The Senator leading the fight to keep the A-10 Thunderbolt in the active Air Force fleet said she wants a permanent solution that ends what has become an annual fight with the Air Force over the fate of the close-air-support aircraft.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, compared the fight to a classic Bill Murray film about a man who finds himself reliving a single day over and over.
"It's 'Groundhog Day', and it doesn't help our men and women in uniform to have to go through this exercise every year when there isn't a replacement [for the A-10]. And there isn't going to be a replacement next year," Ayotte said.
Ayotte spoke at a Tuesday morning press conference at the Senate flanked by fellow lawmakers and former Air Force Joint Tactical Air Controllers -- airmen assigned to infantry units to call in close air support fire.
As they did last year, lawmakers have staved off the Air Force's move to retire or otherwise sideline the A-10 by adding money to the defense budget. But Ayotte and other Senators said they want a permanent solution.
"If the answer to retiring the A-10 is money, then let's find money to make sure it keeps flying," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said. "If the answer to our aircraft needs is to replace sequestration, then let's replace sequestration."
The Tactical Air Control Party Association has been vocal in advocating for continued A-10 service.
"There is nothing -- nothing -- as good as the A-10 at doing CAS [close air support]. Nothing even comes close," retired Master Sgt. Tim Stamey told reporters.
The Air Force in 2014 announced plans to retire the A-10 -- nicknamed the "Warthog" -- but immediately met resistance from lawmakers and advocates that include former A-10 pilots, ground controllers and Army and Marine veterans who depended on the aircraft in combat.
Recently, Air Force leaders told lawmakers the service would have to mothball F-16s and further delay the F-35 program if the service could not retire the A-10s on the schedule it had requested. Air Force officials have since backed off those statements.
Ayotte last year led the fight to keep the A-10 in the fleet through 2015, and since then the aircraft has deployed to Syria and Iraq, where it has been used in attacks on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions. Some A-10s also have deployed to Europe as a show of U.S. strength.
Armed with the 30mm cannon and a titanium bathtub to protect pilots, the Warthog has long been considered the best close-air-support aircraft ever built, though the Air Force argues the A-10 mission can be accomplished using the F-16, the B-1 bomber and the F-35.
"The A-10 cannot be replaced by any other asset," TACP President Charlie Keebaugh said. "It disgusts me that we're even having this conversation to begin with. I don't know what's coming next -- they going to take our radios, our boots, our body armor? It makes no sense."
Ayotte recalled that Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno told Congress in April 2014 that the Army considers the A-10 the best close air support aircraft around. Ayotte said the Air Force's argument for retiring the A-10 "has been a moving target."
When the Air Force was not able to show that the Warthog's mission could be done as well by any other aircraft now in the fleet, it said it would need the A-10's maintainers in order to support the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Without those maintainers, F-35 program manager Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan said the program would fall further behind schedule.
The changing arguments prompted Graham to chide the Air Force leadership during the press conference.
"If you don't watch it, you're going to ruin what's left of your reputation on Capitol Hill," Graham said.
The Air Force denies it has changed its arguments.
Spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Karns said the Air Force has been "consistent in saying there is a range of aircraft able to conduct the close air support mission” and that its inability to divest itself of the A-10s will mean a shortage of maintainers needed for the F-35 as it enters the fleet.
Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, an Air Force veteran who flew the A-10 in combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, last month included amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act to ensure that the Warthog could not be put out of service by "backdoor" means, such as putting it in backup status.
McSally, who is traveling this week with several other representatives to visit U.S. troops in the Middle East, could not be reached for comment.
Ayotte on Tuesday said putting the planes in backup status would have the same effect as retiring them, something that Congress will not allow.
The Senator said she and other lawmakers are working out language of their own to secure the A-10, but she wants to put the debate behind them by finding a permanent solution.
"We intend to ensure that the A-10 is preserved, so that our men and women on the ground have the very best close air capability, because they deserve it," she said.
Remarking that the administration views the A-10 as a funding debate, with the Air Force having to make decisions on the basis of its budget, Ayotte said that if it is a matter of money, then that can be found, including by cuts to the bureaucracy at the Defense Department.
"We can't continue growing the bureaucracy and cutting the tip of the spear," she said.
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