The Air Force started efforts Tuesday to convince Congress to approve its proposal to retire the A-10 Warthog and U-2 spy plane fleets even though lawmakers have taken a firm stance in blocking similar recent attempts.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Tuesday the Defense Department's plan to retire the two fleets as part of the Pentagon's proposed fiscal year 2015 defense budget. The budget will officially be submitted on March 4 and the debate moves to Congress over the A-10 and U-2's future.
Air Force generals have made mostly the same case they have in the past to retire these historic fleets: The A-10 and U-2 have served the country well, but the Air Force can't afford to continue flying planes that fulfill "niche" missions. It's time to transition to multi-mission platforms such as the F-35 and the Global Hawk.
Congress has heard this message before and subsequently blocked any attempts to shutdown these fleets. A collection of Pentagon leaders to include the Air Force under secretary and the Air Force's top uniformed weapons buyer couldn't say why they expected this year's budget battle to have a different result.
Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, military deputy for Air Force acquisition, said Tuesday he's frustrated by a system that allows politicians to block military brass recommendations.
"Personally I'd like to think that the airpower experts like [Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh], [Air Combat Command Commander Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage] and [Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. William Shelton] and all those folks out there that have done this for a very long time should have the latitude to decide what the right system is going forward," Davis said.
He acknowledged that there are those on Capitol Hill the Air Force will have to convince in upcoming budget hearings. However, he warned the specialized political interests of certain Congressmen and Senators wishes to appease their home districts will weaken the Air Force as a whole.
He didn't name specific lawmakers, but he said it's a mistake to try to meet short term goals and try to "keep a lot of people very happy for a very localized period of time, and maybe in a very localized part of the country, and maybe within a very localized company."
The specific portion of the country that Davis is referencing is the states where A-10s and U-2s fly, and the companies he's talking about are those that have contracts to build and maintain those aircraft. The A-10 also has a champion in Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., whose husband is an A-10 pilot, and sponsored legislation in last year's defense budget preventing the Air Force from closing A-10 squadrons.
The Air Force first started flying the U-2 in 1955 and the A-10 in 1975. Both aircraft are two of the most prestigious in the service's fleet. The U-2 Dragon Lady flew countless missions over the Soviet Union, East Germany and Cuba collecting intelligence throughout the Cold War. The A-10 is one of the most respected aircraft by ground troops who see it as the service's pre-eminent ground attack aircraft.
Congress has argued against retiring the A-10 and U-2 because the aircraft the Air Force plans to replace the two planes with are not ready.
Air Force leaders expect to replace the A-10 with the Joint Strike Fighter -- an aircraft that has been plagued with delays and cost overruns throughout its development program. Lawmakers have told Air Force leaders that it's hard for them to remain confident the F-35 will be delivered on the timeline the service has laid out.
The plan is to replace the U-2 with the RQ-4 Global Hawk. Davis admitted during his Tuesday speech that the Air Force still has to make progress in upgrading the Global Hawk and ensure the long range drone can operate in bad weather.
Despite the problems, Davis said the Air Force is confident the F-35 and the Global Hawk will be ready to fulfill the missions of the A-10 and U-2 by the time they are out of service.
-- Michael Hoffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org