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Az officials wary as Defense budget again targets A-10

Arizona officials said they will fight to make sure that Davis-Monthan Air Force Base does not take a hit as a result of the Pentagon’s decision to retire 44 A-10 fighter jets, a mainstay at the Tucson base.

The reduction was included in the fiscal 2021 budget unveiled Monday by the Trump administration, which said it plans to retire 44 “of the oldest and least ready” A-10s as the Air Force shifts to newer-generation aircraft.

“I am actively engaging with the Air Force to ensure that there is no negative impact to our squadrons at DM (Davis-Monthan),” said U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, in a statement released by her office Tuesday.

U.S. Sen. Martha McSally – a Republican who is a former A-10 pilot – did not respond to requests for comment on the Pentagon’s latest plans for the aircraft.

Administration officials did not disclose how the squadron based in Tucson might be affected.

The Pentagon said in a statement Tuesday that even with the retirements, the Air Force plans to have more than 200 upgraded A-10s in the mix as part of a “completely modernized” fleet.

“The Air Force sustains our commitment to the Air Force’s most effective close air support platform, the A-10, with $161M (million) to continue the re-winging and avionics upgrades of the aircraft,” the statement said.

The Pentagon said last year that it planned to retire “the oldest and least ready aircraft en route to a completely modernized and combat-capable fleet of 218 A-10s – in seven squadrons – that will continue to fly through the 2030s.”

It did not say where those squadrons would be based, however, which raised eyebrows among some Arizona lawmakers.

Kirkpatrick, a Tucson Democrat who holds the seat formerly held by McSally, plans to introduce a resolution asking Congress to continue funding the A-10, which her resolution says “is imperative to national security” and “the least expensive combat plane” for the Air Force to keep.

The A-10 has a long connection with Davis-Monthan, where its pilots are trained and deployed, according to the resolution, which said that there were 84 A-10s based at Davis-Monthan as of January.

Last month, 200 employees of a private contractor working on A-10 jets at Tucson's Air Force base were handed layoff notices.

Since 2016, the military contractor DynCorp has been paid nearly $70 million to maintain A-10s at DMAFB.

The company was brought in so that the active-duty airmen of the 357th Aircraft Maintenance Unit at the base could "transition over to the F-35" fighter jet, DynCorp said when it was first awarded the contract.

The Air Force did not choose to base any F-35s in Tucson during earlier rounds of basing decisions, and ultimately backed off a plan to stop flying most A-10s by the 2020s.

Several units of active-duty airmen have continued to work on A-10s at the Tucson base.

A-10 targeted previously

State lawmakers have fought this fight before.

The Air Force said in 2014 that it planned to retire the A-10 by 2016 as a budget-cutting move, replacing it with F-16s in the short term and the newer F-35s that were then coming on line.

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That plan was blasted at the time by then-Sen. John McCain as “absolutely ridiculous.”

The Pentagon eventually backtracked on the A-10, a decades-old fighter nicknamed the “warthog.” Slow, ungainly and heavily armored, the jet excels in ground support roles and was heralded for its effectiveness in ground battles like those waged against ISIS.

McSally, the first U.S. woman to fly a jet in combat and the first to command a fighter squadron in combat, at the time emphasized the aircraft’s “irreplaceable capabilities” and “the importance of A-10s to our troops’ lives and national security.”

Officials at Davis-Monthan declined to comment, referring calls to the Pentagon. But Kirkpatrick said the A-10 still has a future in the Air Force.

“The A-10 has been the backbone of the close air support mission for more than 40 years,” her resolution says. “The close air support as provided by the A-10 has proven invaluable on the battlefield.”

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.

The Air Force has about 320 of the planes, operating out of five bases across the United States, including a large presence at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where 84 of the jets are based.

The Pentagon has spent billions re-winging the attack fighters, rather than retiring them.

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 had planned replace the Warthogs with the F-35 Lightning II, and the MQ-9 Reaper, an upgraded version of the Predator drone.

Both former U.S. Reps. Ron Barber and Martha McSally worked to have the Air Force re-invest in the A-10, and keep a squadron flying out of the Tucson base.

In 2018, the Pentagon said that the A-10 will likely fly through at least 2030.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Dylan Smith contributed background to this report.

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U.S. Air Force

An A-10 Thunderbolt II from the 74th Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia flies over Afghanistan in this 2011 photo. The Pentagon plans to retire 44 A-10s in fiscal 2021, which has put some Arizona lawmakers on alert.