Few procurement issues—with the exception of the unsuccessful fight to continue F-22 production—spark the kind of impassioned pleas among U.S. Air Force officers as the unsuccessful struggle to retire the A-10 and make way for the Lockheed Martin F-35.

Generally, when the service wants to retire an aircraft, there is a disappointed cadre of officers loathe to let it go. But there is usually a direct replacement being delivered, giving those officers a future.

Not so in the case of the A-10. The Air Force is for the second year pushing to quickly retire the fleet, in part because it is a single-mission aircraft designed to provide close air support (CAS). Amid the budget crunch, the Air Force is shedding single-mission fleets.

Yet, the focus of its mission is exactly what has congealed support for the aptly named Warthog. The A-10 has been a visible savior for ground troops for decades and especially so in recent fights in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is being replaced by the multi-mission, single-engine, stealthy F-35. A-10 boosters fear the CAS mission will be lost if it is only one among a host of missions to be handled by the F-35, which is also replacing F-16s in the Air Force. Some say the Air Force has lost it way on the CAS mission.

“That’s a ridiculous statement,” says Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, bristling at the notion during a roundtable discussion with reporters Feb. 13 at the annual Air Force Association symposium in Orlando. “Guess how many CAS sorties we’ve flown? It’s about 20,000 a year. When is a little bit of credit given for that? . . . Let’s not change the facts to match whatever story we’re trying to tell.” Welsh also notes that CAS is “all the Marine Corps is buying [the F-35B] for, to replace the Harrier.”

There are also lawmakers who want to save the A-10 for parochial reasons—that is, to keep iron on the ramp at bases in their districts.

So, the Air Force has been in a quagmire, frustrated by emotional pleas to keep the A-10—pleas which are exacerbated by the developmental performance problems of the F-35, which have bred a vocal band of critics regardless of its progress. And this has been worsened by a lack of a clear message in the Air Force about the F-35’s capabilities as it gets closer to being fielded.

Now the Air Force is on the offense, reaching out to officers in its sister services to outline the future of CAS in an attempt to reshape the discussion away from a binary A-10 versus F-35 fight.

Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle is hosting a week-long, multiservice summit on CAS early in March. Among the topics to be discussed are conducting CAS in a “contested” environment, a term referring to airspace that is defended, though not with high-end integrated defenses seen in the anti-access area-denied (A2AD) situations. An example would be if the Islamic State posed a strong threat to allied jets in Iraq and Syria; although the A-10 has an armored cockpit, it would be susceptible to such a threat and CAS sorties would be forced to fly higher and to use different tactics.

The summit will address CAS as it stands today, as well in the future when the F-35 enters service, Carlisle told reporters at the annual symposium. Among the alternatives, already  in use for years, are precision-guided munitions deployed from a host of aircraft—B-1s, B-52s, F-16s, F-16s, and others—to provide support for troops in the midst of a fight. The F-35, however, will bring stealth to the table. “We just have to get to the point where the services all understand what the future looks like in this arena because there is a thread of conversation going on that really has become a little ridiculous,” Welsh, an A-10 pilot himself, said. The F-35 “will be a good CAS platform. It will take us a while to get to the point we want it to be, like it has with every other airplane [with which] we’ve fought, including the A-10,” he argues.

Some observers suggest the Air Force should employ a low-cost system for CAS where possible. Doing so would require purchase of a new platform—a thorny path amid budget pressure. "A follow-on may be something we need to think about," Carlisle said, acknowledging that a new system may be considered. "Nothing is off the table."

The Air Force is also working to maintain pockets of CAS experience within future units in Air Combat Command to ensure the “culture” is not eroded. “We are looking at squadrons in the active and the Reserve component where we can put a higher percentage of pilots who come out of the A-10 as they transition. So we kind of create places where the CAS culture has a home.”

Training is key to maintaining a CAS focus, according to instructors at the Air Force’s weapons school.

“It has long loiter time. It is designed for an outside visual search, and can carry a lot of different weapons. But really what makes a difference with the CAS is the focused training of the pilots,” Maj. Sean Hall, an A-10 instructor pilot, told Aviation Week during an interview at Nellis AFB, Nevada, where the service houses its advanced tactics and training school. “I personally believe the F-35 can be highly effective at CAS if the aircrew gets focused CAS training.”

In parallel, the Air Force is also in a tactical fight with Congress. Lawmakers are balking at a plan for the second year in a row to retire the A-10s, a step needed to free up maintainers who are needed for establishing F-35 squadrons.

Last year, USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, program executive officer for the F-35, said a lack of trained F-35 maintainers was the largest hurdle to the Air Force declaring initial operational capability (IOC) by December 2016 with the first F-35A squadron. Bogdan said 800-1,000 maintainers will be needed at that time. Of those, 300-400 are needed for the first squadron at Hill AFB. Utah, Carlisle said. Training an experienced maintainer requires about 9-12 months, Bogdan said, while training a “green” student requires more time.

Despite the shortfall, Welsh is adamant that the service will declare IOC for the F-35A on time. As a backup plan, F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin has submitted pricing data and timelines to the Air Force for providing maintenance services; the service ultimately wants blue-suit (USAF) F-35 maintenance. Bogdan said last year that contractor maintenance was cost-prohibitive, but Carlisle notes that the Air Force is looking into it nonetheless.

Carlisle said that the service also may temporarily move some experienced maintainers from Luke AFB, Arizona, to Hill to help stand the unit up. Jets are already arriving at Luke, which will be the international training location for the F-35 pilots globally. “We’ll take interim measures because the advice we offered on how to best do this has not been accepted, which is fine,” Welsh said. “We have to do that with the Congress, with our partners, with everybody. We’ll get there from here.”

Welsh says that the CAS discussion is intended to reset the mindset about the mission to allow for new operational concepts and technologies, including the next-generation of CAS weapons. “How do you just change our mindset? Let’s have gun pods with bullets this long and put 50,000 of them in the pod instead of everybody trying to get 1,000 or 600 out of the airplane during a CAS sortie,” Welsh said. “There are just different ways to look at this problem that technology can help us solve. . . . None of this is new. But we’ve just got to energize it.”

Meanwhile, Carlisle notes that once he declares IOC for the first F-35, he’s concerned. “Then what?” he says, noting deliveries of the jets are coming faster and faster, but the pipeline for maintainers is not getting any more productive. “We are not going to get airplanes, park them on the ramp and then not fly them.”

Editor's note: This article was updated to include Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle’s comment on a CAS follow-on. 

This article was originally published in the digital edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology on February 19, 2015.