Plan to sideline A-10s draws fire

Amid a national protest, Boise's mayor and a state delegation hope to meet soon with the Air Force's top general.

THE WASHINGTON POSTApril 12, 2014 

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Master Sgt. Mike Davidson, crew chief with the 124th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, throws a cover over an A-10 Thunderbolt engine at Gowen Field after a training flight on Thursday. Though old and slow, the planes remain popular for many military tasks.

KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told a Senate committee this week that retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt is needed to save money and to allow the Air Force to bring in more sophisticated aircraft, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, to provide what is called "close air support."

"While no one, especially me, is happy about recommending divestiture of this great old friend, it's the right military decision," Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. "And it's representative of the extremely difficult choices that we're being forced to make."

The Idaho Air National Guard has 22 of the planes, nicknamed "Warthogs," at Gowen Field. Three other Air National Guard units employ 85 Thunderbolts, while the Air Force has another 193 of the planes.

EFFECT ON IDAHO, BOISE

Getting rid of the A-10s would save $3.7 billion over five years. If that happens, the Air Force plans to move the Idaho Air National Guard from Boise's Gowen Field to Mountain Home Air Force Base, and have the Guard's A-10 crews switch to the F-15E, a fighter jet used in Mountain Home.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and Idaho's congressional delegation - Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, and Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador - have voiced concerns about the move. All of them hope to bring the matter up with Welsh in early May when he visits Mountain Home Air Force Base, according to Bieter's office and a press release from the delegation.

"As the Air Force grapples with how to handle budget cuts and manage necessary force structure changes, we will continue to work with them on the future of the A-10 and the Idaho Air National Guard," the press release states, adding that the delegation invited Welsh to visit.

The city is happy with its decadeslong relationship with the Air National Guard at the Boise-owned airfield south of the Boise Airport. The Air National Guard saves money by utilizing the civilian airport's runways and other facilities. The Air Guard's cost for maintenance was less than $100,000 last year, far less than would have to be paid for new facilities in Mountain Home.

NATIONAL DEBATE

Supporters of the A-10 outside Idaho have launched an aggressive campaign to save an aircraft they say is unparalleled in the history of American aviation: a slow-flying airplane designed to fly close enough to the ground so that pilots can distinguish friend from foe, often with their own eyes.

The A-10 has saved dozens of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it has performed in a way that modern planes - flying high and fast - never could, they say.

"The best close air support platform we have around is the A-10," U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte , R-N.H., said at a news conference Thursday, where she was joined by Risch, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and several A-10 pilots. "And we owe it to our men and women in uniform to ensure that they have the best when it comes to this incredibly important mission."

It's beloved not just by pilots, but by the ground troops under fire who equate the high-pitched whine of the A-10 and the roar of its cannon with salvation. In recent congressional hearings it has gotten rave reviews, particularly by the Army brass.

"The A-10 is the ugliest most beautiful aircraft on the planet," said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"It's a game changer," said Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell. "It's ugly. It's loud but when it comes in and you hear that pffffff (of the cannon), it just makes a difference."

Air Force officials argue that with the defense spending cuts the have no choice but to get rid of the entire A-10 fleet. Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday that officials had looked at ways to save the A-10 by cutting other programs. But they ultimately decided that the A-10 was the option with the lowest risk.

"The budget picture we're presenting to you today is hard choices, nothing but hard choices," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told the committee. She called the A-10 a "wonderful aircraft. But there are other aircraft that can cover that very sacred combat air support mission."

SUBSTITUTES

Welsh said that the Air Force must be prepared for "a full spectrum fight" that involves many missions in addition to close air support.

"We have a lot of other airplanes that do close air support that can do those other important things," he said. "The A-10 isn't used in that way. It doesn't mean it's not a great platform. ... The comment I've heard that somehow the Air Force is walking away from close air support I must admit frustrates me."

One of those aircraft will be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, officials have said. But the aircraft, which has been repeatedly delayed and has seen its cost skyrocket, is not expected to be ready until at least 2021. And the Air Force is planning to get rid of the A-10s by 2019.

Ayotte, who inserted language in the defense spending bill that prevents the Air Force from retiring the A-10 before the end of 2014, called that a dangerous gap.

McCain was more blunt.

"We are going to do away with the finest close air support weapon in history?" he said at the news conference. "And 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 - and the cost is still growing - with the F-35? That's ... absolutely ridiculous."

Supporters also noted this just is the Air Force's latest attempt to get rid of the A-10 so that it could focus on more advanced aircraft.

Statesman reporter John Sowell contributed.

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