At present, the A-10 warthog supports ground efforts against Daesh, also known as IS/Islamic State, and costs roughly $20,000 per hour to operate. Air Force Chief of Staff Mike Welsh would like to get that cost down to $4,000 or $5,000.
"We need something to keep doing, at much lower cost, the types of things we’re doing in the counterinsurgency fight today," he said, adding that he wants a plane "that brings more firepower, that is more responsive" in a "low-to-medium-threat environment."
Welsh also remarked that budget restrictions may make finding a replacement for the warthog difficult.
"I’d love to build a new CAS [close air support] airplane right now while we still have the A-10 [and then] transition the A-10 community into the new CAS airplane,we just don’t have the money to do it and we don’t have the people to keep flying the A-10 and build a new airplane and bed it down."
Lt. General Mike Holmes said that the Air Force is currently looking for the best option for a new warplane based on the funds available.
"The question is exactly where is the sweet spot…between what’s available now and what the optimum CAS replacement would be," he said. "We are working along that continuum to see exactly what the requirement is that we can afford and the numbers that we need to be able to do the mission."
There’s a chance that a new CAS design will be rejected, and in that case there are several similar crafts already available.The Beechcraft AT-6, Textron Airland Scorpion are two turboprop options, while the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, a light jet, is also under consideration.
Even if the Air Force is able to pass a new CAS design, Welsh is already thinking about life after the next arsenal plane.
"Eventually, I think the right close air support replacement is something that’s overhead the ground force all the time and is firepower on demand," he said. "It’s flying artillery."
He described this evolution in CAS as a "flying Coke machine," a drone "that would orbit high above the battlefield with a variety of bombs and release them on command from ground observers."
The A-10 Warthog remains in service and its retirement has been delayed because of its critical role in the campaign against Daesh. In November, head of Air Combat Command Gen. Herbert Carlisle said,"I think moving it to the right and starting it a bit later and maybe keeping the airplane around a little bit longer is something that’s being considered based on things as they are today and that we see them in the future."
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James agreed, saying,"I welcome reports that the Air Force has decided to keep the A-10 aircraft flying through fiscal year 2017, ensuring our troops have the vital close-air support they need for missions around the world."