The time-tested A-10 "Warthog" — the aircraft that comprises the bulk of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base's operations — was both doted on and deemed ready for discharge Wednesday in the first Senate hearing on a military budget plan that seeks to retire the aging plane.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey called the A-10 the "ugliest, most beautiful aircraft on the planet" during the hearing, but defended losing it among budget cuts announced last week by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
"I'm probably one of the few people in the room that's actually had an A-10 come to my rescue, so you don't have to convince me that it's been an extraordinarily valuable tool on the battlefield," he said. But he said that this year will be unlike previous years, when A-10 supporters were able to avoid proposed cuts.
"What's different now is, we had some slack in our budget over the last 10 years. There's no more slack in it. The margins are just really very tight," he said.
As national leaders weigh the fate of the Warthog, local elected officials and advocates for the base are touting the aircraft's strengths, and warning of the economic fall-out for Tucson if the jet is retired.
"The impact that it will have on Davis-Monthan will be significant to extreme," said Ramon Valadez, the Pima County supervisor representing District 2, which includes the base.
Davis-Monthan could lose thousands of employees if the Department of Defense's proposal to retire the fleet succeeds, he said.
"It's the primary mission at Davis-Monthan," said Mike Grassinger, president of DM 50, a local nonprofit group that advocates for the base and its airmen and airwomen. "We've been told by the base commander that if the A-10 leaves, it would probably eliminate 2,000 jobs. That's not counting whatever jobs might be eliminated in the civilian economy as a result of those jobs going away."
Davis-Monthan estimates its operations generated more than $1 billion in economic impact in the Tucson area in fiscal year 2012. That includes about $200 million in job-creation impact.
Lt. Erin Ranaweera of Davis-Monthan's public affairs division said she could not comment on the content of the budget proposal, and she could not estimate the exact number of jobs that could be affected if the aircraft were retired. But, she said, "We are fully committed to the mission here at D-M and training the airmen to produce the most ready force in our nation."
The aircraft, officially dubbed the Thunderbolt II in the 1970s but nicknamed the Warthog for its snub-nosed appearance, has been the centerpiece of Davis-Monthan for decades. It provides aerial support for soldiers engaged in combat, and is often referred to as a tank killer.
Davis-Monthan has two fighter squadrons, one training squadron and one reserve squadron, Ranaweera said. A third fighter squadron was deactivated last month, but the change is a money-saving move unrelated to the A-10 proposal, she said. Personnel in the deactivated squadron will be transferred to a different base or squadron, she said.
Retiring the fleet would save $3.5 billion over five years, Hagel said.
Those who support keeping the A-10 say the proposal to discard it, particularly before a comparable alternative is up and running, reflects an assumption that ground wars will soon be a thing of the past. The A-10 is known for its ability to fly at low altitudes and low speeds, so pilots can better distinguish between enemy targets and American soldiers. It's also able to more rapidly turn and reattack within seconds rather than minutes.
Pilots specially trained to fly close air support missions -- protecting troops engaged in battle -- would be replaced by multimission pilots with weaker ties to ground troops, according to the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which has come out in strong support of the A-10s. Those pilots would likely perform support missions from higher altitudes at faster speeds, the Washington, D.C.-based group says.
"We support the A-10 because it still has strategic value and is extremely cost-effective," said Joe Newman, a spokesman for the group.
But the Air Force's proposed 2015 budget says, "Fiscal constraints required the Air Force to prioritize multirole legacy over single-mission platforms." Supporters of the cuts also say the 40-year-old A-10s are becoming outdated, and other aircraft, like B-1 bombers, can provide close air support as well as perform multiple missions.
At Wednesday's hearing, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said providing close aerial support to soldiers on the ground should be a top priority to military leaders. She quoted Maj. Gen. Paul T. Johnson, Air Force director of Operational Capability Requirements, who told the Wall Street Journal in January that more people will die, and battles may even be lost, with the retirement of the A-10. Johnson, nevertheless, supports divesting the fleet.
"When we hear concerns ... that lives will be at stake; why aren't we preserving that priority over other priorities?" Ayotte said during Wednesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
She noted that the proposal would phase out all A-10s by 2019, beginning next year. Replacement F-35s will not be fully operational until 2021, leaving at least a two-year gap, she said.
At the committee hearing, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said other aircraft can't quite compare to the A-10.
"While there are other assets that can perform the close air support mission, none can do so with the same maneuverability, loiter time and targeting capability," he said. "I think it's wishful thinking to believe that pilots of those other platforms will receive the training necessary to be proficient in close air support."
Cutting the A-10 mission is a shortsighted reaction to large-scale sequestration budget cuts, Valadez said.
"Either Congress finds a way of fixing what they've done through sequester or this only continues to get worse," he said. "As the military looks at the need to cut back, they need to cut back on missions that are not combat-critical. A-10 is a combat-critical mission."
At Davis-Monthan, A-10s have received updated electronics and new wings, extending their lives to 2028, Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., said in a news release.
Cuts should come from elsewhere, he said.
"We must instead do the hard work of going through the entire budget and cutting programs that are wasteful, outdated or duplicative," he said. "Sequestration is causing deep harm to our country, and this is only one example of that."
Davis-Monthan should remain an economic driver in Tucson, said Grassinger, of the DM 50.
"If they're going to retire the A-10, we're hopeful the Air Force is going to recognize the superior capabilities of Davis-Monthan and assign another mission here to replace the A-10," he said.