Senate defense hawks fired warning shots over the Air Force’s nose on Tuesday over plans to retire the A-10 Warthog, vowing to fund the fleet through the National Defense Authorization Act.
The Air Force, looking to save more than $4 billion over the next few years, has pushed recently to retire the fleet of close-air support aircraft. But without an adequate replacement, Congress is clamoring for answers. “To my brothers and sisters in the Air Force, I don’t understand what you’re doing here,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Tuesday. “You keep making claims that don’t bear out. You’ve made some claims about the capabilities of other airplanes to replace the A-10 that I find not-reliable. If you don’t watch it, you’re going to ruin what’s left of your reputation on Capitol Hill.”
Proponents of the A-10 want to protect the low-flying plane because it backs up ground forces, but the Air Force has suggested that other planes, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, can do the job. Some senators are unconvinced.
“The Air Force argument in favor of premature divestment of the A-10 has been a moving target,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. “It’s changed and we’ve heard multiple arguments. The Air Force said don’t worry about the divestment of the A-10, because the F-35 will replace the A-10. When we pointed out, under the Air Force’s proposal, that all of the A-10s would be gone before the F-35 ever reached operational capability, their argument shifted.”
Graham and Ayotte were joined Tuesday by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Georgia’s David Perdue and Johnny Isakson. Bases in both Arizona and Georgia offer A-10 training and house portions of the fleet. But Isakson, citing the A-10's ongoing role in operations against the Islamic State, or ISIL, said that serving his home state was only part of the issue.
“You may think I’m here because of Moody Air Force Base and the Warthogs there,” Isakson said. “Well, that’s part of it, but there’s another reason. The A-10 is ISIL's worst enemy and America’s Marines, infantryman and [Navy] SEAL’s best friend. We never should, as a nation, disarm in the middle of a conflict… without having a replacement that makes sense.”
McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the panel would work closely with its House counterpart — which last week reported out an appropriations bill intact with A-10 funding — to protect the A-10 fleet.
Like most other parts of the federal government, the Air Force has struggled to find ways to meet sequestration spending caps. Graham told reporters Tuesday that sequestration should be replaced if that is what will save the A-10.
"If the answer to retiring the A-10 is money, let’s find money," said Graham. "If the answer to our aircraft needs is to replace sequestration, then let’s replace sequestration."
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