Earlier this week, it looked like House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon had found a potential compromise on the A-10 issue.
A quick rundown of six months’ worth of conflict: the Air Force wants to retire the A-10 (commonly known as the Warthog) in order to save billions in a budget conscious era. Service officials have repeatedly claimed that the only way to reach the savings needed under sequestration is by retiring whole fleets, and are quick to cite figures showing that 80 percent of close-air support missions in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last few years have been done by other platforms.
However, members of Congress – led primarily by New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte – are against the retirement of the plane, claiming that no other plane can do the vital close-air support mission as well as the A-10. Because the issue involves the safety of the troops on the ground, it’s an extremely emotional issue for the defenders of the plane. And there simply doesn’t seem to be a possible compromise.
That’s why it was noteworthy when the Chairman’s mark for the FY 2015 budget came back with the suggestion that the Air Force be allowed to retire the plane, as long as it was kept in what’s known as “type-1000” storage. That’s the most “ready” storage of a plane at the Davis-Monthan boneyard in Arizona, where planes are kept in good shape and wrapped in latex for (relatively) easy reactivation in case of an emergency.
Asked for a definition of what Type-1000 storage means, the Air Force offered the following statement: “Aircraft in Type-1000 storage are to be maintained until recalled to active service, should the need arise. Type 1000 aircraft are termed inviolate; meaning they have a high potential to return to flying status and no parts may be removed from them. These aircraft are “re-preserved” every four years.”
Also of note, it can take “30-120 days depending upon how long the aircraft has been in Type 1000 storage for it to become flyable again,” according to the service spokesperson.
It looked like McKeon, in what will be his last budget fight before his retirement early next year, was trying to thread the needle and give both sides what they wanted. The Air Force could save money, but the pro-Warthog bloc would still be able to have the planes in case of future need.
It didn’t work out so well, as a group of Senators acted quickly to shut down the idea this could be a compromise. That was followed by the House voting in favor of an amendment to block the retirement of the A-10 by a 41-20 roll call vote.
Whether the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee will try to make another go at this is unknown, although the Chairman of the committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, has indicated he’s not in favor of the Air Force’s position. But it’s still worth wondering – just how much would it cost to have put the A-10 fleet in storage?
We got some numbers from the Air Force to try and find out. Hang with us here. This is going to get mathy.
According to a service spokesperson, it would cost $43,000 to move a single A-10 from active to type-1000 storage. There are 283 aircraft that the service wants to retire. That means, the cost of retiring the A-10 fleet today would be:
- $43,000 X 283 = $12,169,000
Then it costs $1,000 per each year over the course of the five-year defense plan for upkeep. So for five years in storage:
- 283 X $1,000 = 283,000 per year X 5 = $1,415,000
- $1,415,000 + $12,169,000 = $13,584,000
And every four years, there needs to be a big refurbishment, again at the cost of $43,000. So:
- $43,000 X 283 = $12,169,000
- $12,169,000 + $13,584,000 = $25,753,000
All that together, we estimate the cost of storing the A-10 fleet in type-1000 storage for five years at $25.7 million. That’s not cheap, but it would still represent huge savings for the Air Force over keeping the fleet going for five years.
We think, anyway. Because this is where it gets tricky. Those numbers don’t account for what extra costs might be incurred from shutting down what’s known as the “tail” – the cost of the supply chain, maintenance, training, personnel, etc. And as service officials are quick to point out, the tail is what saves the biggest chunk of cash. So chances are it would cost much more than just $25.7 million to shut all of that down. Plus, if the planes were reactivated, there would be a cost associated with that as well.
Still, that’s a trade off the Air Force would take. The retirement of the A-10 (and, to a lesser degree, the U-2 spy plane) is the lynchpin of its budget. As far as the service is concerned, lose the ability to retire the plane its budget structure falls apart. Which means this fight is a long way from being finished, even if supporters of the plane can celebrate their victory in the House.