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In budget docs, Air Force again pushes to retire A-10

An A-10 Thunderbolt II sits on the ramp at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, on April 20, 2014.

GARY J. RIHN/COURTESY OF THE U.S. AIR FORCE

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 2, 2015

WASHINGTON — The Air Force again unveiled plans Monday to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt as part of its proposed budget for the coming year.

The Warthog, as it’s also known, faces the ax as a way to save money under all the service’s budget scenarios, but the Air Force warned that the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone and the procurement of the F-35 Lightning II aircraft, among other key initiatives, are being threatened by a potential cap on defense spending.

RELATED: More Stars and Stripes coverage of the fiscal year 2016 budget proposal

However, the Air Force’s $167.3 billion budget plan largely sidesteps impending cuts and instead proposes moderate hikes in spending and manpower, which the service says are necessary to recover from sequestration reductions in fiscal 2013 that pinched operations and reduced readiness to its lowest levels since the early 1980s.

“The Air Force is smaller, we’re busier than ever, and our aircraft are as old as they have ever been,” said Maj. Gen. James Martin, Air Force deputy assistant secretary for budget.

The service needs a bump in funding to recover and keep up its mission after that first round of sequestration two years ago, according to a budget overview released Monday.

The A-10 has been part of an Air Force good-faith effort to cut costs after high military spending during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the sequester caps created by Congress to reduce federal debt.

But the retirement has caused a bitter fight between the Air Force, Congress and servicemembers who praise the aircraft for its close air support on the battlefield. Lawmakers eventually passed a 2015 budget in December that allowed reduced maintenance and flying hours for the Warthogs but barred a full retirement.

Martin, who provided a briefing at the Pentagon, said retiring about 300 of the aircraft is now estimated to save the service $4.2 billion by 2019. But the proposal is still likely to face tough opposition from Warthog supporters in Congress, such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Martin said it will be up to the Air Force to sell the retirement on Capitol Hill. “It is going over there and explaining what we can do with those savings,” he said.

The service had once wanted to retire its unmanned Global Hawk force in favor of the older U-2 spy plane for high-altitude reconnaissance. The proposed 2016 budget calls for keeping both aircraft, including modifications to the drone’s Block 30 variant to keep it flying past 2023.

But a sequestration budget cap would force it to divest in the Global Hawk Block 40 variant and forgo the upgrades to the Block 30, the service said.

Funding for the F-35 advanced fighter jet would jump from $4.4 billion this year to more than $6 billion next year, according to the proposed budget. That means the service would be able to increase purchases from 28 in 2015 to 44 aircraft in 2016.

The cap would hold F-35 purchases to 30, an increase of two aircraft from the number bought this year.

End strength is also targeted for a bump after it dipped in the last two years.

The Air Force wants to increase active-duty, reserve and Guard airmen from 483,000 to 492,000 over the coming year.

Hundreds of new billets would be created for the nuclear enterprise and cyber security, and 2,900 billets would be restored in the U-2, F-15C fighter jet, and MQ-9 Reaper drone programs. The E-8 and E-3 ranks would see the most increases, the service said.

Martin said it has become clear the service is undermanned and no more forced separations are being considered.

“Airmen have told us they do not have enough people to do the mission,” he said. “We have listened.”

Under the proposed budget, airmen would not have to worry about being forced out but they would have smaller pay raises than in past years. It calls for 1.3 percent increases, which falls below the 1.9 percent that has been the norm and the 2.3 percent average increases in civilian paychecks.

Again, defense caps would dash those plans and result in a net reduction of 1,000 billets from 2015.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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