WASHINGTON – Congress waded back into the debate over the Air Force's A-10 retirement plans today, unveiling House legislation that would restrict funds for the service to move ahead with sunsetting the attack plane.

In his markup of the defense policy bill, House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry prohibits the Air Force for using FY17 funds to retire, prepare to retire, or place in storage any A-10 aircraft, which primarily conduct close-air support. The legislation would also mandate the Air Force maintain a minimum of of 171 A-10s designated as primary mission aircraft inventory.

Thornberry's language also forbids the Air Force from making any significant reductions to A-10 manning levels until the service and the Pentagon's weapons tester complete comparative tests pitting the legacy Warthog against the fifth-generation F-35, and brief the Congress on the results.

The mandated testing, first reported last summer, includes evaluation of both aircraft' 'ability to conduct close-air support, combat search and rescue, and forward air controller airborne missions, according to the legislation.

Drawing down the manpower associated with operating the A-10s is also contingent on Congress' receipt of a report from the Air Force and the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation on the F-35's initial operational test and evaluation, currently planned to start in 2017.

The Air Force and Congress have been at odds for years over the service's wish to sunset the legacy Warthog, beloved by soldiers for the roar of its Gatling gun signalling safety. The Air Force's latest retirement schedule, unveiled in its latest budget request for FY17, begins divesting the A-10s in FY18. The last A-10 would be sent to the boneyard in FY22.

But Congress is clearly still not satisfied, with several key lawmakers recently criticizing the Air Force's plan to replace the A-10 with the multi-role F-35 joint strike fighter.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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