Sen. Kelly Ayotte (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services member Kelly Ayotte is keeping up her effort to block the White House's pick for US Air Force secretary after the service provided insufficient data on its plans to retire its A-10 attack aircraft fleet.
An aide to the New Hampshire Republican told Defense News on Tuesday that the senator felt the Air Force failed to sufficiently answer her questions about the A-10 plans. Therefore, Ayotte has decided to keep what's known as a hold on Deborah Lee James’ nomination, the aide said.
Ayotte has in recent days submitted follow-up questions to service officials.
The aide said Ayotte is worried the Air Force is set to retire the planes, known for decades for their lethal fire support of US and allied ground troops, before a suitable replacement is ready.
Under Senate rules, any senator can block a presidential nominee for any reason.
Another senator, Martin Heinrich, a freshman Democrat from New Mexico, also had been holding up the James nomination. He lifted his hold last week.
The service is mulling the A-10 retirement plan as part of ongoing efforts to trim its budget.
Ayotte, whose husband Joe was an A-10 pilot, raised the issue of cutting the Thunderbolt fleet during a Sept. 19 hearing on James’ nomination in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“What makes me concerned is that there already has been a decision made on the A-10,” she said. “The A-10 has a very important function in terms of close-air support and in fact, most recently in July, 60 soldiers were saved in Afghanistan because of the important close-air support provided by the A-10.”
At that time, James insisted that no final decision had been made on the A-10.
While that official line has been repeated by Air Force officials, sources have told Defense News that the service is considering cutting the entire A-10 fleet.
Proponents of cutting the A-10 argue its close-air support mission can be done with other platforms and point out its mission is less relevant as the Air Force turns towards the Pacific region, but the platform is a political minefield. It remains popular with the Reserve and National Guard branches of the Air Force and has supporters in the Army who view its mission as critical for the defense of ground troops.
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.