A Republican senator has blocked the confirmation of the woman nominated by President Obama to be the next Air Force secretary until the service offers up more information over its plans to cut the A-10 fleet.
The A-10 Thunderbolt -- nicknamed the Warthog -- is a low and slow fixed wing aircraft probably best known for the GAU-8 Avenger 30mm cannon on its nose and the titanium wrapped cockpit that protects its pilots. Army units have come to appreciate the close air support the Warthog supplies.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., whose husband used to fly the A-10, questioned the capability gap that might exist should the Air Force retire the Warthog as it waits for the F-35 to come on line.
"Senator Ayotte wants to make sure the Air Force does not prematurely cut an aircraft that saved 60 lives this summer in Afghanistan," a senior aide told Military.com. "She wants to ensure there isn't a capability gap that could result in lost American lives."
Obama nominated Deborah Lee James to take over for active Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning who took the service lead following the retirement of former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.
Air Force leaders have said they plan to retire the A-10 because the aircraft because of budget restraints and the aircraft's limited performance in contested airspace. The Air Force plans to replace the A-10's mission with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the F-16.
Members of Congress have pushed back against the Air Force on any decision to cut the A-10 fleet saying plenty of questions remain on the F-35, which has faced delays and cost overruns throughout its development.
Ayotte said at James' Sept. 19 confirmation hearing that she has seen plans from Air Combat Command to phase out the A-10 by 2015. She questioned James over how this decision could have been made without Congressional oversight.
James said she had not heard that the Air Force had decided to retire the A-10 fleet by 2015 and described any plans to phase out the A-10 as pre-decisional.
Air Force leaders to include Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh seemed resigned last week at the Air Force Association's annual conference that the A-10 would soon be retired. Welsh himself pointed out he has 1,000 hours flying the A-10, but he described the A-10 as a "single mission airplane."
Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke III, director of the Air National Guard, was asked at the conference if the A-10 could be saved. He said the Air Force's designation of the A-10 as a single mission aircraft would make it hard to save as the service looks to cut costs to make up for reductions in planned spending associated with sequestration.
"We're looking for every option for where you can cut money, every modernization/recapitalization program," Welsh said. "If we have multiple-mission airplanes that can do the mission -- maybe not as well, but reasonably well -- you would look at eliminating the single-mission platform."
Congress grilled Air Force leaders in 2011 when the service proposed retiring five A-10 squadrons as part of their plan to make up for planned cuts in sequestration. Lawmakers questioned why the service wanted to protect other programs when the A-10 had performed so well in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ayotte in the Sept. 19 hearing cited how the A-10 had just recently saved the lives of about 60 soldiers by providing close air support in a firefight.
Air Force Maj. Toni Whaley, a spokesman for the Air Force secretary, said a staff is working to provide Ayotte and her staff the information they have requested on the A-10.
Whaley said the service continues to look forward to the confirmation of James.