Air Force memo warns lawmakers against keeping A-10 airborne

Air Force memo warns lawmakers against keeping A-10 airborne
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The Air Force is warning Congress not to block plans to retire the A-10 attack jet in 2016, claiming that keeping the fleet airborne would pull resources from new aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and send F-16 fighter jets to the "boneyard."

The Air Force will need to stand down F-16 units at Hill Air Force Base in Utah in order to accommodate an F-35 squadron arriving in October and also keep the A-10, according to an Air Force memo to lawmakers obtained by The Hill. 

In addition, the limited number of maintenance personnel means keeping A-10 fleets would also likely delay F-35s operations for at least a year, said the memo, which the Air Force labeled a "talking paper." 

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The memo is undated, but was distributed to House Armed Services Committee aides last week, as the members began drafting the 2016 defense policy bill, which authorizes Pentagon activities and funding levels on weapons systems.

The panel began debate on the bill Wednesday morning, and is scheduled to finish its markup Thursday morning. The current draft provides full funding for the A-10, despite the Pentagon's calls to retire the fleet.

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a former combat pilot, is expected to propose an amendment to formally block the plane's retirement.

She and other supporters of the plane in Congress argue there is no equivalent replacement for the A-10, which was designed to support ground troops in battle, and is currently deployed in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

A committee aide later said the Air Force had rescinded the memo, and that it had never been "cleared." 

However, Air Force officials have argued in the past that if the A-10 is not retired, there would be a shortage of maintainers for the F-35. 

In general, they say they have little choice but to retire the aircraft under budget constraints and need to spend funds on more advanced aircraft, such as the F-35, that can fulfill multiple missions including close air support. 

They have argued that if the close air support plane is not retired, it will not be able to shift maintenance personnel to the F-35. 

The memo said the F-35s are tentatively scheduled to begin arriving at Hill Air Force Base, Utah in October, and the Air Force was originally planning to keep two F-16 squadrons there along with the first operational F-35 squadron. 

"Since the USAF does not have the required number of military (deployable) maintainers available, it will be necessary to seek the retirement or transfer of Hill AFB F-16s by the end of FY15 in order to make room for F-35s," the memo said.  

"The USAF will be forced to stand down one F-16 squadron for each F-35 squadron at Hill AFB," it added. 

The F-16 squadrons are scheduled to be transferred to Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. and Fort Wayne Air National Guard Base, Ind., in fiscal years 2018 and 2019, where A-10 units at both bases would be retired. 

Keeping the A-10s would force the F-16s be placed in storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., until they are transferred to another base or divested permanently, the memo said.

The Republican bill is expected to pass Thursday morning, but will have to be voted on by the full House and then conferenced with the Senate's version of the defense policy bill.

-- Updated 10:36 p.m.