Senators grill general on A-10 retirement

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.

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The Thunderbolt II, better known as the “Warthog,” was introduced in 1977 and has since served as the Air Force’s primary close air support craft.

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.