On the surface, the fight over whether to protect the A-10 combat aircraft, affectionately known as “the Warthog,” looks like nothing more than a typical Beltway slugfest, with those who love it squaring off against those who want to leave it, and all being far from the attention of taxpayers.

But a closer look suggests the A-10 dispute is really a reflection of more fundamental tensions in the defense community today. In an era of war draw-downs and imposed budget cuts, will turf battles amid the endless defense of each force’s “family jewels” take precedence over what critics say are the best tools to protect American forces on the ground during future wars?

As always in matters of Washington budget politics, it comes down to who you talk to. And today—as the military faces $52 billion in cuts due to sequestration, on top of the $41 billion it already weathered for FY 2013—the rhetoric is much more heated and emotional. For many, it’s personal.

“There’s a reign of terror going on,” charges longtime defense policy analyst and aircraft designer Pierre Sprey, referring to recent reports that the Air Force plans to scrap its entire fleet of 326 A-10 Thunderbolts. The enormous fixed wing planes were designed 35 years ago to provide close air support (CAS) for “grunts” on the ground. They have seen combat in every major war since, including flying 32 percent of the sorties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite that service, the Warthogs have also been regulars on the Air Force chopping block.

“Of course the real reason they’re doing it, aside from the traditional hatred for close air support, is they’re using the money for F-35 overruns,” Sprey insisted, pointing to the new, yet-to-be-completed Air Force F-35 joint strike fighter, which has caused enormous acrimony and embarrassment on account of its ballooning price and uncertain effectiveness in the air.

The Air Force hopes to save $3.5 billion by retiring the A-10 fleet; meanwhile, the current cost of the F-35 program is close to $400 billion, so far, and won’t produce combat-ready jets until 2015. Overruns, quality control issues, and bad performance reviews have dominated the headlines for years.

Sprey, who has been around to criticize the Air Force since becoming one of Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids”-turned-rogue at the Pentagon in the 1960’s, said the F-35 program is just another example of how the Pentagon continues to funnel billions of taxpayer dollars into programs that don’t work, while sacrificing ones that do. He takes it a step further: “in a microcosm, this is about how the military industrial complex has basically betrayed the soldier and ruined national defense.”

He and others charge that instead of keeping the A-10, which has support among soldiers, Marines, and the Air Force pilots who fly them, the services want to develop their own super-expensive alternatives. That’s the way it goes in Washington—high-end all the way. This hits the sweet spot with contractors, politicians, and the services themselves, which build their pride and identities around big, elaborate programs, even if they are inefficient and underperforming.

“Each of the services are committed to their family jewels,” points out John Tillson, a Pentagon insider who commanded an Armored Calvary troop in the Vietnam War, in an interview with TAC. “The A-10, that’s the step child.”

Saving the A-10—or at least keeping it around until an updated model can be developed—is the latest bureaucratic mission of the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ a cadre of post-World War II pilots, policy gurus, and engineers, including Tillson and Sprey, who have been advancing reform as “guerrilla warriors” within the system, for the last 40 years. TAC covered their exploits, here, in a September feature.

But this could be their toughest fight yet—impending cuts have forced each of the branches of service to raise sharpened defenses for their aircraft of choice. Not one, it seems, wants to go to the mat for the A-10—except for the Fighter Mafia, a long-time champion of close air support and simple, smartly designed systems.

They helped to get the A-10 into production in 1977, and say it is the most efficient, effective, tested aircraft for CAS, in any mission. A hulking menace of the skies, the Warthog is protected by 1,200 pounds of titanium armor and is great for busting through tanks with its unique GAU-8 Avenger, a 30mm rotary cannon (image shown here), designed to attack Soviet armor. The heaviest such weapon ever mounted on an aircraft, this Gatling-style gun provides rapid-fire capability with rounds over a foot long in size.

It’s proponents say the A-10 meets every criteria for CAS: both quick response and “loiter presence,” maneuverability, and the ability to engage in combat and sustain enemy fire at low altitudes and under poor weather conditions.

But this is just one side in a battle of competing military cultures—and none of them, not even the seasoned sages, have a crystal ball telling them what the next war will look like. Will there ever be another massive ground war requiring the tank-busting prowess of the Warthog, or has it seen its glory days come and go?

“These are the people who believe in ‘boot-centric warfare,’” offered Bill Sweetman, senior international defense editor at Aviation Week, who was brought in as a panel counterweight at a Nov. 21 symposium, “Close Air Support With and Without the A-10: Will Troops Get the Help They Need?” The event was sponsored by the Project for Government Oversight (POGO), which has worked often with the Fighter Mafia over the years, and the Straus Military Reform Project, run by Pentagon budget zenmaster and A-10 supporter Winslow Wheeler.

