The Warthog is sitting pretty. Once on the brink of forced retirement, the A-10 attack plane with the ungainly shape and odd nickname has been given new life, spared by Air Force leaders who have reversed the Obama administration’s view of the plane as an unaffordable extra in what had been a time of tight budgets. In the 2018 Pentagon budget plan sent to Congress this week, the Air Force proposed to keep all 283 A-10s flying for the foreseeable future.
Three years ago, the Pentagon proposed scrapping the fleet for what it estimated would be $3.5 billion in savings over five years. Congress said no. The following year, the military tried again but said the retirement would not be final until 2019. Congress again said no. Last year, officials backed away a bit further, indicating retirement was still the best option but that it could be put off until 2022.
Now the retirement push is over, and the Warthog’s future appears secure.
“The world has changed,” said Maj. Gen. James F. Martin Jr., the Air Force budget deputy, in explaining decisions to keep aircraft once deemed expendable. The Air Force has similarly dropped plans to retire the iconic U-2 spy plane amid prospects for bigger budgets under President Donald Trump. It also reflects the relentless pace of operations for combat aircraft and surveillance and reconnaissance planes that feed intelligence data to war commanders. The service had complained for years that its inventory of aircraft was getting dangerously small and old. Gen. Mark Welsh, who retired as the top Air Force officer last year, was fond of describing the service as having 12 fleets of aircraft that qualify for antique license plates in the state of Virginia.
The A-10 is a special case. Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican from Arizona who flew the A-10 in combat and commanded a squadron in Afghanistan, speaks of it with obvious affection.
“The A-10 is this badass airplane with a big gun on it,” she said she told Trump in a recent conversation, explaining why the Warthog is unlike any other attack aircraft. The “big gun” to which she refers is a seven-barrel Gatling gun that is nine feet long and fires 30mm armor-piercing shells at a rate of 3,900 rounds per minute. Also armed with Maverick missiles, the A-10 is effective not only in a conventional battle against tanks and other armored vehicles. It also provides close-air support for Iraqi and other U.S. partner forces taking on Islamic State fighters in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. A number of A-10s fly missions in Syria from Incirlik air base in Turkey.
McSally is among members of Congress for whom elimination of the Warthog carried political risks back home. Sen. John McCain, a fellow Arizona Republican, joined her in strenuously arguing against the plane’s early retirement. Arizona’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is home to an A-10 unit; retirement of the aircraft might have made Davis-Monthan more vulnerable to closure. A veteran of combat in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and beyond, the plane entered service in 1976. It is among Cold War-era icons like the venerable B-52 bomber that have exceeded expected lifespans and are likely to remain central to U.S. air campaigns for years to come.
Specially designed for the Cold War mission of attacking armor on the front lines of a potential European war with the Soviet Union, the A-10’s air crews considered it so ugly they called it the Warthog. Its official nickname is Thunderbolt II. The plane has been out of production since 1984 but has received many upgrades over the years, most recently with new electronics.
After landing in Honolulu on a flight from Los Angeles, passengers described a midair disruption involving an unruly man whose attempts to get to the front of the jetliner prompted flight attendants and passengers to subdue him. and fighter jets to escort the plane. Passengers noticed him before the plane even took off. Mark and Donna Basden were among the first to board the plane Friday and found a laptop in the seat pocket of Mark Basden. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, couple assumed it was from the previous flight.
A flight attendant said it must belong to a man in the bathroom. Then a “disheveled looking fellow” walked out, Donna Basden said. Mark Basden handed the man the laptop, telling him it had been in his seat. He said the man scowled at him, took the laptop, opened it and closed it and then tried to sit in another seat in first class.
Donna Basden said the man “clearly looked out of place,” but he didn’t say anything. The flight attendant asked to see his boarding pass, then when she looked at it she told him he was in row 35 and sent him to the back of the plane. About halfway through the six-hour flight, the Basdens saw the same man, holding his laptop, with something over his head, which they thought was a towel or a blanket. The man, identified by law enforcement officials as Anil Uskanil, 25, of Turkey, was duct-taped to his seat until the plane landed in Honolulu and federal agents arrested him, passenger Lee Lorenzen said.
The trouble with Uskanil actually began about eight hours before the flight departed. He was arrested before dawn at Los Angeles International Airport for opening a door that led onto an airfield ramp, according to Los Angeles Airport Police, who provided Uskanil’s identity to The Associated Press. Police say Uskanil had been drinking but didn’t meet the criteria for public drunkenness. He was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor trespassing, given a date to appear in court and allowed to take the flight to Honolulu. Passenger Grant Arakelian said, “He was very quiet, moving very sluggish. He was trying to approach the cabin, like where the captain is.”
