WARRENSBURG, Mo. — The area’s economy could suffer a financial jolt if Congress and the Department of Defense agree to cease A-10 Thunderbolt II operations at Whiteman Air Force Base, but not for at least a year.
“Our goal is to keep them flying,” Warrensburg Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tammy Long said Thursday. “Whether it’s the A-10 or a new aircraft that would come in, our goal is that the 442nd has a flying mission.”
The 442nd has about 1,100 people, not including families, that support 24 A-10s at Whiteman. The 442nd represents about an eighth of the base payroll, or roughly $40 million annually, Col. Hubie Hegtvedt said Thursday.
Long said the civilian area around the base would have difficulty absorbing that type of financial hit.
“That’s going to have a negative impact on not just Warrensburg, but the whole area and region,” Long said.
Taking that amount of money out of the economy translates into fewer sales of everything from hamburgers to houses.
“To say it wouldn’t be good would be an understatement, so anything we can do to retain the 442nd ... that’s the key,” Long said.
Community leaders are working with a task force with the two other A-10 sites – Tucson and Valdosta, Ga. – to seek the best possible result, Long said.
The rest is up to members of Congress and the Pentagon.
Money is a key concern driving talk of ending the A-10’s close air support mission for troops in hot zones.
“With the sequestration, the Pentagon is looking at what they can do as far as cutting air frames to save money,” Long said. “They want to retire the A-10 completely.”
The Northrup-Grumman A-10 Thunderbolt II tank killer, also called the Hawg, brings armor and weaponry down close to a battlefield to drive back an enemy attacking U.S. personnel on the ground.
“There are Army guys who have said, literally, A-10s have saved their lives,” Long said.
Some Air Force members want the military to cease A-10 operations across the nation, including at Whiteman Air Force Base.
Hegtvedt said there are other fixed-wing aircraft that provide close air support, but they are not the same as Hawgs.
“The A-10 is designed exclusively for the mission set and therefore none of these airplanes can perform the mission as well. I don’t think that’s arguable,” Hegtvedt said, adding his work with the aircraft has led him to acknowledge the A-10’s record of delivering vital ordnance precisely where needed. “I appreciate even more the capability and the awesome firepower it brings in the close air support arena.”
If the government mothballs the A-10s, the men and women of the Air Force Reserve who support the aircraft could support a new air frame.
“The 1,000-plus citizen airmen who work here are outstanding and I’m confident that regardless of what air frame would be here, whether the A-10 stays or something else comes along, there’s no finer people to provide combat air power than what’s right here at Whiteman,” Hegtvedt said.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill joined other congressional leaders in letting the Pentagon know they do not want A-10 operations to end.
In a letter sent Nov. 13 to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, McCaskill expressed “deep concern regarding the Air Force’s plan to divest the A-10 Thunderbolt II. ... We oppose any effort that would divest the A-10, creating a CAS (close air support) capability gap that would reduce Air Force combat power and unnecessarily endanger our service members in future conflicts.”
The letter states the A-10 is a “core component” of national combat power, cutting the asset would be “unconscionable,” no other asset is as proficient “in conducting visual support operations below 800- to 3,000-foot ceilings with limited visibility,” no other aircraft is designed strictly for close air support, removing the A-10s would be “an unacceptable risk” and cuts instead should be made to “air shows and bloated headquarters staffs.”
McCaskill and Roy Blunt from Missouri, and 11 other senators joined Vicky Hartzler, Emanuel Cleaver II and 18 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives in signing the letter.
On Thursday, McCaskill’s office told The Daily Star-Journal the A-10s will not face cuts this year based on passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, due specifically to a provision provided by McCaskill.
“It turns out that the defense bill we just passed explicitly prohibits the Air Force from retiring the A-10s through the end of 2014. The Air Force announced last year that it was looking at getting rid of the A-10 for budgetary reasons, so the NDAA language is designed to prevent them from doing so. This provision is something that Claire was able to get into the bill herself,” based on office information.