A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing back against what they say is a “budget-driven” proposal by the Air Force to retire part of the service’s A-10 “Warthog” fleet.

“I tell you who would love to retire the A-10, the enemies of this nation,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said during a Capitol Hill press conference.

{mosads}He said the service was trying to mothball part of its close-air support fleet not because it would lead to a safer world, but because the military has made bad budget decisions.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the likely next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also opposes curtailing the A-10, and slammed the Air Force for “misguided priorities.”

The comments from Graham and McCain come as the Air Force seeks a deal with congressional leaders that would retire 72 of the attack jets, or three active-duty squadrons, but keep the rest of the 283-plane fleet active.

Service leaders want to transition maintenance personnel from those squadrons to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program to avoid additional delays for that program.

The Air Force spent most of the last year defending its proposal to eliminate the fleet, saying such a move would save $3.5 billion over five years and that the aircraft’s close-air support mission could be carried out by other platforms.

The proposed cut was one of the Pentagon’s most controversial requests and has been summarily rejected by lawmakers in both chambers.

Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), whose district is home to about one-third of the Warthog fleet, said the Air Force’s proposal is a “nonstarter.”

Barber, who trails Republican Martha McSally, a former Air Force pilot, by 161 votes in a race that is expected to go to a recount, warned against setting up a “false fight” between A-10 and F-35 supporters.

Barber, earlier this year, successfully offered amendments to the House defense authorization and appropriations bills to keep the A-10 airborne for at least another year.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), whose husband is a former A-10 pilot, called the Air Force’s latest proposal “wrong.”

“The Air Force, I give them this, they’re persistent,” she said.

Retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said the Air Force is “in a tough spot” due to budget cuts under sequestration but that the service “simply has not had a long-range plan for retiring the A-10 and bringing in the F-35.”

“We would be foolish to retire those airplanes at this point in time,” he added.

Chambliss predicted that lawmakers would be able to provide the Air Force some kind of budgetary relief with McCain at the helm of the Armed Services panel next year.

“This fight is far from over,” McCain said.

This story has been corrected to reflect that Ayotte’s husband is a retired A-10 pilot; the information was incorrect in an earlier version.

Tags A-10 John McCain Kelly Ayotte Ron Barber

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