One of the heroes of Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising, the A-10 "Warthog" may soon fly off into the sunset.
First flown by manufacturer Fairchild-Republic in 1972, and bearing the official name "Thunderbolt II," the A-10 was designed as a "tank buster" to blunt the edge of an armored Soviet invasion of Western Europe. But the world has changed a lot since then.
For one thing, with orders in decline, Fairchild had to begin shuttering factories in the 1980s, and was sold to German insurance giant Allianz in 1999. Subsequently sold and resold, it wound up in the hands of Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems (NASDAQ:ESLT), where it remains today.
The A-10's own future faced similar uncertainty. In 2009, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen backed development of the Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) F-35 Lightning II fighter jet as a one-size-fits-all warplane that would make other aircraft redundant. Puissant in aerial combat and ground support roles alike, the F-35 was designed in part to make single-mission combat aircraft like the A-10 obsolete.
Today, hardly a day goes by without some rumor surfacing about the A-10 being marked for retirement. In fact, as recently as October, the Air Force mused publicly that if it were allowed to remove its 326 A-10s from service, it could save $3.5 billion in maintenance costs over the course of five years. That would be enough cash to buy roughly three dozen of hypermodern F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed ...
But is the A-10 really headed for retirement?
Friends in high places
Not if the U.S. Congress has anything to say about it. No sooner had the Air Force begun making noises about eliminating the A-10, than 33 lawmakers got together and signed a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel demanding that the Warthog be saved.
Not if the Army has anything to say about it: In November, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno weighed in with a spirited defense of his brother service's warplane, arguing "The A-10 is the best close-air support platform we have today."
And not if taxpayers have anything to say about it, either. On Facebook, a group of some 4,900 citizens have "liked" a community page titled "Save the A-10," which not only offers PETA-like pleas to save the Warthog, but decries its nemesis, the F-35, as "inadequate for the job."
Who will win the day?
The A-10's defenders may get their wish, too. Last week, a small defense contractor by the name of CPI Aerostructures (NYSEMKT:CVU) confirmed that it has just received $15 million worth of parts orders from Boeing (NYSE:BA). Their object: to build structural assemblies on subcontract, helping Boeing to upgrade the wings on the Air Force's A-10 fleet.
So as of today, it looks like the money is still flowing. And so long as the money's flowing, the A-10 will keep flying.