Senators criticized the Air Force on Tuesday for trying to retire its fleet of A-10s, saying that the service’s decision would put American troops in danger in the fight against the Islamic State.
The Air Force has tried for years to retire the A-10s, also known as Warthogs, saying that it has other assets like F-15s and F-16s that can be used for close air support. But lawmakers have prohibited them from mothballing the planes, despite tight budgets, saying that the A-10s are the most cost-effective way to ensure American troops are safe in combat.
“If we send them less than the best, if we send them an aircraft with less capability or designed for another mission … we put Americans at risk and that is unacceptable,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican.
Charlie Keebaugh, an expert on close air support and president of the Tactical Air Control Party Association, said when troops are stuck in a firefight, an A-10 pilot is who they want saving them.
“The A-10, it can not be replaced by any other asset. It disgusts me that we’re even having this conversation,” he told reporters at a press conference on Capitol Hill. “I’m not sure what’s coming next, if they’re going to take our radios or our body armor or our boots.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and a Air Force reservist, said the Air Force is hurting its standing with lawmakers by repeatedly making claims about replacements for the A-10 that don’t hold water.
“If you don’t watch it, you’re going to ruin what’s left of your reputation on Capitol Hill,” he said.
Mr. Graham added that if cutting the aircraft is a decision made purely on budgets, the service needs to say that so lawmakers can find more money.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it is “bewildering” that the Air Force has repeatedly tried to get rid of the single most important piece of equipment to protect troops.
The annual fight over mothballing the A-10 is about saving American lives, not a piece of equipment, said Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican and a combat veteran.
“What we are doing today is fighting for the very lives of our men and women who are serving on the ground in these dangerous areas,” she said. “I’ve heard from colleagues that they would not be here today with us if it were not for the A-10.”
Senators stressed that the A-10s the Air Force is trying to get rid of are currently flying missions and saving lives over Syria and Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State.
The fight over whether or not to keep the A-10s typically plays out in debate over the annual defense authorization bill.
The House Armed Services Committee passed its version of the fiscal 2016 bill, which touches every part of the military, last week with an amendment from Rep. Martha McSally, Arizona Republican, that would prohibit the military from retiring any A-10s for the next year.
“With the passage of this bill, we clear a major hurdle to keeping these planes flying and protecting our troops in combat,” Ms. McSally, a former A-10 pilot, said. “The amendments I offered will prevent any additional backdoor divestment attempts, such as more transfers to backup status next year.”
The defense bill provides $682.7 million to fully fund the A-10 program and explicitly prohibits the retirement or move to back-up status of any A-10 aircraft.
The committee’s bill still needs to pass the full House and be reconciled with Senate negotiators.
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