Eight leading senators appealed to the Senate Appropriations Committee to save the Air Force’s controversial A-10 aircraft fleet from the Pentagon budget’s chopping block as lawmakers inch closer to a final draft of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015. The proposal to retire the fleet of 353 A-10s, Air Force officials have said repeatedly in both interviews and recent testimony on Capitol Hill, will save the service more than $3.7 billion of the $12 billion mandated by sequestration.
“There is no doubt that the Air Force confronts difficult budget decisions,” the letter, published Friday and signed by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., as well as six other Republicans and one Democrat, reads. “However, cutting the Air Force’s most combat-effective and cost-efficient CAS [or, close air support] aircraft is not the best way to address those challenges.”
The question of how to manage the mandatory budget cuts imposed by sequestration has plagued the Air Force for months. Some of the most persistent criticism has come from Ayotte, whose husband, Joe Daley, is a former A-10 pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq.
“The Pentagon’s decision to recommend the early retirement of the A-10 before a viable replacement achieves full operational capability is a serious mistake based on poor analyses and bad assumptions,” Ayotte said in a statement in February.
The A-10, the senators said, “is the Air Force’s most cost-efficient CAS aircraft. According to the Air Force, the operational cost per flying hour for the A-10—which takes into account sustainment costs—is significantly below the F-15E, F-16, B-1, AC-130, or the B-52.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has explained the decision in multiple interviews, calling it “clearly the lowest-risk option.”
“It’s not emotional. It’s logical, it’s analytical,” Welsh said. “It makes eminent sense from a military perspective – if you have to make these kinds of cuts. Nobody likes it. Not me, nobody.”
(Read More: Future Threats Will Require Much More Than the A-10)
In their letter, the senators agree that the A-10 will eventually have to be replaced. “However, we should not divest the A-10 until a capable replacement reaches full operational capability. The Air Force believes the F-35A will assume the current roles of the F-16 and the A-10 as it replaces them in the fleet. Yet, the F-35A is not scheduled to achieve full operational capability before 2021—leaving at least a two-year gap between the final divestment of the A-10 and its planned replacement achieving full operational capability,” the letter said.
On Monday, the House Armed Services Committee attempted to forge something of a compromise on the question of the A-10 when it released its NDAA markup for FY 2015. That markup stops short of the Air Force’s recommendation to fully divest the A-10 fleet. Instead, House members are leaving a door open to lawmakers like Ayotte by opting to put the entire fleet in what’s called type-1000 storage—rendering them ready to be called upon if needed.