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Retired Air Force Lt. Col. William Smith was among several military veterans who joined lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, urging the Air Force not to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft. Smith, who flew the "Warthog" for 20 years, believes the military needs, now more than ever, the protective firepower the attack jet provides troops on the ground.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. William Smith was among several military veterans who joined lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, urging the Air Force not to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft. Smith, who flew the "Warthog" for 20 years, believes the military needs, now more than ever, the protective firepower the attack jet provides troops on the ground. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. William Smith was among several military veterans who joined lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, urging the Air Force not to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft. Smith, who flew the "Warthog" for 20 years, believes the military needs, now more than ever, the protective firepower the attack jet provides troops on the ground.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. William Smith was among several military veterans who joined lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, urging the Air Force not to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft. Smith, who flew the "Warthog" for 20 years, believes the military needs, now more than ever, the protective firepower the attack jet provides troops on the ground. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R- N.H., joined a gathering of U.S. lawmakers and former servicemembers, familiar with the crucial firepower A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft provide in military operations, vowing to fight the Air Force on its decision to retire the "Warthog," during a briefing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2014.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R- N.H., joined a gathering of U.S. lawmakers and former servicemembers, familiar with the crucial firepower A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft provide in military operations, vowing to fight the Air Force on its decision to retire the "Warthog," during a briefing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2014. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

Retired Master Sgt. Tim Stamey holds up a replica misslie, what he called a "tank buster," which is one of the weapons the A-10 Thunderbolt carries. Stamey, a Silver Star recipient who served as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller while on active duty, was among several military veterans who joined lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2014, urging the Air Force not to retire the "Warthog."

Retired Master Sgt. Tim Stamey holds up a replica misslie, what he called a "tank buster," which is one of the weapons the A-10 Thunderbolt carries. Stamey, a Silver Star recipient who served as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller while on active duty, was among several military veterans who joined lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2014, urging the Air Force not to retire the "Warthog." (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

Air Force veteran Charlie Keebaugh, president of the Tactical Air Control Party Association, was among several former servicemembers who joined lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2014, urging the Air Force not to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft. Keebaugh, who served in the Air Force as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, believes the military needs the "Warthog's" protective firepower now more than ever.

Air Force veteran Charlie Keebaugh, president of the Tactical Air Control Party Association, was among several former servicemembers who joined lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2014, urging the Air Force not to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft. Keebaugh, who served in the Air Force as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, believes the military needs the "Warthog's" protective firepower now more than ever. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., joined a gathering of U.S. lawmakers and former servicemembers, familiar with the crucial firepower A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft provide in military operations, vowing to fight the Air Force on its decision to retire the "Warthog," during a briefing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2014.

Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., joined a gathering of U.S. lawmakers and former servicemembers, familiar with the crucial firepower A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft provide in military operations, vowing to fight the Air Force on its decision to retire the "Warthog," during a briefing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2014. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined a gathering of U.S. lawmakers and former servicemembers, familiar with the crucial firepower A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft provide in military operations, vowing to fight the Air Force on its decision to retire the "Warthog," during a briefing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2014.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined a gathering of U.S. lawmakers and former servicemembers, familiar with the crucial firepower A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft provide in military operations, vowing to fight the Air Force on its decision to retire the "Warthog," during a briefing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2014. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans vowed again Thursday to preserve funding for the A-10 fighter jet, describing an Air Force proposal to mothball all or part of its Warthog fleet as an ill-advised gift to U.S. foes around the world.

“I tell you who would like to retire the A-10: the enemies of this nation,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., during a Capitol Hill press conference that included Sens. John McCain and Kelly Ayotte.

Ayotte, R-N.H., has led the effort in the Senate to rescue the A-10, the “flying tank” beloved by U.S. ground troops for its reliability in providing close air support. Pentagon and Air Force officials initially sought to retire the entire fleet of 283 jets by 2019, claiming the move would save $4.2 billion and prevent further operational delays of the F-35 joint strike fighter jet.

In recent weeks, reacting to persistent criticism from Ayotte and other lawmakers, Air Force officials quietly floated a compromise plan to ground 72 jets by shutting down three A-10 squadrons.

On Thursday, Ayotte, whose husband flew combat missions in the A-10 while deployed to Iraq, had a two-word response to the idea of trimming the fleet. “It’s wrong,” she said.

The campaign to keep the A-10 flying has received bipartisan support in the House since the summer, when lawmakers, ignoring the wishes of the Air Force, voted to preserve the fleet.

But while the House passed a defense authorization bill months ago that would maintain funding levels for the jet, the measure remains mired in the Senate.

White House officials have suggested that President Barack Obama may veto a defense spending bill that requires the Air Force to sustain the A-10 program.

In emphasizing the need for the Warthog, McCain, R-Ariz., invoked the rise of Islamic State militants and Russian troops invading Ukraine. McCain, who is expected to become head of the Armed Services Committee when Republicans take control of the Senate in January, blamed the Air Force for “misguided priorities” in attempting to ground the A-10.

The low-flying, slow-moving jet, developed in the early 1970s, has strong backing from the Tactical Air Control Party Association, which represents the military’s roughly 1,300 close air support experts.

Charlie Keebaugh, the group’s president, referred to the Warthog as a “game-changer” for U.S. combat troops. “Our guys on the ground need and deserve the A-10,” he said.

kuz.martin@stripes.com Twitter: @MartinKuz

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