A U.S. Senate subcommittee approved its part of the annual defense bill without deciding on the fate of the A-10 attack plane.
The Air Force in its fiscal 2015 budget request proposed retiring its fleet of the Cold War-era planes, known officially as the Thunderbolt II and unofficially as the Warthog. The service estimates it will save about $4.2 billion over five years by divesting the almost 300 A-10s that remain in the inventory.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sens. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, oppose the idea because, they say, other aircraft as the F-35 fighter jet can't provide ground troops with the same kind of close air support.
Levin disagrees with counterparts in the House who proposed raiding the Pentagon's war budget to keep the gunships from being sent to the bone yard. Thus, it's likely the A-10 will stay in the fleet, at least for now, once lawmakers settle on an appropriate offset in the budget.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee's Airland Subcommittee, on Tuesday led a vote in approving the panel's amended version of the Fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act without specifying plans for the Warthog.
The closest he came was when he said the bill would "place temporary restrictions on the disposition of Air Force aircraft." A spokesman for the subcommittee referred questions about the aircraft to a spokeswoman for the senator, who didn't immediately respond to an e-mail and telephone call requesting comment.
The full Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to begin amending, or marking up, the defense legislation in a closed session on Wednesday.
The panel's senior Republican, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, said of the process, "There's still a ways to go to produce a defense budget that is based on our national security interests and the threats to those interests. We face no shortages of challenges with this budget."
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh have repeatedly pressed the lawmakers to let the service retire the aircraft to better cope with automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
The service considered other options to scale back fleets of other aircraft, including the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets and the B-1 bomber, Welsh said in a speech last month at the National Press Club. But ultimately, it determined that scrapping the almost 300 A-10s would be the least harmful to military operations, he said.
"We came very clearly with the conclusion that of all those horrible options, the least operationally impactful was to divest the A-10," said Welsh, who previously piloted the aircraft. "That how we got there. It's not emotional. It's logical. It's analytical. It makes imminent sense from a military perspective."