The nation’s fleet of A-10 close-air-support aircraft — including a major contingent at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base — would get a one-year lease on life under a plan approved by a key congressional committee late Wednesday.
During a marathon markup session on the National Defense Authorization Act, the House Armed Services Committee adopted a bipartisan amendment proposed by Rep. Ron Barber, a Tucson Democrat, that would continue to fund the A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” through fiscal 2015.
The legislation also calls for a study to determine the cost and effectiveness of other aircraft performing close-air-support missions.
The committee voted 41-20 in favor of the amendment before unanimously approving the panel’s full bill. The full House will consider the bill during the week of May 19, when the Senate Armed Services Committee will also consider its version.
Barber’s amendment, co-sponsored by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., and Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., would fund the A-10 in fiscal 2015 by shifting $635 million in funding authorization to the budget for Overseas Contingency Operations, which pays for operations in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts.
Barber said using the overseas funds is appropriate because the A-10 is still deployed in Afghanistan.
The amendment also requires the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study evaluating aircraft used to conduct close-air-support missions, including their capabilities, costs and whether they are able to conduct close air support as effectively as the A-10.
Barber criticized a proposal by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., that would allow the A-10s to be retired only if they are mothballed in so-called Type-1000 storage, which would allow them to be pulled from storage and readied for combat relatively quickly.
While the A-10s would be preserved by shrink-wrapping, pilot training would cease and crews would be reassigned, Barber said.
“We won’t be shrink-wrapping the pilots,” Barber told the committee.
“There’s no other fixed-wing aircraft that can do the job the A-10 can do,” he added. “We cannot create a gap in this capability because it would put our troops at risk.”
Barber cited comments of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, when the four-star general said an F-16 fighter does not provide the same kind of close air support to troops on the battlefield as the A-10.
Other supporters pointed out that A-10s are currently deployed in Afghanistan and will likely be needed until U.S. and allied forces withdraw.
“There are a lot of tough decisions to be made today,” Scott said. “The difference is that this platform is being used in combat right now.”
McKeon and other opponents of Barber’s measure said, though the A-10 is invaluable, the money to preserve it shouldn’t be taken from Overseas Contingency Operations funds, which haven’t yet been determined for 2015.
“We do not have the ability to take a half a billion out of the OCO — it’s not there,” McKeon said.
The Air Force has proposed retiring its fleet of about 300 A-10s for budget reasons by 2019, arguing that while the Warthog is very effective, it’s too expensive for its single mission of aiding and defending troops on the ground. Air Force officials say other aircraft, including the sophisticated new F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter, can pick up that job.
A-10 supporters say the F-35 is far from ready to take on a close-air-support mission, and that retiring the Warthog before an effective replacement is fielded risks U.S. military members’ lives.
D-M supporters and military experts say the proposed retirement of the A-10 fleet would cost the local base more than 2,000 jobs and make the base more vulnerable to future closure. D-M is home to three A-10 squadrons, including two training units and 83 planes, the biggest contingent in the nation. The next-biggest contingents are at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
Mike Grassinger, president of the DM50, said his group and the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance will continue to lobby to save the A-10 as the budget process unfolds.
“We’re interested in primarily making sure Davis-Monthan remains viable and part of the local economy, and we’ll support any mission at all that the Air Force wants to put there in order to keep it open,” Grassinger said. “The A-10 is an important component in the sense that it is the primary flying mission at D-M, and if it were to be eliminated it makes Davis-Monthan a little more vulnerable to any future BRAC (base realignment and closure) efforts.”
The House Armed Services Committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act — which sets funding levels and policies to guide various appropriations bills — is just one step in a budget process that will likely take months.
Opposition to the A-10’s retirement has gathered steam in the Senate, where Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain joined several colleagues in criticizing McKeon’s storage measure.
In a joint statement this week, McCain and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., called McKeon’s proposal a false compromise.
Grassinger said McCain’s involvement is encouraging.