WASHINGTON — The A-10 Warthog survived a key budget vote in Congress on Thursday, increasing chances that lawmakers will reject Air Force plans to retire the aircraft beginning next year.
The House passed an amendment to its $570 billion defense-spending bill that would bar the service from axing the venerable A-10, officially known as the Thunderbolt. The full appropriations bill was expected to be passed on Friday.
The Senate has yet to pass its version of the spending bill but made earlier votes to keep the aircraft as well.
The Air Force has proposed to retire the A-10, a battlefield stalwart since it was introduced in the mid-1970s, and leave close-air support operations to the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets and B-1 bombers while it develops the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter over the coming decade.
Getting rid of the Warthog would save the Air Force about $4.3 billion over the next five years.
But opposition has swelled in Congress. Supporters, including Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., whose district includes Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, said the Warthog has unique capabilities and is preferred by ground troops.
“Our troops deserve the best close-air support we can provide, and there is no better close air support than the A-10,” said Barber, whose Arizona district includes the largest concentration of the aircraft in the world.
The amendment to save the Warthog was also sponsored by Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., whose state is home to Selfridge Air National Guard Base where about 20 A-10s are based.
“When our troops on the ground hear it, they know what is coming,” Miller said. “But you know what? So do our enemies, they know pain is coming.”
Now the Senate must craft its version of the defense spending bill, which is expected this summer.
Congress has so far bucked the A-10 retirement and a raft of spending cuts proposed by the military services and supported by top brass.
The Budget Control Act of 2011, also known as sequestration, mandates steep cuts in the coming years, and leaders say they fear the military’s ability to fight wars might be diminished without reduced spending.
Aircraft, ships and personnel spending including base grocery stores, housing benefits and health care were put on the chopping block in the Department of Defense budget for the coming fiscal year. President Barack Obama also included the cuts in his proposed budget.
To preserve the A-10, supporters passed an amendment on the House floor Thursday that bars the Air Force from using any money to retire the A-10.
The amendment drew criticism from fiscal hawks on the House defense appropriations subcommittee, which passed the earlier draft bill that would have retired the A-10.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the subcommittee, said the A-10 has only executed about 20 percent of close-air support operations since 2008 and that its time is coming to an end.
“The money that we save [from the A-10 retirement] will allow us to procure the next generation of aircraft,” he said. “It’s time we look to the future.”
Rep. Peter Visclosky, R-Ind., the ranking member of the subcommittee, said the amendment will require the Air Force to spend at least an additional $539 million to keep the A-10 flying next year — $339 million for crews and fuel, and $200 million for spare parts and modifications.
“The author of the amendment and those who support it have not shown where that money is going to come from in the bill,” he said. “We have to begin to make some tough decisions. There is a finite amount of money in this bill.”