A-10 Replacement Requirements Do Actually Exist But They're Mired In Bureaucratic Limbo
The service doesn't have formally announced plans for an A-10 replacement, but it still hasn't officially rejected the idea either.
The Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, recently offered some unusually strong support for the A-10 Warthog, going so far as to say she is a "fan" of a plane her service has been looking for ways to retire for decades. This might be because she knows that, at least as of yet, there is still no formal requirement for a dedicated replacement close air support-focused aircraft or clear conclusions about how to otherwise provide a similar capability in the future.
In a letter dated December 12, 2017, the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force denied a Freedom of Information Act Request related to the replacement of the A-10, but was still compelled to offer significant new details in order to justify the decision. The missive both confirmed that the Air Force had put together a set of draft requirements for a notional "A-X" aircraft to replace the A-10, but did not formalize them, and that the service still has yet to make a final decision on what to do with that documentation at all.
In April 2016, I submitted the FOIA request, which asked for copies of any records sent to, from, or within the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements regarding the drafting of these requirements. The department found 50 pages of relevant documents, but "determined that no formal requirements came out of the General Holmes' Apr 2016 referenced CAS [close air support] platform requirements development," according to the letter. "All documentation concerning this matter is action officer (AO) level internal pre-decisional, deliberative information, where it was determined that responsive record are not decision document or otherwise validated a final decision."
U.S. government agencies subject to the FOIA can legally withhold information on the grounds that it covers ongoing internal matters and that making the details public could prejudice the final outcome or give the false impression that the U.S. government might pursue a certain course of action. This exemption is also one that experts say is among those that agencies most often abuse as a tool to avoid release potentially controversial or embarrassing records, going so far as to nickname it the "withhold it because you want to" exemption.
Whether the Air Force is legitimately withholding the records or not, it is significant that after more than a year, the service has left the draft A-X requirements in this sort of bureaucratic limbo. It is a far cry from how General Holmes suggested the process would go in April 2016.
“My requirements guys are in the process of building a draft-requirements document for a follow-on CAS airplane,” he said at an Air Force Association breakfast on April 7, 2016. “I have seen a draft of it, it’s out for coordination. It’ll go to the chief [of staff] sometime this Spring, and then we’ll fold that into the larger study we’re doing on the future of the combat air forces.”
In July 2016, the officer again suggested that the Air Force was actively looking at replacement close air support aircraft, including a potential two-part concept. According to Holmes, this proposal would include a light attack aircraft in the near term to complement the A-10, followed by a more capable and survivable design, dubbed the A-X2.
The light attack plane portion led to the Capability Assessment of Non-Developmental Light Attack Platforms, an experimental technology demonstration also known as OA-X. The A-X2 component has yet to materialize in any form. In June 2016, then Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh did describe an idea for a "flying coke machine" as an A-10 replacement, but it was unclear whether this concept was limited to a new aircraft, which might be manned or unmanned, or if it might be a whole network of new systems and tactics, techniques, and procedures for close air support missions.
The new information in response to the FOIA request adds more evidence to our previous reporting here at The War Zone that the Air Force appears to have either quietly decided to abandon the pursuit of any sort of A-X aircraft or is moving the process of developing those requirements along as slowly as possible. In July 2017, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein had already acknowledged that the service was not working on any such program and that it might decide to again push for retiring the Warthogs without a dedicated successor.
That the draft A-X requirements are still technically "pre-decisional" means the Air Force could still be planning to turn them into a formal development project. Similarly, they could inform other near term decisions, such as the purchase of an OA-X type light attack aircraft.
This all remains unlikely, though. The proposed light attack aircraft would simply not be able to match the capabilities offered by even the existing Warthogs. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson has now publicly backed plans to restart a critical re-winging program that could help keep dozens more A-10s flying through 2040, suggesting that the service has no immediate plans to develop a dedicated successor.
The Air Force could still be holding out for the results of the highly anticipated fly-off between the A-10 and the F-35, which could begin in 2018. The service has long made clear that its preferred option is to replace the older ground attack aircraft entirely with the stealthy Joint Strike Fighters.
Whatever the actual status of the A-X requirements are, the Air Force's decision to keep them in draft status keeps them in this gray area of technically being open for consideration even if its entirely unclear how serious or not the service might actually be about the concept. A similar situation might now be brewing with the results of the OA-X experiment, which itself dates back to a draft concept document a team of Air Force officials first crafted in the late 2000s.
Earlier in December 2017, Secretary of the Air Force Wilson told members of Congress that there was a final report for the OA-X tests, but that she hadn't read it herself. The Air Force has said it will only publicly release the results "when appropriate," according to Military.com.
With new wings unlikely to arrive before more than 100 A-10s end up grounded, and the aircraft still an important part of combat operations and other missions around the world, it may become increasingly more important for the Air Force to clarify publicly where it stands on requirements for a new close air support-focused aircraft design.
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