The image-conscious Air Force wants to retire its fleet of "ugly" A-10 attack planes, which are now in service in Saudi Arabia, and replace them with a modified version of the sleek and sexy F-16 fighter.

But sources in the Army -- the people on the ground who would rely on the A-10s to cover them in a fight -- say that would be a bad idea, and an expensive one too.

The Air Force has long wanted to get rid of the A-10s, affectionately called "Wart Hogs" by their pilots. Their job is to take out tanks and provide close air support for ground troops. It was a triumphant Air Force that recently won internal Pentagon approval to modify F-16s to take the place of A-10s.

But the decision will not fly smoothly through Congress, which must fund the $1 billion-plus remake of the F-16s.

The A-10s are big, slow and ugly for a good reason. Close air support calls for aircraft sturdy enough to withstand ground fire and capable of carrying 30mm cannons. The A-10s have a thick armor and aft engines to make them less vulnerable to antiaircraft fire.

The F-16 is lighter and faster, designed for dogfights. Army and congressional analysts question whether "bastardizing" the F-16 would result in a jet that did nothing well -- was neither agile nor durable.

One Army source told us, "The Air Force wants to turn back the clock and do away with a concept that works best in exactly the kind of combat environment we are now confronting."

Piers Wood was an artillery captain in Vietnam. He said the Air Force has long tried to minimize its responsibility to provide support to the Army. And now, Wood said, "they're designing themselves right out of the mission."

Wood, chief of staff at the private Center for Defense Information, says the animosity toward the A-10 comes from Air Force pilots. "Fighter jocks don't feel like fighter jocks when they fly something slow and ugly," he said.

The military brass has been vain in the past. A 1983 Pentagon document details the Navy's dislike for another bulky attack plane, the A-6. "It's definitely the ugliest carrier air wing to ever congregate on the deck of an aircraft carrier," the report says.

The A-10 is not perfect. Its technology is dated and its pilots have some gripes about performance. But those problems could be corrected for far less money than it will cost to remake the F-16s. That price tag is $3 million per plane for about 400 planes, or well over $1 billion for the fleet.

House Armed Services Committee sources familiar with the A-10 say there is still reluctance on Capitol Hill to dump it. Congress told the Air Force to come up with a test to determine which plane would be best for the job, and the Air Force did that, but didn't use the test plan in its decision-making.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Joe Ralston told our associate Jim Lynch that a modified F-16 is the best plane for close air support in today's battle conditions. "The F-16 is not made to absorb hits, but to avoid hits," he said.