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The US Air Force wants a new plane to replace the trusty A-10 Warthog in the fight against ISIS. Air Force generals are toying with the idea of buying a new close air support (CAS) plane instead that could better and more cheaply support ground troops, allowing them to retire the A-10.

“I’d love to build a new CAS airplane right now while we still have the A-10 [and then] transition the A-10 community into the new CAS airplane,” Air Force chief of staff Gen Mark Welsh said. “We just don’t have the money to do it and we don’t have the people to keep flying the A-10 and build a new airplane and bed it down.”

The Air Force will either seek a new aircraft design or adopt an existing one, depending on cost and time constraints, Welsh said. “We don’t think this would take that long to do and we don’t think it’s that complicated of a design problem.”

The Warthog’s replacement would be applied to a “low-to-medium-threat environment” where it could fly low over the battlefield, strafing and bombing enemy forces, and not high-end combat where it would face advanced air defences.

Welsh envisions a plane “that brings more firepower, that is more responsive,” and cheaper to fly than the A-10. “We need something to keep doing, at much lower cost, the types of things we’re doing in the counterinsurgency fight today,” he said.

The challenges of the modern battleground are much different than they were even 20 years ago. The US rarely meets an army now, but for the past decade-plus has fought ground-based counterinsurgencies. It is uncertain that this will change in the foreseeable future. The Air Force must adapt to this trend.

“Keeping the A-10 has been a wonderful thing for us,” Welsh said. “But the question really is: what does the Air Force of the future look like?”

One of the most promising ideas ditches the pilot altogether. Welsh envisions a drone that would orbit above the battlefield, ready to dispense bombs and hellfire at a moment’s notice.

“In the perfect world, that’s close air support of the future,” Welsh said. “But there needs to be the ability to mass firepower quickly, and that probably going to involve sending more close air support capability. We have that in lots of forms today.”