By Blake Neff - 04/08/14 06:05 PM EDT
Senators on the Armed Services Committee grilled the Army’s chief of staff Tuesday on the wisdom of retiring the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
Gen. Raymond Odierno was asked repeatedly by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to testify to the A-10’s value and the ability for other aircraft to replace it.
The Defense Department says that retiring the entire 283-plane fleet will allow the Air Force to save $3.5 billion. The Air Force maintains that the A-10 can be replaced by F-16s and, once it is introduced, the F-35.
That explanation has proven deeply controversial in Congress, though, and on Tuesday Ayotte argued that the A-10 fills a niche role with its unique ability to fly extremely close to the ground while surviving heavy damage.
“It’s a titanium tank,” she said, while extracting an admission from Odierno that no plane could currently match the A-10’s abilities in low-level close air support.
McCain similarly probed Odierno for statements regarding the A-10’s value, prompting him with questions about whether the A-10 could be replaced by helicopter support (it couldn’t, Odierno said) and asking whether it was “the best close-air support craft ever.”
Since the A-10 is operated by the Air Force and not the Army, leaving it outside Odierno’s jurisdiction, the questions directed at him were likely intended to bolster claims A-10 supporters will make about the craft’s irreplaceable value to ground troops.
Odierno tried to remain diplomatic with his responses, saying that the A-10 had performed its role very well while also trying to avoid implying that its replacement would hinder U.S. forces.
“I know the F-35 is being built to replace it; I’m not familiar enough with the unique capabilities [to say if it is better or worse],” he told Ayotte.
Ayotte countered, however, by arguing that even if the F-35 perfectly replaced the A-10 the argument for retirement was weak.
“Even if we assume that the F-35 can replace the A-10…all of the A-10’s will be retired by F[iscal] Y[ear] 2019, and even best case scenario, the F-35 is operational in 2021,” Ayotte said. “This is a gap we can’t afford, because these are our men and women on the ground.”
Ayotte, whose husband is a former A-10 pilot, has been one of the plane’s chief defenders in Congress and has adamantly opposed its retirement.