

Alcohol flight

May 16/12: Flight International:

“The US Air Force has concluded that the short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) Lockheed Martin F-35B- model aircraft cannot generate enough sorties to meet its needs; therefore the service will not consider replacing the Fairchild Republic A-10 Warthog close air support jet with that variant.”

The short take-off F-35B’s ability to base near the battle does multiply the number of flight sorties from each plane, and improves total time over the battlefield. On the other hand, that’s multiplied relative to the F-35A. The A-10 has excellent endurance, whereas the F-35B has to sacrifice fuel capacity in exchange for its short-takeoff and vertical landing capabilities. Beyond that, F-35s of any vintage lack the armoring or gun for in-close support, remove most of their stealth protection if they carry the same array of weapons as an A-10, suffer from the usual problem identifying targets at fast jet speeds, and don’t offer significantly better battlefield sensors than the LITENING-SE or Sniper-SE pods on current A-10s. No matter what the sortie rates may be, replacement of the A-10 with any F-35 is a poor idea.

Feb 15/12: Boeing and the USAF officially roll out of the 1st re-winged A-10C Thunderbolt II in a ceremony at Hill AFB, UT. Boeing is under contract with the Air Force to deliver 233 wing sets through 2018, and delivered the 1st set in March 2011. In the intervening year, the new wings had to be installed, verified, and conduct initial test flights. Boeing.

1st re-winged A-10C

Feb 1/12: US Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz released a short white paper [PDF] outlining its priorities and choices within forthcoming budget constraints. The A-10 fleet bears the largest cuts by far, even though it has been the most consistently requested plane by troops on the ground in recent wars, and offers high value in both counterinsurgency and full-war scenarios:

“More than 280 aircraft have been identified… for elimination… over the next five years. This includes 123 fighters (102 A-10s [emphasis DID's] and 21 older F-16s), 133 mobility aircraft (27 C-5As, 65 C-130s, 20 KC-135s, and 21 C-27s), and 30 select ISR systems (18 RQ-4 Block 30s, 11 RC-26s, and one E-8 damaged beyond repair)”

That’s 102 of 345 total A-10s flown, leaving 243 in service. It remains to be seen whether Boeing’s re-winging contract will be cut, but if not, 233/243 A-10Cs left will be re-winged planes. Unconfirmed reports point to the elimination of 2 regular USAF units, plus 3 Guard units: the 107th Fighter Squadron at Selfridge Air National Guard Base (ANGB), MI; the 163rd Fighter Squadron at Fort Wayne ANGB, IN; and the 184th Fighter Squadron at Ebbing ANGB, AK. See Military.com | Salt Lake Tribune | Neoconservative AEI think-tank’s Weekly Standard.

A-10 fleet cuts

FY 2011

A-10Cs to South Korea; TLPS support contracts.

A-10 wing work
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Sept 6/11: TLPS. Boeing announces a 1-year, $2.9 million contract to develop and validate a modification of the A-10′s Digital Video Audio Data Recorder (DVADR), which was becoming difficult to support. That’s not uncommon with electronics, which become obsolete much faster than their fighter jets do.

This contract is the 6th Boeing task order under the A-10 Thunderbolt Life-Cycle Program Support (TLPS) program.

Dec 7/10: TLPS. Northrop Grumman announces a set of 3 small task orders under the A-10 Thunderbolt Life-cycle Program Support (TLPS) indefinite delivery/ indefinite quantity contract, worth almost $2 million. Under the terms of the 2-year Aircraft Structural Integrity Program Modernization II task order, Northrop Grumman and its teammate Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX will develop and document non-destructive inspection (NDI) procedures and source data, and report discrepancies found between current technical data program requirements.

The Critical Safety Item (CSI) Technical Deficiency Improvement task order has 1 base year with 3 option years. Along with Wyle Laboratories in El Segundo, CA, and Rowan Catalyst Inc. in Libertyville, IL, the team will identify the engineering and technical correct CSI technical and acquisition data deficiencies.

Northrop Grumman is also teamed with Wyle Laboratories and Rowan Catalyst Inc., for the Critical Systems Component Analysis task, which has 1 base year with 2 option years. The team will perform component analysis of critical systems and provide solutions for increasing system reliability, safety, and aircraft availability; and reducing maintenance requirements and man-hours.

Nov 16/10: To Korea. Brahmand relays reports that the USAF 25th Fighter Squadron has deployed A-10Cs on the Korean peninsula at Osan AB, near Seoul. Subsequent USAF reports indicate that the last A-10A left the base on Dec 4/10, marking the 25th fighter squadron’s transition to an all A-10C force.

FY 2010

A-10C getting a Scorpion HMD, but not Hellfire missiles.

A-10A fires Maverick
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Sept 27/10: OFP Suite 7, no Hellfire. A $48 million contract modification which will allow for the “completion of the full A-10 Suite 7 Operational Flight Program.”