Sweetman got right to the nub of the issue. A-10 supporters and Fighter Mafiosos like retired naval aviator Chuck Myers, who also spoke at the event, freely contend that essentially, “war is on the ground, and it’s about acquiring and holding real estate and the people who do that are grunts,” and that it is the Air Force’s duty—per agreements forged back in the 1940’s—to provide close air support to the Army on the ground. And they have “begrudgingly,” some say, because their identity is, no surprise, in the sky.

“I think the Air Force is reluctant to do anything that would compromise its ability to do air-to-air combat,” said Sweetman. “It’s not just the Air Force being mean or difficult. They can do close air support,” they just champion other aircraft—and right now, that’s the F-35. “It’s not terribly efficient but they can do close air support and deep strike and air combat. The A-10, for all it’s virtues, can’t do all of that.”

Recently, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, a former A-10 pilot himself, echoed these words, acknowledging to the House Armed Services Committee that the A-10 was the most at risk because it is “single-mission” aircraft. “I think there’s some logic to this that’s hard-pressed to avoid no matter how much I happen to love the airplane.”

Sprey and the others contend the Air Force never wanted the A-10 because it detracts from its “dogfighter” identity. Conversely, the A-10’s mission requires them to work for the Army commanders on the ground. “Fundamentally, the AF’s animosity toward the A-10 is rooted in the fact that the A-10 works for the Army, and the A-10 subordinates its operational art to that of the Army ground forces it supports,” said Chuck Spinney, a former Air Force officer and long time Pentagon analyst who wrote recently that “the A-10 was forced upon the AF,” and it’s never forgotten it.

These exposed rifts are nothing new—the services have been battling over turf and resources forever. But this is not just about the branch of service, it’s also about “the preferred way of war,” offered one defense establishment observer. This dictates what aircraft are championed, and where the lines will be drawn if the sequester holds in 2014.

First, there are the Air Force high-fliers—the Jedi Knights. They support their own super-fighter planes like the F-18 and F-22, which engage in air-to-air and air-to-land combat, as well as, they say, close air support. They also love their B-1 and B-2 strategic bombers (in Iraq for example, they were used to loiter over areas, dropping big payloads when needed to support troops on the ground).

Then there’s “Big Army”—their mission is to keep the money coming for rotary wing aircraft, particularly the Apache AH-64 attack helicopter, which typically carries a mix of cannon, rockets and hellfire missiles and has been used in every major war since the Persian Gulf. After the 1948 Key West Agreement forbade the Army to use fixed-wing aircraft, the helicopter has been adapted as the Army’s combat aircraft of choice.

Meanwhile, the Special Forces community sees counterinsurgency and low intensity conflict the battlefield of the future– not huge ground wars  –  and are looking at lighter fixed wing aircraft to engage what is known as light attack/armedreconnaissance (LAAR) and light air support (LAS). The Beechcraft AT-6and the Air Tractor AT-802U are trainers and crop dusters respectively, armed and recalibrated for COIN. The Ebraer Super Tucano (A-29) is used by foreign governments all over the world for gang busting and drug interdiction in rugged terrain. The Air Force recently contracted for 20 A-29s to give to the Afghan military.

Emerging as well is the drone lobby, which sees the future of close air support in drones like the M-Q Reaper. While even A-10 proponents—let’s call them the Grunts (including Marines and other land war-centric constituencies)—recognize some virtue in drones for reconnaissance, they believe they would never have the vantage, maneuverability, and combat capabilities of manned aircraft like the A-10.

(Ret.) Marc Gunzinger, who served on a panel with Myers to counter the A-10 lamentations at Friday’s event, said there was too much being made of the fiefdoms and little acknowledgement that the Cold War mentality that went into building the tank buster might just be obsolete.

“I don’t know what the next war is going to be like—but I do know it’s not going to be a land war,” he said. “You need capabilities that are flexible, ones that can adapt to a range of missions and adapt to new missions.

“You have to stop looking at the A-10 problem from a tactical viewpoint and you have to start looking at it from the strategic level and decide what we need for the nation’s future.”

For now, it looks like the A-10’s angels are going to come from the Senate. A group of 20 bipartisan lawmakers, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) (who also co-sponsored an amendment to the FY 2014 defense authorization bill, protecting the A-10) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA.), just sent the Secretary of Defense a letter, urging “hands off” the A-10. In fact, the Fighter Mafia itself could’ve written it:

We oppose any effort that would divest the A-10, creating a CAS capability gap that would reduce Air Force combat power and unnecessarily endanger our service member in future conflicts.

Now that’s close air support.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.