A-10 Aircraft
U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft are serviced on the flight line at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in this handout photo taken Dec. 2, 2005. Reuters/Tech. Sgt. James Arrowood/U.S. Air Force

The powerful friends of the A-10 Thunderbolt, the venerable and ungainly warplane that the U.S. Air Force has already tried unsuccessfully to ditch several times, are coming together once again to save the aircraft from being cut. And this time, a group of Republican senators led by New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte and Arizona's John McCain has a big ace up its sleeve: The A-10 is fighting on the front lines against the Islamic State group, and is taking part in European exercises designed to deter a renewed Russian threat.

McCain, Ayotte and the airplane's other supporters in the Senate, who say the A-10 provides an essential function that no other plane can match, renewed their plea to save it from Pentagon cuts at a news conference in Washington on Tuesday. Ayotte and McCain were accompanied by fellow Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, both of Georgia, and Joni Ernst of Iowa -- as well as former Air Force joint tactical air controllers, the people on the ground who direct A-10s to hit enemy targets.

“Since we had this press conference last year, A-10s are serving in Iraq and Syria and taking the fight to ISIS,” said Ayotte, referring to another name for the Islamic State group. “We’ve also seen the A-10 sent back to Europe to reassure our allies and deter additional aggression by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee begins work on its own version of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act next week. And, when that happens, “we plan to ensure that the A-10 is preserved,” said Ayotte, whose husband is a former A-10 pilot.

McCain, chairman of the committee and a former fighter pilot himself, said that is was “bewildering” to him that the “Air Force continues to advocate the abolition of the single best instrument to protect our troops on the ground.”

The A-10, also known as the Warthog, was designed in the middle of the Cold War to destroy Russian tanks, but has more recently become synonymous with close air support for troops on the ground, thanks to its ability to fly low and slow and accurately target enemy combatants on the ground.

It was projected in 2007 to have an operational life that could potentially last until 2028, but economic uncertainty, the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the introduction of the F-35 led Air Force officials to attempt to retire the aircraft earlier, saving $4 billion over five years. But for three straight years the aircraft has been saved by Congress.

More recently the Air Force has said that it needed personnel currently employed to maintain the A-10 to begin training on the new Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter so they’ll be ready when the aircraft is introduced by the Air Force in late 2016.

Also, last week the Air Force said that if the A-10 wasn’t mothballed or retired in the upcoming defense budget, which will likely be finalized sometime in October, then it would have to think about making cuts to the fleet of General Dynamics F-16s, a multirole fighter that is the Air Force's backbone.