Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, said Air Force leaders have been misleading Congress on the importance of the A-10 Warthog, and is calling for a closed-door meeting between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and enlisted airmen who call in aircraft for close air support.
The A-10 has been targeted for retirement by the Air Force, though veterans, lawmakers and watchdog groups say the aircraft is an unmatched weapons system for targeting enemy forces with low risk of harming nearby friendlies.
Ayotte said the active-duty enlisted airmen who serve with soldiers and Marines on the ground and who call in air support are hesitant to publicly contradict the Air Force’s plan out of concern doing so would be a career killer.
“It would be fascinating to see the leaders of our Department of Defense, our secretary of the Air Force ... get into a room [with the JTACs], without the leadership, without the fear of retribution ... and see what the opinion would be there,” Ayotte said. “I am going to ask for them to do that.”
Ayotte’s call for a closed-door meeting between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee Jones and active-duty JTACs came after a press conference she held with several other senators, representatives and members of an association representing about 1,300 former and active-duty JTACs.
Charles Keebaugh, president of the Tactical Air Control Party Association, offered to have “a dozen JTACS here ... within a week” to meet with Hagel and Jones but “with no other Air Force personnel in the room.
“I think they would get a very, very different bit of information,” he said.
Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Tim Stamey, one of the first JTACs into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, called the Air Force’s move to retire the A-10 “a travesty.”
“I didn’t come up here for politics, I didn’t come up here to try to get a job with a defense contractor or to be on a late night news show, I came up here to do what’s right,” said Stamey, who was awarded the Silver Star for combat actions in Afghanistan.
When the mission requires close air support – when it’s necessary to fire rounds or cannon fire close to your own position – “you pray that you get an A-10 in because you know that it’s safer to do that for you,” he said.
Other aircraft, whether they are F-15s, F-16s, or B-1s, move much faster than the A-10, cannot linger over the battle space as long, and JTACs and ground troops simply have greater confidence in the accuracy of the A-10 when it comes calling in fire close to your own people, he said.
Ayotte, joined by other lawmakers and former joint terminal attack controllers told reporters Thursday that Air Force leaders are misleading Congress in saying they do not need the A-10.
The Air Force initially eyed the A-10 for retirement because of budget constraints, including sequester cuts mandated by law.
More recently it has argued that maintaining the A-10 fleet would mean too few people to retrain on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The F-35 is slated to be the successor to the A-10, but it remains years away from entering service.
The whistleblower group Project on Government Oversight distributed a statement at the press conference calling the Air Force’s reasons contrary to “combat needs and budgetary logic.”
The POGO statement said the A-10 is less expensive to operate and maintain than any other U.S. Air Force combat aircraft and has survived multiple modern battlefields in Iraq and Kosovo where other, more expensive, complex and fragile assets have proven more vulnerable.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who is expected to take over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, told the conference that had an A-10 been used in a June combat mission in Afghanistan instead of a B-1B bomber there may not have been five U.S. friendly fire casualties.
Meanwhile, he said, ISIS is on the move in Iraq and Syria, 10,000 U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan and Russian troops are advancing in Ukraine.
“So we’re now, thanks to the Air Force’s misguided priorities, trying to take away one of the most effective weapons systems” the Air Force has, he said.