The U.S. Air Force's top civilian defended the strategy to retire the A-10 aircraft, as House lawmakers gear up for a key vote that may determine the fate of the Cold War-era gunship.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the plan to divest the fleet of the attack planes, known officially as the Thunderbolt II and unofficially as the Warthog, would generate far more savings than scrapping individual aircraft in a piecemeal approach.
As part of its budget request for fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1, the service proposed retiring both the A-10 attack plane and U-2 spy plane in response to automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Sending the gunship alone to the bone yard would save an estimated $4.2 billion over five years, officials have said.
"It's a hard sell however you do it," James said of the strategy during a breakfast with defense reporters on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. "We do think that's the most sensible approach going forward."
The secretary was responding to a reporter who asked whether the service would revisit its budget strategy to retire entire fleets -- whether it's the A-10, or eventually the B-1 bomber or KC-10 refueling tanker -- given repeated opposition to the proposals in Congress.
"The other alternative is take a few aircraft here, a few aircraft there, and so forth. We have some of that, as well, in the fy15 budget," James said, referring to some older F-15C fighter jets slated for divestiture. "That hasn't gone over very well either. So I think we just have to continue -- I don't have a magic bullet solution to this, other than we have to continue to tell the story."
She acknowledged that doing so hasn't gone over "tremendously well" on Capitol Hill.
Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees voted to restore funding to keep the planes flying for at least another year. But the House Appropriations Committee bucked their colleagues, and instead voted against transferring $339 million from the Pentagon's operations and maintenance account to sustain the aircraft.
The House of Representatives plans to vote today or tomorrow on an amendment to its version of the annual defense spending bill that would block the Defense Department from spending any money to retire the A-10. However, the measure sponsored by Reps. Candice Miller, a Republican from Michigan, and Ron Barber, a Democrat from Arizona, doesn't include funding for the aircraft.
That's precisely what James has said she doesn't want -- a mandate to keep the planes in the fleet without any money for them.
"What we've said to opponents of the proposal is, 'If we're not allowed to retire the A-10 ... please, please, please, you must give us the money to add back. And, by the way, when you find the money, please don't take it out of readiness. We really, really need to get our readiness levels up."