Lawmakers criticized the Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 defense budget today, arguing that it will strip the National Guard of two key combat aircraft – the AH-64 Apache helicopter and the venerable A-10 Warthog.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s defense spending plan proposes to retire the entire fleet of A-10 aircraft, a close air support platform designed to kill Soviet tanks during the Cold War. The A-10 is operated by the Air National Guard and has been highly effective against ground targets during the last decade of war.
The budget also includes a significant restructuring of Army Aviation. Under the budget proposal, all Army National Guard Apache helicopters will be transferred to the active force.
“By taking away the Apaches, you have basically gotten rid of the combat aviation brigades in the Guard, so instead of having combat aviation brigades you now have combat aviation support brigades,” Duckworth, a former Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter pilot who served in the Iraq War, said during a March 6 House Armed Services Committee hearing. “Does that not change the fundamental nature of the Guard divisions and how they can go into the fight?”
Duckworth’s helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in November 2004. She lost her legs and partial use of her right arm in the explosion.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told Duckworth the combat aviation role of the Guard will be “fundamentally altered,” but the service will have 12 to 15 other systems that make it combat capable.
“In some ways, it will make us more interdependent,” Dempsey said. “That is where I think we are headed by the way more interdependence as opposed to interoperability. And by the way, the Air Force is probably ahead of the Army in that regard.”
Several lawmakers questioned the decision to retire the A-10 and let more modern fighters take on the close air support role.
“Is it true that if you are doing close air support missions that the fighter platform is more expensive per hour than the A-10?” asked Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
The Air Force is trying to reduce the number of platforms in its inventory to reduce the costs of logistics support and the infrastructure associated with it, Dempsey said.
Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., went as far as to say the no other aircraft can match the “flying-artillery” capability that the A-10 has delivered over Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I am a supporter of the F-35. I am a supporter of UAVs. I believe other air frames can perform aspects of close air support, but none can take the place and perform like the A-10,” he said.
Dempsey and Hagel didn’t agree.
“The A-10 is a wonderful system, but it’s also an old system and it’s also vulnerable to the high-intensity environment in a way that it is not vulnerable today in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Dempsey said. “The Air Force has other platforms that can produce that flying artillery you describe, so does the Army; it’s called the Apache helicopter. It’s a prudent budget decision made in the face of significant cuts.”