Lawmakers on key defense panels have reached a deal on the annual defense authorization bill that would block the Pentagon from retiring the A-10 fleet.
Sen. Carl Levin, the retiring chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the retiring chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday announced a compromise version of the Fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets policy and spending goals for the year beginning Oct. 1.
While the bill would prevent the Air Force from spending any funding in the year to retire the gunship, it would allow the service to move as many 36 of the planes to back-up status. The shift would free up more maintainers to work on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
Both panels backed a provision "that would prohibit obligation or expenditure of fiscal year 2015 funds to make significant changes to manning levels with respect to any A–10 aircraft squadrons, or to retire, prepare to retire, or place in storage any A–10 aircraft," according to a report accompanying the legislation.
In response to automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, the Air Force proposed scrapping its fleet of almost 300 of the Cold War-era planes, known officially as the Thunderbolt II and unofficially as the Warthog, to save an estimated $4.1 billion over five years. Its snub-nose packs a 30mm cannon designed to destroy tanks and other ground targets.
Key senators such as Sen. John McCain, who next year will succeed Levin as chairman of the Senate panel, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire whose husband was a Warthog pilot, lined up to protect funding for the snub-nosed plane, which packs a 30mm cannon designed to destroy tanks and other ground targets.
Before transferring some of the A-10s to back-up flying or inventory status, the defense secretary must certify to the defense committees that he or she has reviewed "alternative ways to provide manpower to maintain the Air Force fighter fleet and field Joint Strike Fighter aircraft," and determined the move was needed to avoid "degrading the readiness of the Air Force fighter fleet" or "delaying the planned fielding of F-35 aircraft," the report states.
Months after Pentagon officials argued that the A-10 is no longer needed for close air support -- a mission they said can be performed by such aircraft as the stealthy, single-engine F-35 fighter -- the military deployed a squadron-sized element of the slow, low-flying Warthogs from Afghanistan to the Middle East to fight militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. "They're going over there because there's a need … to be postured for a combat rescue mission," Jennifer Cassidy, an Air Force spokeswoman, told the Stars & Stripes newspaper.
Congress is expected to vote this month on the defense bill before members leave for the holiday recess.