Budget deal would save A-10 fleet for a year
By DAVID WICHNER | The Arizona Daily Star (Tribune News service) | Published: December 4, 2014
Lawmakers have reached a deal that will keep most of the Air Force's A-10 Thunderbolt II jets flying for another year, and keep the Navy buying new Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The agreement announced Wednesday as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the Air Force from retiring or preparing to retire any A-10 -- a mainstay of operations at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base -- in the 2015 fiscal year.
But the bill, which still must be approved by the full Senate and House, also allows the service to reduce A-10 flying hours by putting some A-10s in "backup flying status" under certain circumstances.
The Air Force has proposed retiring the entire A-10 "Warthog" fleet starting in 2015 to save some $4 billion. The move would cost D-M several fighter and support squadrons and more than 3,000 jobs.
But A-10 supporters including Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Tucson Democratic Rep. Ron Barber said the A-10 -- the nation's only dedicated close-air-support jet -- should be kept until an effective replacement is ready.
Besides banning the retirement of A-10s, the latest version of the defense authorization act authorizes $331 million for A-10 operations.
The deal also allows the secretary of defense to place up to 36 of the nearly 300 A-10s in the current fleet into a backup inventory status, subject to a Pentagon review. The Government Accountability Office also is directed to review the A-10 program.
The head of a regional military support group said the A-10 deal was not unexpected but is welcome news.
"That's good news for Tucson, for Davis-Monthan and for the A-10, that it looks like we have another year, and it's consistent with what we thought this Congress would do," said Bruce Dusenberry, president of the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance and a member of the DM50.
Ron Shoopman, president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and a retired Air Force brigadier general, said though it looks like the A-10 will be safe for another year, it will remain threatened so long as federal budget sequestration continues.
"I think we have to re-evaluate where we are after the change of Congress takes place (next year)," Shoopman said.
A defense analyst supportive of the A-10 said the defense policy deal represents only a temporary reprieve for the venerable warplane, which was built as a tank killer in the 1970s but proved invaluable in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, said the provision allowing the Air Force to put some A-10s on backup status this coming year gives the service a start on its plan to mothball the fleet.
"It's a mixed bag at best," Wheeler said. "They're allowing the Air Force to conduct their raid on the A-10 force in 2015, although at a slower pace than the Air Force originally planned."
Under the Air Force's original plan, Wheeler said, 72 A-10s would be retired in the 2015 fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.
Davis-Monthan is home base to three A-10 squadrons, comprising about 83 aircraft under the host 355th Fighter Wing. Under the Air Force's original plan, 55 of D-M's A-10s would be retired in fiscal years 2015 and 2016, and 28 would go in fiscal 2019, when a squadron of 21 F-16 fighters would be added at D-M. Many Warthogs have been deactivated from other bases in recent years.
Wheeler said the budget deal also signals that key lawmakers have bought into the Air Force's assertion that it must cut the A-10 fleet to avoid cuts to the troubled F-35 fighter program.
According to a Senate summary, the agreement allows a reduction in A-10 flying hours "under limited circumstances," linking the cost of keeping the A-10 to cuts to combat readiness and to keeping the F-35 fighter program on track.
"In particular, if the secretary of defense, after receiving an independent review by the director of the office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, determines that it would be necessary to avoid unacceptable reductions in readiness or unacceptable delays in the F-35 activation program, he may authorize the Air Force to reduce flying hours for active-duty A-10s by placing up to 36 aircraft on 'backup flying status' for the duration of the year," the Senate summary says.
Shoopman, former commander of the Air National Guard 162nd Fighter Wing at Tucson International Airport, said it's not uncommon for bases to have a few planes on backup status. Such planes remain on base but are not kept ready for flying missions.
"They're calling that a compromise, but the Air Force stratagem of pretending that the F-35 will be delayed unless the A-10 force dismantling continues, that has obviously succeeded," said Wheeler, a former congressional budget aide and sharp critic of the long-delayed and over-budget F-35 program.
An aide to McCain said the senator considers efforts to save the A-10 a success so far, and he looks forward to continuing to fight for the warplane in the new, Republican-controlled Senate next year.
"Considering that this year began with the administration planning to retire 110 A-10s, and the 2015 NDAA prohibits the retirement of any A-10s, Senator McCain considers this a positive development for the future of the A-10 and its mission," McCain aide Brian Rogers said in an email.
Shoopman, a co-founder of the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance, said the group will look to efforts by McCain and others to end federal budget sequestration, which the Pentagon has said drove its plan to scuttle the A-10. "If there's more money in the pot, I think it makes it easier for the Air Force to sustain that (A-10) fleet," he said.
The defense authorization act, a policy document which generally guides a separate defense appropriations bill, is expected to reach the floor of the House for a final vote as soon as today and the Senate floor next week.
Wheeler said congressional leaders likely have already lined up support to pass a defense appropriations bill reflecting the authorization bill.
Overall, the compromise defense bill authorizes $521.3 billion in base discretionary spending for national defense, and $63.7 billion for "overseas contingency operations," or war funding.
Among other things, the agreement also would add $82 million for the Navy to procure 96 Tomahawk cruise missiles, made by Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems.
The Pentagon had proposed a hiatus in Tomahawk production in fiscal 2015, saying the Navy's inventory of some 4,000 Tomahawks would be sufficient until a next-generation missile was developed. But McCain and other lawmakers objected, and Raytheon said it would be costly to restart production if needed.
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