Air Force stands by A-10 retirement

The Secretary of the Air Force on Wednesday stood by her department’s proposal to retire the A-10 fleet, arguing the United States has plenty of replacements available should the nation land in an armed conflict.

"It's possible we could get into something else where we would need higher levels of close air support in the next year or two or three," Deborah James told Pentagon reporters.

"And if that is the case, we've got it. We've got the F-16. We've got the F-15E," she said, referring to other aircraft that could perform the mission. "So the close air support mission is a sacred mission. And we got it."

Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteThe Hill's Morning Report: Koch Network re-evaluating midterm strategy amid frustrations with GOP Audit finds US Defense Department wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars US sends A-10 squadron to Afghanistan for first time in three years MORE (R-N.H.), the Senate's top A-10 supporter, issued a statement after the briefing Wednesday that noted the Iraqi government was currently using a similar aircraft to battle terrorist forces in Iraq.

"It is worth noting that the SU-25 'Frogfoot' — the inferior Russian version of the A-10 — was recently sent to Iraq to battle ISIL forces there," she said.

"Evidently, the Iraqis believe such a [close air support]-focused aircraft can operate effectively against the ISIL forces that are operating in Syria and Iraq," said Ayotte, whose husband was an A-10 pilot.

The Air Force recommended earlier this year that Congress retire the A-10 fleet in 2015 in order to save $4 billion dollars. So far, the House, and both the Senate Armed Services and Senate Appropriations Committees have rejected that plan.

Ayotte argued that in close air support missions where a close air support aircraft must fly slow and low above troops in danger, "there is no aircraft currently in America's arsenal that is more survivable than the A-10."

"I appreciate the difficult budget environment the Air Force confronts, but it's important that the debate going forward be based on facts rather than arguments that do not hold water," she said.

Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force's chief of staff and a former A-10 pilot, said the decision was "not about the A-10."

"It's about balancing an Air Force to provide the spectrum of missions we provide to a combatant commander," he said. "I now have a list of 15 things they'd prefer us to spend the money on."

Welsh added that $20 billion in cuts to the Air Force under sequestration was to blame.

"So if anyone else has got a solution that balances Air Force capabilities across the mission areas we are responsible to the combatant commanders for, we'd love to hear it," he said.

— This story was updated at 6:15 p.m. to clarify the remarks from Sen. Ayotte.