General: A-10 retirement will open gap in fighting North Korea tanks
WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said Wednesday that the retirement of the A-10 aircraft will leave a gap in the ability to take out enemy tanks from the air.
Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti made the comment under questioning by House lawmakers and said he would compensate for the change by using air and ground forces differently if war breaks out on the peninsula.
The Air Force is pushing a controversial plan to retire the 1970’s-era close air support stalwart, which can shoot tank-busting depleted uranium rounds, and replace it with the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, which remains in development and will have limited combat capability when it first goes into operation this summer.
“It would open a gap in terms of that aircraft with that specific capability,” said Scaparrotti, who along with other defense officials warned Wednesday of an increasingly belligerent North Korea.
The testimony comes a day after the Pentagon told lawmakers that the first version of the F-35 will not be able to outdo the A-10 Warthog and its powerful nose cannon on the battlefield.
The Block 2B set to got to the Marine Corps this summer will only be able to carry four bombs and not have any guns. Future variants are expected to have improved weapons but still face high development hurdles.
Rep. Martha McSalley, R-Ariz., a former A-10 pilot, raised concerns Tuesday and again Wednesday over the planned switch in air power capabilities.
The troops on the ground need Warthog-style air support that can defend them from North Korean armored units, but they might not get it from the F-35 jet, which will not initially be able to fire depleted uranium projectiles capable of piercing the thick armor of tanks, McSalley said.
“We certainly don’t want to roll that back,” she said.
The U.S. has about 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea as part of a force that has remained since 1953 when the Korean War ended in a tense armistice.
The North Korean regime under Kim Jong Un has taunted the U.S. with its missile program and recently hacked Sony Pictures in an attempt to stop the release of a movie mocking the dictator.