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Pentagon: A-10s will fly through 2022
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Pentagon: A-10s will fly through 2022

  • An A-10 flown by the Arkansas Air National Guard fires a Maverick missile during a training mission near Tucson in 2012.
    Jim Haseltine/Wikimedia Commons An A-10 flown by the Arkansas Air National Guard fires a Maverick missile during a training mission near Tucson in 2012.
  • An A-10 from the 357th Fighter Squadron at D-M over the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range west of Tucson in April 2015.
    USAFAn A-10 from the 357th Fighter Squadron at D-M over the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range west of Tucson in April 2015.

The Air Force's A-10 attack jets will not be retired until at least 2022, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday, previewing the Obama administration's military budget. 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 budget defers the A-10's final retirement until 2022, replacing it with F-35 Joint Strike Fighters on a squadron-by-squadron basis, so we'll always have enough aircraft for today's conflicts," Carter said in a speech Tuesday morning.

The Air Force has 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 are based.

Two weeks ago, TucsonSentinel.com reported that the Pentagon had leaked word that it was backing off retiring the A-10 fleet. The plan is a change of policy from the Obama administration's last two budget requests, which called for grounding the entire A-10 program. Congressional pressure, including support from McSally and her predecessor, Rep. Ron Barber, kept the planes on active duty.

The Air Force "is finally coming to its senses," said U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, welcoming those reports.

Tuesday, she again hailed the shift in policy.

The announcement by Carter "confirms why we fought so hard and continue to fight to keep this plane flying," she said Tuesday.

"The A-10 is critical to our national security. It continues to demonstrate its value on the battlefield against ISIS, in Europe to deter Russian aggression, and on the border with North Korea," McSally said.

U.S. Sen. John McCain also welcomed the decision to keep the A-10 on active duty, calling it "a credit to the brave airmen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and military installations across the country who are providing unmatched close-air support in critical missions."

"Not only has the Air Force decided to keep the A-10 flying through at least 2022, but it has also pledged to replace it on a squadron-by-squadron basis – ensuring we won't be left with a capability gap as we confront a complex array of conflicts and crises," McCain said in a prepared statement.

But McSally, herself a former A-10 pilot and a frequent critic of the F-35 program, also sounded a cautionary note.

"But make no mistake: this is still an early retirement," she said in a press release. "We've recently invested $1 billion into our A-10 fleet to keep it flying until at least 2028. No other plane can perform the tasks for which the A-10 is uniquely suited and no other weapon system we have has the same ability to protect troops' lives on the ground. I'll continue to lead the fight to ensure we keep the A-10 until a suitable alternative yet to be identified is developed, tested, and proven to do the mission."

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.

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.

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 put the Obama administration squarely in her sights last month.

"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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