Tucson’s A-10s headed to final destination as Davis-Monthan lands new special ops mission

If there has been one issue that has had nearly universal bipartisan agreement in Southern Arizona for years, it’s the importance of keeping the A-10 Thunderbolt II flying above our local skies.

But the U.S. Air Force, after more than a decade of trying to retire the legendary Warthogs while spending more than $1 billion to refit the planes, is finally moving forward with plans to decommission the A-10, including the aircraft based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Three Tucson-based squadrons flying a total of 78 A-10s will become inactive and the planes will be retired, while the 47th and 357th fighter squadrons will continue A-10 training until inactivation.

A new USAF special operations wing will instead be based here, flying small turboprop planes more reminiscent of WWII fighters than anything from the jet age.

The move comes after a string of Arizona’s U.S. senators and representatives have battled the Pentagon for years to maintain the A-10’s presence in Southern Arizona.

Keeping the A-10 “is a mission we will not stop fighting for,” said Rep. Ron Barber in 2014, joining Sen. John McCain in blasting plans to replace the attack jets with F-35 aircraft. “Ugly though it may be, it is one fine
plane,” he said.

Two years later, Rep. Martha McSally, herself a former A-10 pilot, said the A-10 was “critical to our national security. It continues to demonstrate its value
on the battlefield against ISIS, in Europe to deter Russian aggression,
and on the border with North Korea.”

Davis-Monthan’s economic impact on Tucson has been estimated at between
$1 billion and $3 billion each year. About 1,000 positions at the base will be phased out under the plan, with those jobs replaced by slots in the replacement squadrons.

After repeatedly pushing off the retirement of the Warthogs, which were designed 50 years ago to thwart the threat of Soviet tanks if they attempted to invade Western Europe, the Air Force is now forging ahead with mothballing the jets by the end of the decade.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Robert Medler, executive director of the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance, “and the start of a great new one.”

That new era is set to begin over the next five years as Davis-Monthan becomes home to cutting-edge aircraft with an old-school appearance in the Air Force Special Operations Command’s newest power projection wing.

The Air Force announced Wednesday that it plans to move the 492nd Special Operation Wing to Davis-Monthan from Florida’s Hulbert Field, pending the results of a final environmental impact analysis. The special operations outfit will be augmented with new aircraft and personnel from various bases around the country, including squadrons from New Mexico’s Cannon AFB, North Carolina’s Pope Army Airfield and Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“This is really the tip of the spear for the Air Force,” Medler said. “As we’ve seen in Afghanistan, particularly, the use of special operation forces has increased substantially. And that’s what this power projection wing is made up of, all the different components of Air Force Special Operations.”

Among the new planes coming to Tucson: The propeller-driven OA-1K, loaded with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) tech and designed to host different weapon systems that can provide close air support and precision targeting. Known as AT-802U Sky Warden when under development by L3Harris, the small, nimble aircraft is part of the Air Force’s Armed Overwatch program.

The OA-1K will replace U-28 Draco fleets.

“It’s a phenomenal aircraft,” Medler said.

The Sky Wardens will be the first active-duty Air Force “tail-dragger” propeller planes intended for combat roles since the retirement of the Douglas A-1 Sky Raider 50 years ago.

Based on the small Air Tractor crop-duster, the planes can stay aloft for up to six hours and carry up to 6,000 lbs with a 200-nautical-mile combat radius, and are built for “austere operations,” the manufacturer said.

DM will also welcome two MC-130J Commando II squadrons. The Commando, designed to fly clandestine missions, can drop, pick up or resupply soldiers on the battlefield as well as refuel helicopters and other aircraft. 

This will be the Air Force’s third power projection wing. Officials said locating at Davis-Monthan would allow pilots to train at the Barry M. Goldwater Range, which stretches across miles of desert west of Tucson.

In a joint tri-partisan statement on Wednesday, U.S. Sens. Mark Kelly (D) and Kyrsten Sinema (I) and U.S. Reps. Ruben Gallego (D) and Juan Ciscomani (R) praised the decision, saying they would continue to work “to secure the long-term future of DM.”

“With its year-round flying weather, extensive training range space,
and proximity to other military bases, Southern Arizona is a natural
choice to establish this Special Operations Wing in the Southwest. These
flying missions are critical to our military’s ability to outcompete
our adversaries, and this decision is a positive step towards bringing
them to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base that will enable the Air Force to
proceed with the next set of site reviews to prepare the base for this
transition,” said the press release from the four.

The A-10 was significant in not being mentioned by the congressional delegation, and with the announcement of the new special operations mission, the calls to save the plane have been muted.

Jay Bickley, president of the DM50, a local organization of community leaders who advocate on behalf of Davis-Monthan, called the new missions “a tremendous addition to the base and the local community. Additionally, we are very appreciative of the continued advocacy and support of the entire Arizona delegation as we work together to ensure the future of DM.” 

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero cheered the decision.

“Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is a vital economic engine in the Tucson community,” Romero said. “We are happy to welcome the new 492nd Special Forces Power Projection Wing to our city,” 

Tucson leaders have long worried that mothballing the A-10 fleet would land Davis-Monthan on a list of potential base closures.

A 2017 study of the economic impact of Arizona’s military bases by the Maguire Company estimated that Davis-Monthan had a $3 billion overall impact on the Tucson economy and created more than 19,000 local jobs. Southern Arizona’s congressional representatives—from Republican McSally to Democrats Gabby Giffords, Ron Barber and Ann Kirkpartrick—pushed back hard on efforts by the Air Force to mothball the aging fleet. At one point, McSally insisted the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act include a provision requiring a “fly off” between the A-10 and its proposed replacement, the F-35.

The A-10 — described by McSally as a “badass airplane with a big gun on it” — was designed to provide close air support to troops on the battleground. First built in the 1970s, it is a heavily armored plane equipped with a 30 mm GAU-8 Avenger rotary autocannon capable of firing 3,900 rounds per minute. It can also carry air-to-surface missiles and a variety of smart bombs, and has the ability to take heavy fire while attacking
tanks, armored vehicles and other targets.

Pentagon officials have said that the four-decade old design of the
A-10 limits its capabilities, especially in an age when high-tech
battlefield communication has become common. A-10s do not have the
technology to communicate information as quickly and easily as newer
jets, they have said. The Air Force has previsouly planned to replace the Warthogs with the
F-35 Lightning II, and the MQ-9 Reaper, an upgraded version of the
Predator drone.

Davis-Monthan will continue to be home to other missions, including hosting the headquarters of the 12th Air Force, which oversees command of Air Force operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the 563rd Rescue Group.

“Rescue and special operations go hand in hand,” Medler said. “It’s a great fit for the base and the community.”

The Air Force has given no indication of plans to curtail the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group’s “aircraft boneyard.”

As A-10s are retired at D-M and other bases, they will likely be stored here. In June, the Air Force announced it was replacing A-10s at Moody AFB in Georgia with F-35s over the next few years, with more of the planes at Gowen Field ANG Base in Idaho being replaced by F-16s. Some of those planes have already been decommissioned and flown for storage in Tucson.

The Air Force plans to retire 21 A-10s in FY 2023, and 42 in FY 2024. There are about 273 of the planes spread across USAF, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units, with Warthogs deployed in South Korea as well as across the United States. In recent years, U.S. A-10 units have also been deployed in NATO countries in Eastern Europe.

Overall, the Air Force is looking to retire about 300 aircraft soon, from the A-10s and F-15s to a B-1 bomber.