After a months-long debate over whether to keep or scrap a fleet of aging Air Force jets, the House Armed Forces Committee voted Thursday to continue funding the planes through 2015, thanks in part to a powerful lobbying group that said scrapping the planes would put the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk.
The decision to maintain the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a 30-year-old war plane, defied an earlier compromise proposed by committee chair Buck McKeon to mothball the aircraft for future use. Under the new provision, inserted by Rep. Ron Barber, an Arizona Democrat, $635 million from a military war fund will be designated to support the fleet's running costs to next year.
It's good news for the Air Force, which had wanted to keep the fleet of aging jets in operation but knew it was in jeopardy because of budget requirements, future sequestration and operational need. The proposed solution had been to scrap it for good.
“The decision has come under fire from several sectors, but there’s a logical reason we got to that point,” said Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh of scrapping the A-10 aircraft in an April 23 statement.
A chief opponent of scrapping the aircraft, which was first produced in 1972, is a powerful lobbying group led by U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The group has been campaigning over the past few months to save the A-10, claiming that there is no viable replacement for the type of close air support that it offered troops. The group contends that scrapping it would put lives of U.S. soldiers at risk.
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Supporters of the A-10, also known as the Warthog, must wait until the new legislation goes before the full House on May 19. It's expected to pass, as the House has passed every Pentagon budget for the past 52 years.
“Hundreds of brave Americans are alive today because of the performance of the A-10 in Iraq and Afghanistan,” U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R- Mo.) told International Business Times. “I agree with Gen. Ray Odierno, the Chief of Staff of the Army, who has said 'the A-10 is the best close-air-support platform we have today.’”
Some military experts have countered such arguments by saying that the kind of enemy the A-10 was designed to attack – tanks, armored vehicles and other ground targets with limited air defenses – is no longer the primary threat that U.S. troops encounter in a world of car bombs, suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.
Air Force Col. Robert S. Spalding III contends an aircraft such as the A-10 has no place in the future of the Air Force and that those fighting to save it are “missing the point.”
“The U.S. Air Force is the best in the world at close air support in a permissive environment like Afghanistan, even without the A-10,” Spalding, now a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations," said to Defense One. “In the future, elite U.S. forces can do without it as the military continues to chase terrorists across the Middle East and Africa, and the A-10 has even less purpose in any future high-end combat in more contested areas, like China, with rapidly improving air defenses.”
However, Wednesday’s vote will see the shelf life of the aircraft, last built in 1984, extended for at least one more year with the caveat -- inserted into the provision -- that a study must be undertaken to determine the cost and effectiveness of other aircraft performing close-air-support missions.
The debate over scrapping the aircraft had been raging for months when committee chair Buck McKeon inserted a provision into the act that stated the A-10 would be put in “type-1000 storage,” enabling the aircraft to remain operational without being a burden on current fiscal requirements. His compromise, as many expected, failed. Type-1000 storage means an aircraft will be maintained in such a condition that it can be recalled to duty and fly again.
“You risk doing irrevocable harm to the force by cutting the whole fleet,” said Claude Chafin, a spokesperson from the Armed Services Committee. “It’s a platform that is still valuable, and so when you balance that with all the resource constraints, the best choice the chairman had available to him was to mandate that it go in storage, so it’s not a continued resource strain but it can be brought back should the need arise.”
However, for some in the A-10 lobby group, mothballing the planes was unacceptable.
“Putting the A-10s in type-1000 storage is not a compromise; it is a codification of the Air Force's short-sighted and dangerous proposal to divest their most combat-effective and cost-efficient close-air-support aircraft,” Senators McCain, Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said in a joint statement released just before the committee meeting on Wednesday. “Units will be stood down, training will no longer occur, and crews will be reassigned.”
In light of McKeon’s provision, which was an attempt to reach a compromise in the debate, representatives Hartzler, Barber (D-Ariz.), and Austin Scott (R-Ga.) offered the amendment that will now block the retirement of the A-10 Warthog fleet. The provision will also take $635 million from the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, also known as the war budget, which was originally used for overseas conflicts but has since become a $79 billion pot that can help fund projects cut out of the overall military budget, despite the fact that the Iraq war is over and the Afghan war is drawing to a close.
The fund, many say, is being used to bypass tough decision-making on cuts, though as McKeon noted in his final meeting as committee chair, this year's decision-making process will look easy compared with next year's, when lawmakers will be forced to contend with military sequestration from 2016 to 2024. His hope, he said, is that the act passed early Thursday morning will offer enough breathing space going into 2016's budget talks that sequestration can be avoided. The A-10 qualifies for funding from the contingency budget because the aircraft still operates in Afghanistan.
About $30 billion of last year's $85 billion contingency budget was diverted. Supporters of other projects hope to use part of this year’s $79 billion contingency budget to make up for shortfalls in the overall $521 billion military budget for 2015.