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Air Force secretary says A-10s should fly through 2030

While some military brass have pushed to end the A-10 program in favor of the F-35, the attack jets — some of which are based in Tucson — should be flying through at least 2030, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Tuesday.

While the Pentagon has invested millions in re-winging the aircraft, plans have called for the A-10s to be phased out. While Wilson didn't commit to keep the entire fleet of Warthogs flying for more than a decade, she told U.S. Rep. Martha McSally that the service expects the planes to "continue flying at least until 2030."

In 2016, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the Obama administration had dialed back Pentagon plans to draw down the A-10 for at least several years, saying that A-10s would be active through at least 2022.

The planes, including those based in Tucson, had been on a path to an earlier retirement in favor of the F-35, with some already grounded. The Air Force then had 326 of the planes, operating out of five bases across the United States, including a large presence at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where 83 of the jets were based.

Tuesday, McSally said during a congressional hearing that, "Two years ago, we sat in a similar hearing with previous Air Force leadership arguing strongly about the need to keep the A-10 Warthog. We won. Since then, the A-10 has been pivotal 'schwacking' ISIS, deployed to the European defense, been ready south of the DMZ, and have now been sent back to Afghanistan."

"There've been some reports that divestment will still commence in a few years, and other public statements saying it will fly well into the 2030s and beyond. So can you state for the record how long you plan to have the A-10 in the inventory?," the Southern Arizona congresswoman, herself a former A-10 pilot and critic of the F-35 program, asked Wilson.

The Trump administration official didn't specify how many squadrons of planes would be kept active, but told McSally that the Air Force expects the A-10 to "continue flying at least until 2030," according to a press release.

The Republican representative's office noted in a press release that Wilson's statement was the "first time that any Air Force Secretary has gone on the record publicly to support keeping the A-10 fleet operational into the 2030s."

McSally also expressed her strong disapproval of the Army's plans to pull Apache attack helicopters from their base in Marana.

Wilson did not detail whether Davis-Monthan would continue to be an active A-10 base, nor did McSally inquire during the House Armed Services Committee hearing.

The Air Force secretary, speaking at a review of the Pentagon's budget request, said that the budget fiscal year 2018 should pay for re-winging four A-10s, with the FY 2019 proposal having $80 million to fund putting new wings on 8-12 of the planes.

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. But military brass have said the planes are about 30 years old, on average, and do not have the technology to communicate information as quickly and easily as newer jets.

In 2015, 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 had pushed replacing the A-10's 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. Then-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.

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.

In early 2015, McSally, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, clashed with Gen. Mark Welsh, the chief of staff of the Air Force, and Obama administration 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.

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In 2014, U.S. Sen. John McCain — a frequent critic of the F-35 program — said the Air Force is "trying to take away one of the most effective weapons systems' by retiring the A-10 fleet.

“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."

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 put the Obama adminstration's plans to draw down A-10 squadrons in her sights in 2016, saying, "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. 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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Bill Vaughn/TucsonSentinel.com

An A-10 coming in for a landing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in 2014.