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This airplane is hammering ISIS. So why is the Air Force trying to kill it?

An A-10 on the ground.
An A-10 on the ground.
(Linda Davidson/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, commonly called the Warthog, is a powerhouse of a plane. Boasting a massive ordinance load and one of the most powerful guns ever mounted on an aircraft, it's playing a major role in the US Air Force's bombing campaign against ISIS.

Despite its successes in combat, the Air Force wants to put the plane out of commission. The USAF is fighting with Congress to get approval for a plan to retire the aircraft from service — for good.

Why does the Air Force want to get rid of a plane that seems so useful? The answer gets to the heart of a pretty important debate about the future of the Air Force, as well as the screwed up way the US military decides what weapons to purchase.

The A-10 is designed to support the Army — and that's the problem

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An A-10 in Afghanistan. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

The A-10 is not like the high-flying fighter jets you usually think of when you think "Air Force." It's armored, slow, totally unstealthy, and very low-flying.

All of this makes it perfect for something called "Close Air Support" (CAS). In CAS, planes and helicopters target enemy positions that are nearby American or other friendly ground forces. The A-10's slow speed and heavy armament are ideal for this: it can hang around the battlefield targeting enemy positions for a relatively long time.

The Air Force originally created the A-10 in the early 1970s. Part of the motivation was to prevent the Army from taking over CAS duties entirely with its own helicopters, according to Robert Farley, a University of Kentucky professor and author of a book on the Air Force. So from the very beginning, the A-10 was a product of infighting between service branches — a conflict which continues to define the plane.

Around the end of the Cold War, the Air Force began arguing for retiring the A-10, even though it's their own plane. According to Farley, the Air Force never really liked taking on the CAS mission.

"Air Force people, generally speaking, don't like the idea of some sergeant, lieutenant, or captain in the Army essentially directing their million dollar planes around, and that's what close air support requires," Farley said.

When the Cold War wound down, the Air Force argued that there was no need for a specialized plane to hunt Soviet tanks anymore.

But the A-10 has proven valuable in some conflicts since the Cold War, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That's also been true in the mission against ISIS. One of the A-10's main liabilities is that it's easy to shoot down using surface-to-air missiles, but militant groups like ISIS often don't have the hardware or the training necessary to do that. So the A-10 has been able to perform its core mission — pounding enemy troops with close-altitude bombardments and gunfire — very effectively. It's built up a pretty passionate fan base, made up in large part of soldiers and former A-10 pilots.

The A-10 debate is really about the future of the Air Force

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An F-35 flying at night. (US military)

Despite the A-10's recent use, the Air Force still wants to retire the plane. The debate over the Air Force position isn't just an argument about the A-10 — it's a debate about the Air Force's entire approach to the future of air war.

The Air Force wants to replace the A-10, and other platforms designed with basically one mission in mind, with multi-purpose aircraft. Maintaining lots of single-mission planes is really expensive, and in theory unifying them into multi-purpose planes would be cheaper.

"[The A-10] is highly specialized, and in tough times we can't afford to have highly specialized," New America Foundation defense technology expert Peter W. Singer says, summarizing the Air Force case. According to one Defense Department estimate, retiring all 283 A-10s could save a cool $4.2 billion in operation and maintenance costs over five years.

The Air Force instead wants to use multi-purpose fighters, like the F-15E, F-16, and one day the F-35 (not yet in the field), to perform CAS missions. This isn't just about cost: the A-10's low speed and flying altitude makes it more vulnerable to shoulder-fired missiles and some other common forms of aerial defense than some alternatives.

"There was a story the other day about ISIS firing four missiles at A-10s. None of them hit, but if one of them had, we'd have yanked the entire A-10 fleet from the fight against ISIS," Farley says.

Though both Farley and Singer admit that the Air Force has a strong case, they believe that retiring the A-10 is a bad idea, at least in the short term. "This is not that expensive of a capability [and] we can keep it around for a long time," Farley says. "There is no one who disagrees with the idea that the close air support mission is going to become harder without the A-10."

Singer also points out that the Air Force's preferred new replacement, the F-35, is notorious for ridiculous cost overruns and delays, and it's not even ready yet. The F-35 "isn't going to be on time and in the capability that we need" to replace the A-10 in the near term, he says. "That's not just a supposition. I would literally bet my house on it."

And ultimately, the F-35 is a major reason why the A-10 fight is so controversial. "The Air Force is all-in on the F-35: not because it actually really loves the F-35, because it's so terrified of what happens if the F-35 is cancelled," Farley says.

The F-35 is, according to Singer, "the most expensive weapons project in all of human history." The Air Force needs to defend the theory behind it — that a particularly versatile plane can fill a number of combat roles — if wants to justify the hundreds of billions of dollars thrown at a fighter that's yet to fly a single combat mission.

"One of the ways it's going to make the case for the F-35 is by making the case that it can replace the A-10," Farley says. "The Air Force also argues the F-35 can replace all of its other planes."

So the A-10 fight is about a specific plane that many soldiers love. But it's also about whether or not the Air Force can justify a core part of its budget and its approach to 21st century air war: the multi-purpose F-35.

The politics of the A-10 are tangled, but Congress will probably keep it around

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Sens. John McCain and Kelly Ayotte, two key A-10 supporters in the Senate. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In terms of lobbying, the Air Force is powerful, but it's not the only interested party. Even some within the service branch itself are dissenting. Former A-10 pilots, for example, are willing to go to the mat for the plane. It's gotten to the point where Major General James Post, the vice commander of Air Combat Command, allegedly said that "anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason."

But regardless of what the Air Force wants, it seems likely that Congress will force them to keep the plane. A number of legislators believe the A-10 plays an important role in US warfighting. John McCain, a former Navy airman, is probably the A-10's highest-profile congressional supporter — and he's also the new Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"There has always been a congressional coalition in favor of the A-10, which is why the Air Force has never been able to kill it," Farley says.

"We're not in year one of this fight," Singer adds. "The Senate keeps getting its way because the Senate has a vote and Air Force budget writers don't."

From the point of view of the Air Force or others who want to kill the A-10, the effort led by McCain and his Senate allies might come across like just another case of Congress meddling in the Pentagon's business. But there's an argument that Congress is actually playing its role perfectly and doing the right thing here.

The military service branches are supposed to cooperate, but they often don't like to, and the A-10 is a great example of that. Close air support is an almost textbook case of an intra-service mission: the Air Force has the planes, but they're being used to back up the Army rather than perform Air Force specific jobs.

Without a mandate from Congress, it's unlikely that the Air Force would prioritize spending on CAS capabilities. And the Army may like the A-10, but not enough to take on the additional budget expense of funding its own platform. Simple inter-service politics favor weakening the US military's ability to perform a really important mission.

"If you let the services do just what they want to do, they are going to shirk on joint capabilities," Farley says. McCain and his allies intervening to force the issue is "absolutely how democracy and civil-military relations should function."