Lorenzen and his wife Penny Lorenzen, of Orange County, California, were sitting in first class and saw a “really serious look” on the flight attendant’s face.
The flight attendant ran down the aisle with her serving cart and blocked the doorway separating first class from the rest of the plane.
“She jammed the cart in that the doorway and she just said, ‘You’re not coming in here,'” Lee Lorenzen said. He said the man was pushing against the cart, trying to get through. At that point, passengers came up from behind and grabbed him. He was restrained in his seat with duct tape for the rest of the flight.
“He didn’t really fight or anything,” said Arakelian, a student at the University of Southern California.
“It caused worry on the plane, more curiosity than fear I would say because he wasn’t acting irrationally but you could tell something was kind off about him as well,” he said. “Once they took him to the back we never heard anything else about it.”
American Airlines Flight 31 had 181 passengers and six crew members aboard, said airline spokeswoman Katie Cody, who did not provide details on the incident. Uskanil having a laptop with him may have caused more concern than usual, with U.S. and European officials in recent weeks exchanging threats about aviation believed to include bombs hidden in laptop computers. Laptops have been banned on a handful of international flights, and could soon be outlawed on far more.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was briefed on the disturbance, according to a statement from the department. There are no other reports of disruptions, but the department said it is monitoring all flights Friday out of caution.
As Uskanil was subdued, the cockpit called for help. Federal agents were sent to wait for the flight’s arrival and two F-22 Raptors from the Hawaii Air National Guard scrambled to escort the plane.
“We got that military escort coming into Honolulu,” Donna Basden said with a laugh, “so welcome to Hawaii.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping said Friday he’s willing to help ties with South Korea return to a “normal track” amid a rift over Seoul’s deployment of a high-tech U.S. missile-defense system to guard against North Korean threats. Xi’s remarks came in a meeting with South Korean special envoy Lee Hae-chan, who was dispatched to Beijing by new President Moon Jae-in on a mission to reopen contacts and seek a way out of the current impasse that has hit South Korean businesses hard. China “is committed to resolving any issues through dialogue and coordination, which is in the fundamental interests of both countries and the region,” Xi was quoted as saying by China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
Earlier in the day, Lee met with State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Xi’s senior foreign policy adviser, and on Thursday with Foreign Minister Wang Yi. They were believed to have held talks on prospects for containing North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons activities as well as the economic fallout over the deployment in South Korea of the U.S. missile defense system called THAAD. It wasn’t clear if THAAD came up in Xi’s talks with Lee, during which the Chinese leader sat at the head of the table in a manner usually reserved for meetings with lower-ranking Chinese officials. However, Lee was quoted by Xinhua as saying that South Korea “understood China’s major concerns and was ready to strengthen coordination with China to remove any obstacles to the development of bilateral ties.”
Lee earlier said Moon had sent him to China to keep communications open “at a critical time.”
Seoul and Washington have argued that the missile system is aimed at North Korean aggression, while China sees it as a threat to its own security because its radar can peer deep into northeastern China. China is North Korea’s biggest economic partner and source of diplomatic support and has come under heavy pressure to use its influence to rein in the North’s missile and nuclear activities.
China says its influence has been exaggerated and has called on South Korea and the U.S. to end large-scale wargames seen as threatening by North Korea in exchange for the North suspending its missile launches and nuclear tests. Beijing has retaliated against Seoul over THAAD by suspending visits to South Korea by Chinese tour groups and trips to China by South Korean entertainers. South Korean businesses have faced boycotts, especially the retail group Lotte which provided the land on which the missile shield is being constructed. Wang on Thursday reiterated calls for its dismantling.
“We’re now at a crossroads in our relations,” Wang told Lee as he urged the new South Korean administration to make a decision to “remove the obstacles” that stand in the way of healthy ties between the two Asian economic powerhouses.
In recent weeks Beijing and Seoul have signaled a desire to repair relations following the election of Moon, who has taken a friendlier stance toward China than his conservative predecessor. Although he has sometimes criticized the THAAD deployment, Moon has not said he will remove it.
When Xi called Moon last week to congratulate him on his election, Moon reportedly asked Xi for help in ending the economic retaliation that has taken a toll on South Korean businesses.
Beijing has maintained its hard line, and in an editorial Thursday, the Communist Party newspaper Global Times said China’s opposition “cannot be traded for the new government’s friendly posture toward China.”
“Stopping the deployment of THAAD is the bottom line of China,” the newspaper said. “Seoul needs to make a choice between deploying THAAD and resuming Sino-South Korean relations. It should not hope to have it both ways.”