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McSally hails reports Air Force backing off A-10 retirement

The Pentagon "is finally coming to its senses," said U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, welcoming reports Wednesday that the military is backing off plans to retire the Air Force's A-10 fleet, including planes based at Tucson's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

The plans, leaked from the Pentagon, indicate a change of policy from the Obama administration's last two budget requests, which called for retiring the entire A-10 program, McSally said. Congressional pressure, including support from McSally and her predecessor, Rep. Ron Barber, kept the planes on active duty.

"It appears the administration is finally coming to its senses and recognizing the importance of A-10s to our troops' lives and national security," the former A-10 pilot said in a news release.

The Pentagon has not yet submitted a 2017 budget request, but insiders are pointing to ongoing deployments of the jets in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria as factoring into the decision to maintain the program, according to reports.

From Defense One:

Air Force officials say they still need to retire the A-10 to make room for newer warplanes, but that the calculus for its sunsetting has been thrown off by commanders’ demands for the Warthog now.

Putting the A-10’s retirement plans on hold is a key policy shift that will be laid out next month when the Pentagon submits its 2017 budget request to Congress, said Pentagon officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the Obama Administration’s spending plan before its official release.

"The administration has been persistent in its efforts to send our best close air support asset to the boneyard without a replacement," said the Republican McSally. "That's unacceptable, and I'll continue to lead the fight to ensure we keep these planes flying until we know without a doubt we can replace their capabilities."

U.S. Sen. John McCain said he the Pentagon "will follow through on its plan to keep the A-10 flying so that it can continue to protect American troops" when the budget is submitted.

The A-10, also known as the “Warthog,” was introduced in the early 1970s. The heavily armored, fixed-wing aircraft specializes in close-air ground support and has the ability to take heavy fire while attacking tanks, armored vehicles and other targets.

Last year, the Air Force ordered that nine of the aircraft stationed at D-M be taken out of service and placed in back-up status, in a cost-cutting measure.

The Pentagon has pushed replacing the A-10s role in combat with F-16s until the new F-35 aircraft are deployed. The new planes have been plagued by ballooning costs and criticism that they are not as capable in close air-support roles as the A-10. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in early 2014 that the Pentagon had plans to retire the A-10 and replace it in the short-term with F-16s until the F-35s are flying.

Late in 2014, a provision prohibiting the Air Force from retiring the A-10 and approving $331 million to be spent to keep it flying was pushed by U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, who was a staunch supporter of the program. It did, however, allow the Air Force to place up to 36 of the nearly 300 A-10s in the fleet into a “back-up inventory status,” subject to a Pentagon review.

The Air Force has 326 of the planes, operating out of five bases across the United States, including a large presence at Davis-Monthan, where 83 of the jets are based.

Retiring the A-10 could hurt the Tucson-area economy, which reaped a $1.1 billion economic impact from operations at Davis-Monthan in fiscal 2012, according a report by base officials that was released in 2013.

Last March, McSally, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, clashed with Gen. Mark Welsh, the chief of staff of the Air Force, and Air Force Secretary Deborah James during a hearing on the budget pressures pushing the end of the A-10 program.

Pentagon officials have said that the four-decade old design of the A-10 limits its capabilities, especially in an age when high-tech battlefield communication has become common. A-10s do not have the technology to communicate information as quickly and easily as newer jets, they have said. The Air Force would replace the Warthogs with the F-35 Lightning II, and the MQ-9 Reaper, an upgraded version of the Predator drone.

In 2014, McCain said the Air Force is “trying to take away one of the most effective weapons systems” by retiring the A-10 fleet.

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“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?” asked McCain. “That’s ridiculous. That’s absolutely ridiculous.”

"With growing global chaos and turmoil on the rise, we simply cannot afford to prematurely retire the best close air support weapon in our arsenal without fielding a proper replacement," McCain said Wednesday. "I'm particularly proud of the important contributions our A-10 pilots from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson continue to make to our national security."

In April 2015, then-Congressman Ron Barber said that the A-10′s one-function design lets it fly at only a few hundred feet, assisting ground troops better than any jet today. He called it the “most important aircraft today.”

“The men and women on the ground deserve our full support. The A-10 provides it,” the Democrat said. “Ugly though it may be, it is one fine plane.”

"The F-35 is a long way off ... it is not an aircraft designed to do what the A-10 does best ... fly slow and low and protect our troops," he said earlier that year.The Pentagon move "does not seem to be very well thought out," Barber said. "We spent over $1 billion upgrading the A-10," giving the planes "another 15-20 years of flying time."

McSally on Wednesday put the Obama administration squarely in her sights.

"Since before I took office and after, I've consistently highlighted the A-10's irreplaceable capabilities and worked to expose the administration's flawed argument for wanting to retire it prematurely," she said. "With A-10s deployed in the Middle East to fight ISIS, in Europe to deter Russian aggression, and along the Korean Peninsula, Administration officials can no longer deny how invaluable these planes are to our arsenal and military capabilities."

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USAF

An A-10 from the 357th Fighter Squadron at D-M over the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range west of Tucson in April 2015.