Asked about this, Lockheed Martin confirmed that this is part of the A-10C program, adding that the government had reached its ceiling on this contract for mission software, also called Operational Flight Programs (OFPs) or Suites. Like the current modification, the original Oct 19/07 sole source contract ceiling for Suites 6, 7 and 8 was not an award, just a maximum. The government awards funds suite by suite, and based on additional things they wanted to add to the A-10C fleet, they requested this ceiling extension to $123 million total. The USAF has since separated Suite 7 into Suite 7A and Suite 7B, and Lockheed Martin recently received a contract for the remainder of OFP Suite 7A work.

The 2007 award also mentioned Hellfire II missiles, which are not normally fired from jets. Lockheed Martin says that the high cost of developing and purchasing a special missile launch rail for the A-10 caused the USAF to change its mind. The AGM-65 Maverick missile can perform the same role at a higher cost per missile, and Hellfire’s forthcoming JAGM missile successor is expected to work with fast jets (FA8635-07-D-6000, PO0012).

July 19/10: Scorpion HMD. Raytheon announces a $12.6 million USAF contract for Phase 1 integration and qualification of the Helmet Mounted Integrated Targeting (HMIT) system for USAF and Air National Guard A-10C and F-16C Block 30/32 aircraft. Raytheon Technical Services Company LLC (RTSC), the prime contractor, is teamed with Gentex Corp. in Simpson, PA to produce the system, based on Gentex’s Visionix Scorpion(TM) Helmet Mounted Cueing System.

HMIT will be a night-vision compatible helmet-mounted display that shows crucial information in high-resolution color imagery directly in the pilot’s field of vision. The color imagery is a step forward, and information displayed will include weapons-cueing, targeting and situational data from on-board and remote sensors. Like other HMDs, the system will track helmet movement to display accurate imagery, regardless of the direction the pilot’s head is turned. The program includes 5 one-year production options, with a potential total value up to $50 million.

April 13/10: Sub-contractors. CPI Aerostructures, Inc. of Edgwood, NY announces an additional $10 million in orders from Boeing in support of the A-10 fleet’s $2 billion re-winging effort. The original contract with Boeing was for $70 million (see July 1/08 entry).

Boeing has added additional structural assemblies and subsystem installations to the CPI Aero contract. These additions include pylon covers, center trailing edge wedge fittings, lower outer trailing edge panels, wingtip covers, wingtip light installations and aileron light installations.

Nov 20/09: OFP. Lockheed Martin announces a $17.8 million contract from the US Air Force to upgrade software that integrates communications and situational awareness capabilities on the A-10C close air support aircraft. The software upgrade is the 3rd in an annual series planned for the A-10 and is scheduled for release in May 2011. The earlier two upgrades were also performed by Lockheed Martin; the first was fielded on schedule in May 2009 and the second is on target for release in May 2010.

The software upgrade will provide improved pilot vehicle interface (PVI) and weapons delivery. Also included with the upgrade are software baselines for the helmet-mounted cueing system that provides situational awareness through improved visual cues for the pilot and for the lightweight airborne recovery system that integrates search and rescue capability. The upgrades will be integrated in Lockheed Martin’s A-10 Systems Integration Lab in Owego, NY. Lockheed Martin A-10 industry team includes Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX and Northrop Grumman in St. Augustine, FL.

Nov 11/09: TLPS. Northrop Grumman announces an 18-month, $3.3 million A-10 TLPS contract to develop and test an anti-jam embedded GPS and an inertial navigation unit (EGI) for the A-10C. Northrop Grumman Technical Services will perform an integrated architecture and life cycle costs analysis and install a temporary modification. The company will then develop a system safety program, and provide program and engineering management support in order to conduct an operational assessment of the EGI capability during flight test. Northrop Grumman’s team includes subcontractors BAE Systems Control Inc., Johnson City, N.Y., and Borsight Aerospace, Farmington, Utah.

FY 2009

$1.72 billion TLPS multi-award maintenance contract; A-10C adds Laser JDAM; Wing cracking in 130 planes.

LJDAM test from A-10C
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Sept 24/09: Boeing announces that it received 2 separate contracts from the US Air Force to support modernization of its 365 A-10A+ and A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft. The contracts, which have a total value of $4.2 million, consists of several tasks ranging in duration from 3 to 18 months as part of the A-10 Thunderbolt Life-Cycle Program Support (TLPS) contract. For details on the TLPS contract, see the June 11/09 entry.

Under the 1st contract, Boeing and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) will provide engineering services for the A-10 Aircraft Structural Integrity Program (ASIP), which involves updating and aligning modern structural analysis tools, processes and standards for the A-10 fleet. Under the 2nd contract, Boeing, Raytheon Technical Services, and BAE Systems Platform Solutions will conduct a trade study analysis and operational assessment/proof of concept for the A-10 Upgraded Data Transfer Unit (UDTU). The goal of this contract is to update the aircraft’s avionics architecture to improve memory and data capability.

Other A-10 contracts Boeing has received include a contract to provide o

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