A top U.S. Air Force general warned officers that praising the A-10 attack plane to lawmakers amounts to "treason," according to a news report.
Maj. Gen. James Post, vice commander of Air Combat Command, was quoted as saying, "If anyone accuses me of saying this, I will deny it ... anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason," in a report published Thursday on The Arizona Daily Independent.
In a response to the news outlet, a spokesman at the command, based at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, described the comments to attendees of a recent Tactics Review Board at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada as "hyperbole."
In an e-mail to Military.com, spokeswoman Maj. Genieve David said, "The intent of his comments were to communicate the Air Force's position and decision on recommended actions and strategic choices faced for the current constrained fiscal environment."
She added, "Our role as individual military members is not to engage in public debate or advocacy for policy."
The Air Force is seeking to retire its fleet of almost 300 of the Cold War-era gunships, known as the Thunderbolt II and nicknamed the Warthog, even as pilots fly the aircraft -- whose snub-nose packs a 30mm cannon -- in the Middle East to attack targets affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Congress rejected the service's requests to begin the process of divesting the low, slow-flying aircraft this year and included about $337 million in the budget to keep it in the inventory. While they did allow the Air Force to move as many as 36 of the planes to back-up status, they blocked the service from sending any of them to the bone yard.
Air Force officials say they'll renew the effort as part of the fiscal 2016 budget request, which is expected to be released in a couple of weeks.
In a briefing Thursday at the Pentagon, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the service's use of A-10 in U.S.-led air strikes against ISIS isn't inconsistent with its strategy to eventually retire the plane.
"There are a number of strike platforms that are engaged" in the operation against ISIS, including the F-15 and F-16, she said. The A-10 is "a great contributor, but so are the other aircraft," she said.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, himself a former Warthog pilot, said the proposed retirement of the gunship is "an emotional issue inside the Air Force." Pilots "love their airplane -- they should love their airplane," he said.
"For the Air Force ... it's a sequestration-driven decision," Welsh said, referring to automatic, across-the-board budget cuts Congress and the White House agreed to in 2011 as part of deficit-reduction legislation. The cuts are slated to return with greater effect in fiscal 2016 unless lawmakers agree on an alternative plan.
"We don't have enough money to fund all the things that we currently have in our force structure," Welsh said.
Even if the service's request to retire the A-10 was approved as part of the fiscal 2015 budget, he added, the aircraft would have remained in service until 2019.
Sen. John McCain, the longtime Republican from Arizona and new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was part of a group of lawmakers who worked to preserve funding for the A-10.
"“We are going to do away with the finest close-air-support weapon in history?” he questioned during a press conference last year on Capitol Hill.
The senator, a longtime critic of the F-35 fighter jet – the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons acquisition program designed to replace the A-10 and other aircraft – questioned why the Air Force would begin to get rid of the Warthog before it has started operational flights of the stealthy, radar-evading jet. The F-35A is scheduled to reach initial operating capability, or IOC, in 2016 but only by employing a less lethal version of software.
“And we are then going to have some kind of nebulous idea of a replacement with an airplane that costs at least 10 times as much — and the cost is still growing — with the F-35?” McCain said at the news conference. “That’s ridiculous.”