(April 10) Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., convened a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers of Congress today and backed them with pilots and maintainers in her drive to save the A-10 Thunderbolt from retirement by the Air Force.
“Our most solemn obligation when we send troops into harm’s way,” she said at a Capitol Hill press conference, “is that they have the best support possible.”
That, she said, is the A-10, the nation’s premier close-air-support aircraft.
The Air Force wants to retire the entire A-10 fleet of 326 aircraft, including those in the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve. It claims it would save nearly $4 billion by doing so (see the NGAUS blog post on A-10s here).
But Ayotte, whose husband flew the aircraft in the Iraq war, pointed out how much is saved by retaining the aircraft affectionately called the Warthog. She told of an incident last July in Afghanistan when A-10s flew 75 feet above insurgents who had pinned down a contingent of American troops.
“That day, the performance of the A-10 saved 60 American lives,” she said.
She highlighted words from Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, who said this week, “Obviously, we prefer the A-10.”
Ayotte, who is on the Senate Armed Services Committee, wants the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act to prevent the Air Force from retiring any A-10s until there is an operational and proven replacement, most likely the F-35 Lightning. But it will not be available until 2021 and the Air Force wants to rid itself of the A-10 by 2019.
“We’re walking right into a gap,” she said.
NGAUS supports maintaining the A-10 until a replacement is operational.
Ayotte surrounded herself with powerful allies. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., noted that the F-35 “costs at least 10 times as much as the A-10 and the cost is still going.” Relying on that airplane to replace the A-10, he said, is “absolutely ridiculous.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., opened his remarks saying, “The Taliban hate the A-10. That’s good enough for me.”
Others who spoke in support of the A-10 included Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho; Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo.; and Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.
But two speakers had a credibility lawmakers don’t have. Retired Lt. Col. William E. Smith Jr., who flew A-10s for the Air Force and the Maryland Air National Guard, and retired Chief Master Sgt. Russell B. Carpenter, who served 30 years in the Air Force, including duty as a joint tactical air controller, made the case for the aircraft.
Smith said, “A-10 pilots eat, drink and sleep close-air support. . . . This is not simply a fight to save an airplane. It’s a fight to save a capability.”