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A-10 faces critical House vote today

An A-10 Thunderbolt II from Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich., moves to take position off the right wing of a KC-135R Stratotanker, after refueling mid-air during a boss lift and training flight over Michigan on July 11, 2012.

The effort to save the A-10 “Warthog” close-air-support jet faces a key floor vote in the House today after a floor debate Wednesday on the 2015 defense appropriations bill.

The House debated a bipartisan amendment to the defense funding bill to prohibit the Pentagon from spending any money to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a mainstay of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

The amendment, co-sponsored by Tucson Democrat Rep. Ron Barber, appeared to win a voice vote Wednesday after a short debate but is subject to a formal roll-call vote today.

During Wednesday’s exchange on the House floor, Barber and other supporters reiterated their stance that the A-10 is an unmatched tool for close air support. They argued the A-10 fleet should be kept to support troops until a comparable replacement is developed.

The Air Force has proposed retiring the A-10 “Warthog” — including 83 aircraft in three squadrons at D-M — by 2019 to save $4.3 billion, arguing it can’t afford keeping the single-mission, 1970s-era plane. The Pentagon says other aircraft can and do perform close air support, eventually including the delay-plagued F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter.

“With no other aircraft available and capable to take its place and with our men and women still in combat, we simply can’t afford to allow the A-10 to be grounded,” Barber said, adding that the military also can’t afford to lose the expertise of A-10 crew members including those at D-M.

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., stressed the cost-efficiency of the A-10, which is far cheaper to operate than other jets.

“This is the most effective, cost-efficient aircraft we have for the missions we have right now,” Scott said. “Our enemies run in fear from it, and quite honestly I think it’s the best money we can spend in protecting our troops while they are on the ground.”

While Barber and Scott represent districts with major A-10 operations, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said he supports the A-10 as a former Air Force pilot who flew combat-rescue helicopters and B-1 bombers on missions with A-10s and witnessed their effectiveness.

“I’m not here because I have A-10s in my district; I’m here because I realize what an invaluable resource this is,” Stewart said. “Close air support is an incredibly delicate and unforgiving mission. If you hit the wrong bridge, people will forgive you; if you frag your own troops, you will never forgive yourself.”

Amendment co-sponsor Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., added: “Before you vote, talk to those who have been in combat on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

But both the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and the committee’s ranking Democrat opposed the A-10 amendment.

The panel’s chairman, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., conceded that the A-10 is a “tremendous aircraft.” But he said close air support is provided by other airplanes and that the Warthog is bound for retirement later, if not sooner.

“This is not about saving millions of dollars, it’s about saving billions of dollars,” he said.

The appropriations committee’s top Democrat, Peter Visclosky of Indiana, agreed, citing the inevitable retirements of venerated warplanes like the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.

“The A-10 is being replaced over a protracted period of time, and in the interim other aircraft are going to take its place until the F-35 is prepared to do its mission,” he said.

Visclosky said the amendment was “disingenuous” because it would prevent the Air Force from retiring the A-10 without providing any funding for fleet operations that would cost more than $500 million.

“You now need crews, and you need fuel and you need maintenance, that is not (funded) in the bill,” he said. “We have to begin to make some tough decisions.”

Miller responded that A-10 backers had floated other amendments that included funding offsets, but they were told by House leadership that those measures would face procedural challenges.

The amendment appeared to be adopted on a voice vote, but Miller called for a formal roll call, which is planned for today along with a final floor vote on the appropriations bill.

The House-passed version of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act included a measure sponsored by Barber and others that would fund A-10 operations for a year with $635 million from overseas war funding.

The version of the authorization bill adopted by the Senate Armed Services Committee would shift $339 million from other accounts to fund the A-10 for a year.

The Senate has yet to bring its committee version of the authorization bill to floor debate and a full vote, and it has not yet passed its defense appropriations bill out of committee.

The defense authorization bill — which sets spending policy but may not dictate actual appropriations — and the defense appropriations bill passed by each chamber will be reconciled in conference committees before final votes in both houses.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

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