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Senate cmte votes to fund A-10 in 2015

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Senate cmte votes to fund A-10 in 2015

Appropriations bill forwarded to full Senate

  • An A-10 coming in for a landing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base April, 2014.
    Bill Vaughn/TucsonSentinel.comAn A-10 coming in for a landing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base April, 2014.

Backers of the A-10 aircraft based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base won another victory Thursday as the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to keep the planes flying for another year as part of the 2015 Pentagon budget. The measure must still be passed by the full Senate.

It is the latest step in a battle that began in February, when the Pentagon unveiled a budget request that called for the decades-old fleet to be retired, worrying officials around Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base where 83 of the jets are based.

The Pentagon has tried to dial back the Air Force's use of the planes, in anticipation of the deployment of the F-35 in their place.

The bill advanced on a unanimous voice vote Thursday.

In addition to funding for the Warthogs flown from Tucson's Air Force base, the measure includes a one-percent pay raise for Defense Department personnel, a five-percent increase in medical research paid for by the Pentagon, and forestalls a proposed $200 million cut to base commissaries. It also includes $621 million in funding for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.

Davis-Monthan’s “economic impact for Tucson and southern Arizona is enormous,” said Mike Varney, CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber. He said the base contributes an estimated $1.2 billion to the region’s economy.

The amendment was part of Appropriation Committee approval of a $549.3 billion Defense Department budget, which now goes to the full Senate for consideration. The committee amendment restored funding for flight hours, pilot training, fuel, maintenance, and operations for A-10 pilots and crew.

"The A-10 is essential to the safety of our men and women in our armed forces who are engaged in ground combat,” U.S. Rep. Barber said Tuesday, commenting on a Senate subcommittee vote.

U.S. Sen. John McCain reiterated his comments from Tuesday, criticizing "the president’s proposal to prematurely retire this critical aircraft that has saved so many lives in combat," while saying that the full committee vote "affirmed the value and unique close-air support capability the A-10 provides."

Like the 2015 Pentagon budget passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, the bill would fully fund the A-10 program next year. The panel voted to spend $338 million on the planes through fiscal year 2015.

The House in June passed a $570.4 billion defense budget that also protects the A-10. Instead of funding continued operation like the Senate, however, the House bill prohibits the Pentagon from spending any money to “divest, retire, transfer or place in storage, or prepare to divest, retire, transfer or place in storage any A-10 aircraft.”

The Senate is set to recess for five weeks, beginning Aug. 2, and it's unknown when a vote on the full $549 billion military budget will be held. The differences between the bills would have to be worked out in committee between the two chambers.

Retiring the A-10, the main plane flown at D-M, 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 last year.

The base is Tucson's third-largest employer, with around 11,000 jobs.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II – affectionately known to troops as the Warthog – has been the primary aircraft for close-air support of ground forces since its introduction in 1977.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in February that the Pentagon plans to retire the A-10 and replace it in the short-term with F-16s until the F-35s are flying.

“Retiring the A-10 fleet saves $3.5 billion over five years and accelerates the Air Force’s long-standing modernization plan – which called for replacing the A-10s with the more-capable F-35 in the early 2020s,” Hagel said when he announced the Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 budget request.

The plan quickly ran into opposition on Capitol Hill from lawmakers who had A-10s in their districts.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Davis told a Senate subcommittee hearing earlier this year that the F-16s will be phased out as F-35s become “fully fielded and ready.” He told the Armed Services subcommittee that there should be more than 100 fully operational F-35s by 2016.

McCain in April called the Pentagon plan “absolutely ridiculous.” He said it would “do away with the finest close-air support weapon in history … to have some kind of nebulous idea of a replacement with an airplane (F-35) that costs at least 10 times as much.”

Cronkite News Service reporter Ryan Howe contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

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