Next Defense Secretary Open to Keeping A-10 in Air Force

Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter agreed Wednesday to hear arguments from Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACS) for keeping the A-10 despite renewed efforts by the Air Force to retire the Thunderbolt.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter told A-10 advocate Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., that he had read letters in support of the A-10 from the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) Association.

The TACP Association represents about 3,300 active and retired JTACs who had the mission of moving forward with ground troops to select targets and call in airstrikes.

Carter made no commitments on the A-10, but when asked by Ayotte if he would speak with representatives of the TACP, he said: “Absolutely, I will.”

Active-duty members of the TACP have been told not to offer opinions on the A-10, but the retired members have unanimously supported keeping the Thunderbolt, affectionately known as the Warthog in the fleet, Ayotte said.

She said that the TACP members agree that the F-16, the F-15 and the B-1 bomber “cannot replicate the capabilities of the A-10” in performing the close-air support mission for ground troops.

The Air Force last year sought to begin retiring the A-10s to clear the way for replacing them with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter but Congress voted for additional funding to keep the A-10s in the fleet through fiscal year 2015.

In its budget proposal for fiscal year 2016, the Air Force stated its intention to begin retiring the A-10 in FY 2016 “to focus available funding on more urgent combatant commander requirements.”

Under the Air Force plan, about 164 A-10s would be retired in 2016 but “the A-10 will remain operational and available for deployment until 2019.” The Air Force said the plan would save an estimated $3.5 billion over five years.

At an Air Force briefing last month, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, a former A-10 pilot, said “It’s not about not liking or not wanting the A-10. It’s about some very tough decisions that we have to make to recapitalize an Air Force for the threat 10 years from now.”

Navy’s UCLASS Competition Delayed Until Next Year

The start of a formal completion among vendors to build the Navy’s carrier-launched drone has been delayed until sometime in 2016 pending the results of an ongoing Pentagon review, Navy officials said.

The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System, or UCLASS, is envisioned as a next-generation platform able to deliver maritime-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology along with weapons-strike capability.

The Navy had planned to issue a formal Request For Proposal, or RFP, by the end of July of last year, but questions from lawmakers and Pentagon officials about the platform’s requirements and mission scope wound up delaying the program.

Last summer, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and other top Pentagon officials met with the Navy as part of a larger meeting with all the services to discuss the Defense Department’s aviation portfolio. Following the results of this ongoing DoD portfolio review, the Navy will release a UCLASS RFP and formally begin the competition.

The concerns from critics prior to the delay were focused on whether the UCLASS drone was going to be engineered with sufficient stealth technology and become an integral part of the carrier air wing.

Some proponents of a stealthy platform maintained that stealth configurations needed to be engineered into the platform design at the inception of the program and not be incrementally applied. They stressed that the first-of-its kind carrier-launched platform should be weaponized and stealthy enough to elude more sophisticated enemy air-defenses.

The UCLASS would offer the Navy much greater at-sea, long-dwell ISR technology and allow the service to conduct extended maritime surveillance drone missions without having to secure permission to launch or land an aircraft from a host country. In addition, it could bring the prospect of having an armed, stealthy drone able to move over enemy territory, evade tracking technologies and air defenses long enough to deliver precision strike weapons on specific targets.

Last summer, the Navy awarded four contracts valued at $15 million for preliminary design review for the UCLASS to Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

A 10-month long selection process will follow the release of the RFP.

“The final RFP will be given to the four vendors. They will have 60-days to refine their proposals. At that time we will begin formal source selection and we will evaluate the proposals,” Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, Program Executive Officer, unmanned aviation and strike weapons said last summer.

The Navy’s carrier-based drone demonstrator, the X-47B, flew from a carrier in May and November of last year and is now working on streamlining carrier deck operations and maneuvers with manned aircraft.

The Navy launched and landed a carrier-based drone in rapid succession with an F/A-18 fighter jet as part of a series of joint manned and unmanned flight tests aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in August of last year off the coast of Norfolk, Va., service officials said.

After an eight minute flight, the X-47B executed an arrested landing, folded its wings and taxied out of the landing area before moving out of the way for an F/A-18 to land, Navy officials said.

Navy engineers worked on some slight modifications to the X-47B aircraft in order to allow it to both land and integrate in rapid succession with fixed-wing fighter jets.