Senate appropriators skeptical of A-10 cuts

Senate Appropriations Defense Chairman Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Immigration drama grips Washington Senate Gang of Four to meet next week on immigration Live coverage: High drama as hardline immigration bill fails, compromise vote delayed MORE (D-Ill.) and other appropriators expressed skepticism Wednesday of the Air Force’s decision to cut the entire A-10 fleet.

The A-10 cuts are proving to be one of the most controversial aspects of the Air Force’s 2015 budget, as both defense appropriators and authorizers have questioned the decision to ax the A-10 “Warthog” fleet.

“The notion of retiring A-10 fleet, the Warthogs, at this point, I want to ask if you’ve taken into consideration the versatility and capability of this aircraft that might be sacrificed,” Durbin asked Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh at a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate panel advances three spending bills Trump says he will sign executive order to end family separations Trump backs narrow bill halting family separations: official MORE (R-S.C.) pressed Welsh on whether the cuts could be reversed if the committee could give the Air Force an additional $3.5 billion, the amount that will be saved by retiring the 283 A-10 planes.

Graham also questioned whether the F-35 can be seen as a viable replacement when it’s still years away from being included in the Air Force’s operational fleet.

“It’s hard to use a squad that doesn’t exist,” Graham said.

Air Force officials have said they aren’t happy with the decision to cut the A-10 fleet, but they determined it was the best of many bad options in order to deal with budget cuts.

They’ve said that the A-10 is being retired because it is a single-mission plane that only performs close-air support (CAS) missions.

Welsh has said that the Air Force looked at alternatives — including retiring F-15Es, F-16s, delaying F-35s and others — but concluded that the A-10 cuts made the most sense.

“This is about much more than a particular airplane,” Welsh said Wednesday. “The A-10 is a great airplane, but many other airplanes fly CAS very, very well.”

A group of lawmakers is making a concerted effort to reverse the Air Force’s decision, in a similar fashion to the way Congress blocked the Air Force two years ago when it tried to cut the Global Hawk Block 30 drone.

So far, the Defense committee chairmen have expressed some doubts about the wisdom of the A-10 cuts, but they have not said whether they will reverse the Air Force’s decision in the defense authorization and appropriations bills.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who chairs the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land subcommittee, said last week it’s clear that cutting the A-10 is a bad decision, but it is not clear where the money would come from to save it.

“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,” Turner said. “The issue becomes the budget, and I’m very concerned as to where we’d get the money."

The House Armed Services Committee will be the first to mark-up a defense bill this year, giving the first indication of how Congress will respond to the A-10 cuts.