Lawmakers struggle with proposed A-10 cuts

House lawmakers say they are not happy with the Air Force’s decision to cut the A-10 fleet in its 2015 budget request.

But they don’t know if they can do anything about it.

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, told The Hill Wednesday "there’s no way the A-10 should be retired,” but he expressed concerns over whether the committee could find the savings elsewhere in the Pentagon’s constrained 2015 budget.

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“If you look at risks, capabilities and operational needs, the A-10 should not be being retired,” Turner said. “This is another one of those examples of the effects of sequestration crippling our military and having real capability and operational effects.”

Turner’s subcommittee held a hearing on combat aircraft Wednesday, where Air Force officials testified that the decision to retire the fleet of 283 A-10 Warthogs was difficult but necessary. Officials have said the A-10 was targeted because it’s a single-mission aircraft, and the retirements will generate $4.2 billion in savings.

The Air Force has argued that the Warthog’s close air support missions can be carried out by other fighters, like the F-16 and eventually the F-35.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee on Wednesday that the Air Force looked at other options — like cutting F-15s, F-16s, the B-1 bomber fleet or delaying F-35 procurement — in order to achieve the same savings.

“The results very clearly show that cutting the A-10 fleet was the lowest-risk option from an operational perspective — a bunch of bad options,” Welsh said. “And while no one is happy, especially me, about recommending divestiture of this great old friend, from a military perspective, it's the right decision."

Lawmakers are skeptical about the rationale for retiring the entire A-10 fleet, however, and there is a concerted effort in Congress to reverse the decision.

House Armed Services Committee leaders have not said what they plan to do in their annual Defense authorization bill.

Turner expressed frustration at the predicament lawmakers were being put in.

“In the hearing that we just held, we were just told that everyone operationally in the Air Force believes getting rid of the A-10 is a bad idea,” Turner said. “We know that there’s a gap in the F-35's available capabilities [to replace the A-10], and the retirement of the A-10s that is very troubling. The issue becomes the budget, and I’m very concerned as to where we’d get the money."

The Pentagon's $496 billion 2015 base budget proposal is within the spending caps Congress agreed to in December, which is equal to its 2014 budget but roughly $45 billion less than what was projected last year.  

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told The Hill Wednesday that he had not decided yet how the A-10 cuts would shake out in the Defense bill that his committee will mark up in May.

“I haven’t made any decisions,” McKeon said; he has expressed some skepticism about the cuts.

“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,” he said at an Air Force hearing this month. “And I understand the dilemma we're facing.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, has said he understands why the Air Force has decided to cut the A-10 and other aircraft given the military’s budget constraints.

“The reasons the Air Force has chosen to take these difficult steps are sound ones in my view,” Smith said earlier this month.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Turner’s Democratic counterpart on the Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, has also not made up her mind about the A-10, according to an aide.

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