The A-10, which the Air Force wants to eliminate from its fleet to save money, has vocal supporters in the House and Senate who say they are looking for other defense costs to cut in order to save the aircraft. (Master Sgt. Becky Vanshur/Air Force)
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate are planning legislation to block the Air Force’s plans to retire the A-10.
The announcement comes during a week of contentious dialogue between the Air Force and Congress, with lawmakers alleging that the service is breaking the law by cutting back A-10 flying hours and by inflating its estimate of savings possible by retiring the A-10. Air Force officials say they are frustrated with lawmakers’ offbase claims that the service does not care about the close air support mission, or about the lives of service members on the ground whom the A-10 protects.
“The comment I’ve heard that somehow the Air Force is walking away from close air support I must admit frustrates me,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “We have battlefield airmen in our Air Force who live, train, fight and die shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers and Marines on the battlefield. ... CAS is not an afterthought for us. It never has been. It’s not an aircraft, it’s our mission and we’ll continue to do it better than anyone on Earth.”
But that is not enough for a vocal group of lawmakers, led by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who say that cutting the A-10 would put troops’ lives at risk and that the Air Force has not sufficiently thought out or made the case for the Warthog’s retirement.
“Our most solemn obligation when we send our troops into harm’s way is to ensure that they have the best support possible,” Ayotte said Thursday. “Ask any solder which aircraft provides the best close air support, and they’ll tell you that the proven aircraft is the A-10.”
Ayotte, along with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C.; and Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said they will craft and support amendments to the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act to block the cuts. Reps. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., and Ron Barber, D-Ariz., said they will support companion legislation in the House.
“We’re going to do away with the finest close air support platform in history, and we are then going to have some kind of nebulous idea of a replacement with an airplane that costs at least 10 times as much, with the F-35? That’s ridiculous,” McCain said. “That’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Ayotte said the committee is looking for cost offsets in the Defense Department budget to protect the A-10.
The Air Force, in deciding to cut the A-10 in order to save about $3.7 billion, analyzed other options, including cutting 350 F-16s, cutting the entire B-1B Lancer fleet and delaying the purchase of 40 F-35s. It determined the best decision was to get rid of the Warthog.
“From an operational perspective, clearly the least operational risk came from divesting the A-10 fleet,” Welsh said. “... I am concerned that we’re talking about perhaps some of the wrong things, because this isn’t about whether or not the A-10 is a great aircraft or whether it saves lives on the battlefield. It is a great aircraft, and it does save lives.”
However, other aircraft do as well, Welsh said. F-16s have flown more close air support sorties than the A-10 over the past eight to nine years. The F-15E, B-1, AC-130 and B-52 also provide close air support.
“We have pilots in the F-16 who have hit the ground trying to strike inside caves and died,” Welsh said. “Our F-16s have been doing close air support with full tactics, techniques and procedures with the Army since the late 1970s. The F-15Es have been doing it for the last 10 years.”
Ayotte said that while she does not want to downplay the importance of other aircraft, the A-10 is the best choice for close air support. The other fleets are important, but the Air Force’s other options to make up the costs are “dramatic scenarios,” she said.
“Whenever anyone wants to defend their position, they always give you the most dramatic scenario of, ‘Well, this is your only choice,’ ’’ Ayotte said. “We are the Senate Armed Services Committee, we will look across the entire defense budget. There has been a history, there are certain programs that are certainly acquisition failures. There are many places that we will also look, beyond what the Air Force has presented us.”
On April 3, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told lawmakers that while the Army did not make a recommendation to retire the A-10, he understands the budget decisions that have to be made. He said the Army would work with the Air Force to develop tactics, techniques and procedures that would be necessary to get proper close air support from F-16s.
Ayotte said that those tactics, techniques and procedures are already in place with the A-10, meaning the Army and Air Force would have to do more work for the other aircraft to try to make up ground.
“One of the concerns that I have is that the chief of staff of the Army is basically saying we’ll have to come up with new solutions if we move away from the A-10,” Ayotte said. “When we talk about close air support missions, not all close air support missions are the same. Some are conducted at higher levels ... and some are conducted at much lower (altitude), close to the troops. So this was the mission that Gen. Odierno expressed direct concern to this committee about not yet having the TTPs in place.”
On April 4, Ayotte and Sen. Saxby Chambless, R-Ga., sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James saying that plans to stop A-10 flights this year are illegal. The letter states that the the service has not allotted any flight hours for the A-10 weapons school, has canceled A-10 modernization and has ended the normal sustainment process for fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1. However, the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act blocks the Air Force from retiring or preparing to retire the A-10 in calendar year 2014. This means that the Air Force’s plans for the beginning of fiscal 2015, while still in calendar 2014, are against the NDAA, the lawmakers wrote.
“If so, we request that you reverse these actions to ensure the Air Force is in full compliance with the law and Congress’ intent,” the letter states.
The Air Force’s plans would retire the 283 remaining A-10s from 2015 to 2019, providing replacement aircraft for Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units, mostly F-16s that become available as the F-35 ramps up. The F-35 is a priority because it is more “survivable” than the A-10in contested areas, Welsh said. The Air Force’s mission is more than close air support, and future fleets need to be able to operate in challenging areas, where the A-10 would not survive, he said.
The Air Force’s role is to save “big” numbers of lives on a battlefield in ways other than just close air support, Welsh said. Other roles include eliminating an enemy’s command and control, logistical infrastructure and resupply, and “ providing air superiority so your ground and maritime forces are free to maneuever and are free from air attack,,” Welsh said.
“We’re good at this,” he said.