Lawmakers skeptical of ditching 'Warthog'

Air Force leaders faced a skeptical audience in the House Armed Services Committee on Friday as they defended their decision to retire the entire A-10 fleet in the 2015 budget proposal.

“I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a fair amount of unhappiness,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in her opening statement at her first hearing before the committee as secretary.

A group of lawmakers has vowed to block the cuts to the A-10 “Warthog” that the Air Force is proposing as part of its 2015 budget, which is shaping up to be one of the biggest political fights during this year’s Defense authorization bill process.

Air Force leaders have said they are reluctantly cutting the 280-plane A-10 fleet, arguing it became expendable amid the budget constraints because it is a single-mission plane performing close-air support.

“The retirement of the A-10 fleet, that is I know an extremely controversial area,” James said Friday. “We are absolutely committed to the close-air support mission. … We are going to cover it, and we can cover it with other aircraft.”

It’s not clear whether Congress will go along.

Two years ago, Congress blocked the Air Force’s attempts at retiring the Global Hawk Block 30 drones, and this year, the Air Force reversed course and opted instead to fund the Global Hawk and kill the U-2 manned surveillance plane.

At Friday’s hearing, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeonHoward (Buck) Philip McKeonOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: House passes 5B defense bill House passes 5B defense bill McKeon gets emotional in farewell speech MORE (R-Calif.) did not say he would seek to block the Air Force’s proposed A-10 cuts, but he expressed skepticism about the move.

“I think the ones that we should probably be asking about the A-10s are the ground forces that have their lives saved because of the A-10 and the pilots that have flown them,” McKeon said. “And I understand the dilemma we're facing.”

McKeon noted that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh was a former A-10 pilot, a fact he frequently cites in arguing he is making the cuts reluctantly.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told The Hill on Thursday he is still evaluating the move but has “lots of questions” about it, suggesting he is also skeptical.

Numerous lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing who made it clear where they stood.

Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) questioned what plane would be able to operate as well as the A-10 in its close-air support missions. Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) questioned why other planes would be chosen over the A-10 with a higher operational cost.

“Multi-role fighters cannot perform like the A-10,” Barber said.

James responded that other aircraft can — and already have — conducted close-air support operations.

“Although it’s a great aircraft and does do close-air support superbly, there are other aircraft that can do as well,” she said.

“In Afghanistan, 80 percent has been by aircraft other than A-10,” James added, citing the F-16 as an alternative.

Welsh said the Air Force analyzed other potential options to save the $3.7 billion achieved from retiring the A-10 fleet, including cutting a higher number of F-16s or F-15Es, deferring procurement of F-35s or making further readiness reductions.

“The results showed cutting the A-10 was the lowest-risk option from an operational perspective,” Welsh said. “While no one, especially me, is happy about the divestiture of this great old friend, it’s the right decision from a military perspective.”

Some lawmakers told James and Welsh they understood the budget limitations were pushing the A-10 cuts, and the top Democrat on the committee endorsed the move.

“The reasons the Air Force has chosen to take these difficult steps are sound ones in my view,” committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said of retiring the A-10s, U-2s and C-130 cargo planes.