General: Preserving A-10 not a priority

Even modest increases to the Air Force budget wouldn't save the A-10 Thunderbolt II from retirement, the force's second-in-command said on Thursday.

Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Larry Spencer told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness that if the Air Force received a small boost to its 2015 budget, it would rather divert the funds to other priorities.

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"If money wasn't an issue overall, of course we would [keep the A-10]," Spencer said. "But if you're asking me that if you gave us money back, is the A-10 our first priority, the answer is no. As an example, we're having to reduce our AWACS fleet by seven airplanes, just to take the money to upgrade the remaining airplanes. That's a higher priority than the A-10."

Spencer was responding to a series of questions from Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.). Barber has been sharply critical of efforts to retire the A-10, and on Thursday accused the Air Force of deliberately trying to evade Congressional demands that the A-10 be maintained. Barber said the Air Force had canceled modernizations of the A-10 and did not allot needed weapons training hours, despite Congressional demands in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that no preparatory action be undertaken to phase out the A-10.

Spencer denied the claims and said he did not know where they originated.

The Air Force has pushed to eliminate its 283 A-10s as a measure that would save $3.7 billion over the next five years. Such a push has been made more than once before, but each time has been blocked by a defiant Congress. Congressmen object that the Air Force doesn't yet have a replacement craft capable of fulfilling the A-10's close air support role equally well.

Spencer defended the Air Force's reasoning, pointing out that even if the A-10 had unique abilities, it was hardly exceptional in that regard.

"Close air support is a game changer, [but] we have a lot of game changers...air superiority is a game changer, so no one can drop bombs on our folks. Command and control is a game changer."

Spencer also said that retiring the A-10 did not mean the U.S. was abandoning close air support as a tactic.

"We're not walking away from the mission at all," Spencer said. "We have multiple aircraft that can perform that mission."

He said, however, that if Congress specifically allocated money for the A-10's preservation, the Air Force would keep it in service.