As you're probably aware, the Air Force has argued multiple times in recent months that its new F-35 stealth fighters (built by Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT)) can do an "adequate" job of providing ground troops with close-air support. Concerns that the F-35 lacks a working gun, however, and may not get one before 2019, have called this argument into question.
Last week, the Air Force floated a somewhat better idea, suggesting it's looking at the Textron (NYSE:TXT) Scorpion light attack jet as a potentially viable alternative to the A-10 Warthog for some missions. The lightly armored Scorpion, however, may be better suited for bombing targets at a distance, than for low-and-slow, close-to-the ground support missions.
It's Air Force's latest idea, though, that shows it's really starting to grasp at straws.
"15" and "16" have to be better than "10," right?
According to the Air Force Times, Air Combat Command head Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle has proposed creating "designated, predominantly close air support squadrons" composed of F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, dedicated to providing close-air support for ground troops. AFT notes that there is no specific "timeline" for setting up such CAS squadrons. At present, this seems to be just another idea he's floating, to see if it sticks.
But does it make sense?
It depends on what the meaning of "old" is
Damning the A-10 Warthog with faint praise, Gen. Carlisle admits that the A-10 has "done incredible things for us. But eventually that platform is going to age out." Citing to the aircraft's age, the general warns that the Air Force's A-10 Warthogs "are gonna wear out" eventually because "they've been worked very, very hard" over the past four decades.
But here's the thing: The A-10 Warthog was first introduced into service with the Air Force in 1977. But the F-16s that Carlisle says he wants to use in their place were first introduced only one year later, in 1978. And the F-15 actually predates the A-10, having been introduced in 1976.
Now granted, there's a big difference between a circa-1970s F-15 Eagle or F-16 Falcon and the modern, fourth generation fighter jets (of the same name) that are flying today. Updated versions of the F-15 and F-16 are in fact still being produced today, whereas the last complete A-10 rolled off its assembly line way back in 1984, with only ad hoc upgrades implemented since then.
But this actually sounds more like an argument for developing a new, fully modernized and upgraded A-10 Warthog -- a Warthog 2.0 if you will. It doesn't necessarily imply that the A-10's job can be done better by F-15s and F-16s -- aircraft that were designed more for perform air superiority missions than for close-air support -- and it certainly doesn't mean these planes can do the job more economically.
To the contrary, according to data from the Air Force's own Comptroller, an F-15C Eagle fighter jet costs in the neighborhood of $42,000 per hour to fly, while an F-16C costs about $22,500. The A-10 is actually cheaper than either of those platforms, with an "ownership cost per flight hour" of less than $18,000.
Co-opting the opposition
So why might General Carlisle's latest plan to kill the A-10 work, when previous plots have failed? To get a feel for the politics of this debate, it helps to look at the aircraft involved not as military hardware, but as products built by companies. This is where we, as investors trained to "follow the money," may have a leg up over traditional military analysts who focus exclusively on the capabilities of the weapons systems involved. Like so:
The A-10 may be a fabulous CAS platform, but right now, it doesn't have a corporate backer with a truly vital interest in its survival. Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) serves as prime contractor to maintain the plane, and Boeing (NYSE:BA) has a contract to upgrade wings on some of the older A-10s, both of which bring in a few tens of millions of dollars annually for the respective companies. But without an actual A-10 Warthog replacement program in place, no one's making billions of dollars off of the Warthog.
In contrast, Lockheed Martin has a vested interest in seeing the A-10 retired quickly, saving upwards of $300 million in operations costs -- so that this money can be spent on buying new F-35s for the Air Force instead. Gen. Carlisle's suggestion that he's open to using F-16s (which Lockheed also builds) for CAS missions will similarly appeal to Lockheed Martin.
Meanwhile, Boeing has been casting about for years, seeking new markets for its F-15 fighter jets -- without much luck. But if the Air Force is offering to divert F-15s to CAS missions, then this promises to increase wear-and-tear on the F-15 fleet, potentially producing more maintenance revenues for Boeing -- and could even Boeing to keep production lines open a bit longer. So you can see why Boeing, too, might be a fan of Gen. Carlisle's plan.
Hope springs eternal
To survive this existential fight, what the A-10 Warthog may really need is a "corporate sponsor" with a monetary incentive to back the plane. In that regard, the aircraft's best chance may lie in Northrop Grumman taking Gen. Carlisle up on his suggestion that a replacement CAS aircraft "wrapped around the A-10" isn't entirely out of the question.
Were Northrop to offer to build an A-10 Warthog 2.0 for the Air Force, it might address Air Force worries that the existing fleet of A-10's is "wearing out." Were Northrop to team up on such an effort with Textron -- which has proven with its Scorpion that it can build a modern aircraft on the cheap, and with a quick turnaround time, from off-the-shelf parts -- the project might even stand a chance of succeeding.
Throw a few billion dollars at the project -- enough to replace the Air Force's current fleet of 300-odd A-10s -- and these companies might even be willing to stand up to Boeing and Lockheed, and stand up for the A-10 Warthog.
Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 288 out of more than 75,000 rated members.
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