The Air Force is asking Congress for additional funds to keep all 283 of its A-10 Thunderbolts in service.
Congressional efforts to keep the A-10 Thunderbolt in service appeared to win out earlier this year, when the well-known aircraft was included in the fiscal year 2018 budget.
Rep. Martha McSally and Sen. John McCain had pushed back on Air Force plans to retire the A-10, and issues with the F-35 as well as the Thunderbolt's primacy in close-air-support operations helped keep it on the flight line.
Now the Air Force is looking to Congress for funds to keep all 283 of its A-10s in flying condition.
While the service has funds to upgrade 173 of its A-10s with new wings, it doesn't have money to replace wings for the remaining 110, and some 40 of its A-10s would be grounded by 2021 if the needed money is not made available, an Air Force spokeswoman told CNN.
The service has included a $103 million request among its unfunded requirements in order to cover the costs of the new wings.
Boeing, which made wings for the A-10, has shut down production of them, and the $103 million request — plus $20 million from this fiscal year — would go to starting a new plant line and to making wings, according to CNN.
The inclusion of the $103 million request among the USAF's unfunded requirements is likely a bit of budgetary gamesmanship on the part of the Air Force, defense experts told CNN.
Given the A-10's popularity among elected officials, airmen, and troops, it was likely to get funding no matter what, so Air Force officials excluded it from their budget request in hopes Congress would add money for it later.
"The Air Force is hoping that Congress will pay for this by giving the Air Force additional funds and cutting something elsewhere in the budget, but there is no guarantee of that. If it was truly a high priority, it would have made it into the regular budget request," Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNN.
The A-10 has been in service since 1975, and Air Force officials and legislators have been grappling with whether and how to retire it for some time.
In recent years, however, A-10's efficacy in close-air-support operations has become valuable in the fight against ISIS, and in light of delays and mounting costs related to the F-35, the military is looking to keep the A-10 in the air.
In spite of that operational need however, the Air Force appears to still be looking to deactivate some of its Thunderbolts, which became a point of contention on Capital Hill this month.
"The Air Force is committed to maintaining a minimum of six A-10 combat squadrons flying and contributing to the fight through 2030," Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, and Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, told a House Armed Services committee in written testimony this month.
The Air Force currently has nine A-10 combat squadrons. McSally, herself a former Thunderbolt pilot, picked up on the discrepancy.
"It's the first time you've publicly said that you are going to go down to six squadrons," the Arizona Republican told Air Force officials. "I'd really like to know what those planning assumptions are of the six squadrons."
That question went unanswered, however, as the hearing came to its scheduled end, timed in order to allow for House votes.
At present, the Thunderbolt is the backbone of the air campaign against ISIS.
Since August 8, 2014 — the start date of Operation Inherent Resolve — the A-10 has released 13,856 weapons, second only to the F-15E Strike Eagle, which deployed 14,995 weapons over the same period.
Every 100 rounds fired by the A-10's iconic 30 mm Avenger gun count as one weapon released, according to an Air Force spokeswoman.
While the Air Force's budget has not been finalized, Congressional aides predicted to CNN that the money requested for the A-10s would be authorized, and Air Force officials, citing the moves to fund new wings, waved off suggestions that retirement is looming for the Thunderbolt.