A recent setback at the hands of House budget writers doesn’t mean the end of the A-10 Thunderbolt II close-air support fleet, which includes a major contingent at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
But the future of the combat-proven “Warthog” is still very much uncertain after the House Appropriations Committee left out any funding for the A-10 from its annual defense-spending bill.
A-10 backers have vowed to keep up the fight.
“It was not the death blow, but it definitely was a setback, so we have our work cut out for us,” said Tom Norris, a former Air Force A-10 combat pilot.
The Air Force has proposed mothballing the entire A-10 fleet starting in 2015 to save more than $4 billion. The move would cost Davis-Monthan several fighter and support squadrons and more than 3,000 jobs.
Rep. Ron Barber, a Tucson Democrat who has pushed legislation to save the A-10, continues to work the issue with members of both parties in both chambers, aide Mark Kimble said.
The A-10 and its backers got a big boost in May when the House passed a version of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that included a Barber amendment to keep the Warthog flying at least through fiscal 2015. The Senate Armed Services Committee also added one-year funding for the A-10 to its version of the authorization bill, which has yet to be considered by the full Senate.
But last week, the House Appropriations Committee passed a $570 billion defense spending bill without any funding for the A-10.
“If there’s no appropriations bill, not one penny flows,” said Winslow Wheeler, a former congressional budget official and director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.
Wheeler said that during his 30 years as a budget aide to several senators, budget authorizers typically communicated with appropriations committees to align spending levels with policy long before they reached floor votes.
Wheeler said he was “stunned” at the sound defeat on a voice vote of an amendment offered by Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., to fund the A-10 with $339.3 million taken from the Air Force’s operations and maintenance account.
Whether A-10 backers can amend the defense appropriations bill on the House floor remains to be seen, Wheeler said. Meanwhile, action to save the A-10 may shift to the Senate, which has yet to bring its committee version of the bill to floor debate and a full vote. It also has not yet passed its defense appropriations bill out of committee.
“If the House supporters of the A-10 think it’s a close call in the House, they may want to lean on the Senate to fix it,” Wheeler said.
Congressional leaders may wait until after the midterm elections in November to bring the defense-spending bill to a final vote — if it reaches a final vote at all. Last year’s fiscal 2014 defense appropriations bill wasn’t signed into law until December, and in prior years the Pentagon was kept running by stopgap budget resolutions.
Former pilot Norris, who has worked with the Arizona congressional delegation on efforts to the keep the A-10 flying, said a key to a compromise is identifying a politically acceptable offset from another program. Budget leaders have insisted any proposed budget increases be balanced by corresponding cuts.
“They are regrouping, and the key to whole thing is finding the right offset, and so that’s what they’re working hard on,” said Norris, who attended Senate Armed Services Committee hearings in April and has kept in close touch with supporters.
Barber’s amendment to fund the A-10 for a year using $635 million in overseas war funding — which is separate from the base Pentagon budget — was a nonstarter to key leaders. The Senate panel’s plan to fund the A-10 for a year, pushed by senators including Arizona Republican John McCain, would use some $300 million in Air Force personnel funding to offset the A-10 spending.
As Congress continues to discuss the A-10’s future, the Pentagon is pushing back with a lobbying effort of its own.
“They outnumber the grassroots effort by 100 to 1 or more, and they are flooding the Senate Appropriations Committee offices with Air Force personnel, trying to convince them that the right thing to do is eliminate the airplane,” Norris said. ”The Air Force is doubling down — they’re not backing off, they’re upping the ante if anything.”
Wheeler, who supports keeping the A-10, noted that House budget writers found plenty of money for pet projects in the appropriations bill, despite their contention that scrapping the A-10 was a budget-cutting necessity.
“The opponents of the A-10 said there’s not enough money to do this (but) they added a billion and a half dollars in added hardware goodies,” he said. He cited, among other items, four additional F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters at a cost of $479 million.
The White House has threatened to veto the defense authorization act as passed by the House, saying it hamstrings Pentagon budget-cutting and force restructuring efforts.