McCain chides Air Force leaders over retirement of A-10 fleet

Greg Nash

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday dressed down Air Force leadership for their plan to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II fleet.

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During a Senate Armed Services hearing, McCain noted that Congress had yet to receive a “comprehensive, detailed plan” on what aircraft might replace the A-10.

The Pentagon claims that retiring the entire 283-plane fleet of the aircraft, commonly called the “Warthog,” would allow the Air Force to save around $3.5 billion and that its close air support mission can be carried out by other platforms. 

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said close air support could be executed by F-16 and F-15 fighters, as well as the B-1 bomber and unmanned aircraft, but that response brought a quick rebuke from McCain.

“That’s a remarkable statement. That doesn’t comport with any experience I’ve ever had, nor anyone I know has ever had,” he said. “You’re throwing in the B-1 bomber as a close air support weapon to replace the A-10. This is the reason why there is … such incredible skepticism here in the Congress.”

"You will not pursue the elimination of the finest close air support weapon system in the world with answers like that,” he added.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh leapt to the service’s defense, saying that the F-16 has carried out 40,000 close air support missions in Afghanistan since 2006, more than the A-10.

McCain asked that the four-star “not to insult his intelligence,” going on to say that he had not met a single Army commander who has responsibility for troops on the ground "that believes that a B-1 or an F-16 replaces the capability of the A-10."

He demanded that Welsh and James come up with “something that is credible to those of us who have been engaged in this business for a long, long time.”

In a surprise, neither Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) nor Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who have been equally as critical about the aircraft retirement plan, asked any questions on the subject.

Earlier this month McCain and Ayotte took Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno to task over the proposal to put the A-10 out to pasture.

--This report was updated at 4:13 p.m.