Protecting the A-10: Lawmakers oppose removing A-10s from the US Air Force's fleet, but they will have to find a budget offset to keep the attack planes flying. (Master Sgt. Becky Vanshur/US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — Flanked by pilots and proponents of the A-10 attack aircraft, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., revealed she will push amendments to defense legislation to reverse plans to retire the entire fleet.
The Air Force is proposing to remove A-10s from its combat fleet in 2019 to fit under spending caps included in a 2011 deficit-reduction law and extended through this decade by a recent bipartisan budget resolution. Lawmakers from both parties oppose such a move, but they will have to find an offset – a cut elsewhere in the budget – to keep the A-10s flying.
The Air Force has said retiring the attack planes will save $3.5 billion over a handful of years. It appears Ayotte and other A-10 supporters on Capitol Hill would have to find what’s called a “pay for” of that size.
“I am working this issue with my colleagues,” Ayotte told reporters, saying she has talked with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., about A-10 amendments she intends to offer next month when the panel marks up its version of 2015 Pentagon authorization legislation.
“Absolutely, we’re looking at the offsets,” she said, adding a final “pay for” has not yet been settled on.
She and other lawmakers, as well as pro-A-10 military community officials, took turns at the podium lauding the venerable aircraft and warning its retirement will mean more dead American troops.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., spoke and noted his state hosts neither the aircraft nor any support functions for it. But Graham said he has “been in theater enough to know what the troops say about the A-10.”
“The Taliban hates the A-10,” Graham said. “That’s good enough for me.”
Ayotte, Graham and others repeatedly said senior Army leaders, Army special operations troops, and rank-and-file soldiers strongly oppose the proposed fleet retirement.
On a poster board beside the lawmakers and A-10 advocates was a quote from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno from recent comments he made before the Armed Services panel: “Obviously, we prefer the A-10. [Soldiers] can see it, they can hear it, they have confidence in it.”
“The Army has called the A-10 a game-changer,” Ayotte said, telling the story of a firefight in Afghanistan where A-10s “flew 75 feet above” the battle.
“That day, the performance of the A-10 saved 60 American lives,” she said sternly.
Most of the lawmakers who attended a late-morning briefing on Capitol Hill represent districts and states where the A-10 is based, such as Arizona, Indiana, Georgia and Missouri. No attack planes are based in New Hampshire, but Ayotte’s husband was an A-10 pilot.
Rep. Ron Barber, R-Ariz., called the plane “the most important aircraft today” for the US military.
But it’s unclear whether enough House and Senate members will agree, especially with fewer US troops in Afghanistan – and even fewer involved in direct combat as Afghan forces increasingly take the lead on the ground.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., contended that the military cannot afford to retire the A-10s two years before its close-air-support replacement, the F-35A, is due to enter the fleet.
To that end, at a SASC hearing earlier in the day, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh pushed back on Ayotte, arguing the service has to give up something to meet the budget caps. The A-10 is an older aircraft, and therefore, more expensive to maintain and operate, he said.
Welsh also had stern words for those in the military community alleging the service is essentially getting out of the close-air-support business when the final A-10 stands down.
The narrative that his service is “walking away from close-air support … frustrates me,” Welsh said. “Close-air support is a mission – it’s not an aircraft.”
He said existing A-10 pilots will “transition to other aircraft, and they will ensure we do [CAS] better than anyone else.”
During the hearing, Ayotte said Odierno had warned the committee that, if the A-10s are retired, the Army and Air Force will be forced to write completely new tactics, techniques and procedures for close-air support. Welsh dismissed that idea.
“We’ve been using them for 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “We don’t need new TTPs.”■