WASHINGTON — Ahead of President Barack Obama’s budget rollout next week, an influential Air Force pilot-turned lawmaker called on the commander-in-chief and his defense secretary to request full funding for fully fund the legacy A-10 until plans for its a replacement take shape.

"As you finalize the Department of Defense's (DOD) budget request for fiscal year 2017, I ask that you fully fund the A-10 'Warthog' in a manner consistent with Congressional intent," Rep. March McSally, R-Ariz., a retired Air Force colonel with 325 hours flying the A-10 in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote in a Jan. 28 letter to Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter. "Because there is no replacement for these unique and crucial capabilities, either currently available or in development, we must maintain and improve the A-10 fleet until a real A-10 replacement exists."

McSally has been a key champion of the A-10, along with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. McSally has rallied opposition to the Air Force’s plan to retire the A-10 in its fiscal 2016 FY16 budget request, successfully amending last year’s defense policy bill with language prohibiting any future A-10 moves to back-up status.

McSally’s efforts seem to have paid off — the Air Force is reportedly shelving the A-10’s retirement plan indefinitely due to increased demand for the beloved attack plane, a key policy shift the Pentagon will likely lay out next week in its fiscal 2017 FY17 budget request. The spread of the Islamic State group and a resurgent Russia have prompted the service to reconsider whether retiring the A-10 is the best course of action, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldstein recently told Defense News in an exclusive interview.

In the Jan. 28 letter, McSally stressed the A-10's unique ability to fly low and slow above enemies on the ground, known as the close air support (CAS) mission. She noted the aircraft's record protecting troops in the Middle East, as well as its cost effectiveness compared to other jets in the fleet. She also emphasized the planes are permanently stationed in South Korea to deter against "North Korean belligerence."

Although the F-35 joint strike fighter is meant eventually to replace the A-10, McSally stressed that the JSF cannot match the Warthog as a single-mission CAS platform.

"There is no aircraft, either in the fleet or in development, that can replace the Warthog's unique capabilities," McSally wrote. "The specific mission set for CAS/[forward air controller-airborne]/[combat search and rescue] requires a specific aircraft, not one that is a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none."

McSally also urged the president and defense secretary to fund depot support, maintainers and upgrades to extend the lives of the A-10 fleet, such as finishing the wing replacement effort.

"The U.S. Air Force needs a next-generation A-10 before attempting to mothball any further A-10s," McSally wrote. "I look forward to working together to support the Air Force in maintaining the A-10 and beginning the process of developing a next-generation A-10 to support our national security and bring our brave troops home alive."

Although it is not clear whether plans for an A-10 replacement, often dubbed "A-X," will be included in this year's budget request, top service officials have suggested the Air Force is beginning to look into that option.

When asked about the notional aircraft at the Air Force Association Air Warfare symposium in February 2015, ACC Commander Gen. Hawk Carlisle told reporters: "We're thinking about it."

"Another weapons system program may be something we need to consider as we look at the gaps and seams in the future and what we're doing," Carlisle said. "We're looking at all of that."

Meanwhile, the Air Force hosted a joint-service summit in March to work out options for the CAS mission.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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