WASHINGTON — Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Eric Brandenburg says he probably never would have returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan if not for the A-10 Warthog.
The Silver Star recipient and former joint terminal attack controller stood beside powerful Senate lawmakers Wednesday and urged the Air Force to back off a proposed retirement of the aircraft, saying it is uniquely capable of providing close air support, saving the lives of American troops on the battlefield.
The news conference, which included Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., was the most recent push by lawmakers on Capitol Hill to block the Air Force 2015 budget proposal to phase out the hard-fighting aircraft, known for the belch of its massive Gatling gun and its ability to fly slow and low to support of infantry on the ground.
“If our leaders don’t listen to the troops fighting on the ground, [the troops] are going to fail. Our troops need the A-10,” said Brandenburg, who deployed repeatedly in support of the Army’s 75th Ranger Battalion for eight years after 9/11 and who was awarded five Bronze Stars for combat valor.
McCain said the aircraft is a favorite of infantry soldiers. “We listened very carefully to the U.S. Army,” he said. “They are the ones who need the close air support, they are ones who are in grave danger without it.”
With the A-10’s combat record as a backdrop, a group of 10 senators called the proposed Air Force retirement premature. They want the chamber to save the Warthog from extinction when it marks up its version of the National Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday. The House Armed Services Committee already rejected the A-10 plan in its draft defense budget passed last week.
“I believe and hope the Senate will also act to protect the A-10 for our men and women in uniform,” said Ayotte, who has helped lead the effort to preserve the aircraft.
The Senate coalition, which also includes Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., disagreed with the Department of Defense position that the A-10 is too expensive and dated to keep around. The cost per flying hour is actually less than other aircraft that provide support for ground troops, including the F-15E and F-16 fighter jets, the B-1 bomber, the AC-130 gunship, and the B-52 Stratofortress, they argue.
But the DOD is scraping for savings and has been unhappy with Congress’ refusal so far to support a phase-out of the A-10. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled the proposal earlier this year, saying the retirement of the Air Force fleet of some 300 Warthogs would save the department $3.5 billion over five years.
A Pentagon spokesman said last week that Hagel was “certainly not pleased” — a rare comment on active legislation.
The DOD is under intense pressure to cut costs due to the Budget Control Act of 2011, also known as sequestration, which triggered deep, automatic reductions in the federal spending after a divided Congress could not reach a budget agreement.
Many popular defense programs and equipment could be on the chopping block in the coming year, including subsidies to base supermarkets, health care benefits, pay raises, the A-10 program, the Navy’s littoral combat ship funding, and the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, which needs an expensive nuclear overhaul to stay in operation.
The military’s top brass say the cuts are unwanted — Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said he had personally been saved by A-10 air support — but necessary due to the funding squeeze.
House lawmakers, especially Republicans, have balked at slashing defense spending, saying it could weaken national security and erode trust among servicemembers.
Now, A-10 support is growing in the Senate.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he may vote to keep the aircraft if spending offsets can be found.
“I support preserving the A-10. To accomplish that, we must find a realistic way to pay for it,” he said Tuesday in a statement to Stars and Stripes. “I’m optimistic that when the Senate Armed Services Committee marks up the defense authorization bill next week, we will be able to do so.”
The Senate coalition may just be successful, at least at saving the Warthog in the chamber’s upcoming draft defense budget, said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“I fully expect they are going to push hard, and they may very well succeed,” Harrison said. “It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Air Force to retire the A-10 even in the Senate.”
With elections looming, lawmakers would not want to vote against the Warthog program and risk military cuts and job losses in a number of communities outside bases where the aircraft is operated, he said.
The A-10 is “almost as important to Moody [Air Force Base] as it is to troops on the ground,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who represents the base along with Chambliss and spoke at the news conference Wednesday.
Davis-Monthan Air Base in Tucson, Ariz. — McCain’s state — is home to about 80 of the aircraft, the largest concentration in the world. Nine U.S. bases and one U.S. base in South Korea have the Warthog.
Many races are already heating up, with this issue being front and center in Tucson.
Rep. Ron Barber, who added an amendment to save the A-10 to the House Armed Services Committee draft defense budget last week, is running against Martha McSally, a former A-10 pilot who is campaigning on defeating the aircraft’s retirement.
The A-10 is the largest mission at Davis-Monthan and the retirement could mean the loss of 2,000 jobs, said Bruce Dusenberry, chairman of the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance, a group comprising private-sector leaders who represent military interests in the Tucson area.
“The immediate reaction was, ‘Oh no,’ ” Dusenberry said.
The loss could also affect the other military bases and vast training ranges that dot southern Arizona and are interconnected to the A-10 program, according to Dusenberry.
“It’s hard to know the ripple effect,” he said. “It would be a major impact.”