The fight to save the venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II continues.

Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., has signed a letter along with 32 other members of Congress imploring Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to preserve the A-10 program, which has a large presence at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

“We oppose any effort that would divest the A-10, creating a CAS (close air support) capability gap that would reduce Air Force combat power and unnecessarily endanger our service members in future conflicts,” the letter reads.

The letter was written in an effort to head off any threat from impending federal budget cuts in the coming fiscal year, which almost certainly will include defense-spending reductions.

“We do not want to see it divested,” Barber said of the A-10 on Wednesday. “We’ve invested a lot of money to keep it flying.”

The Department of Defense recently spent more than $1.1 billion to replace wings on more than 200 A-10s, extending the life of the planes more than 20 years.

The congressman said eliminating the A-10 program would not only represent waste but could severely hinder D-M’s economic impact to the region, which he described as vital.

Davis-Monthan is home to three squadrons of A-10s, about 75 aircraft, which makes up an import segment of airbase operations. It’s also the training center for A-10 pilots.

An Air Force analysis from 2012 estimates the base employed up to 2,000 airmen, 3,300 civilian workers, helped support more than 4,600 jobs in the region and pumped more than $1.6 billion into the regional economy.

Barber said the never-ending fight over the federal budget lies at the heart of the A-10 debate.

“Sequestration is continuing as we speak,” he said.

The automatic budget cuts scheduled to occur without some accord among leaders on Capitol Hill would eliminate $20 billion in defense spending in fiscal 2014.

One way to reach those cuts would be to essentially mothball the A-10, a jet that first took flight in 1972.

“It’s a huge problem, and the American people need to be aware of it,” Barber said.

Republican Martha McSally, who intends to run against Barber in 2014, said it seems the congressman has only now realized the threat of impending elimination of the A-10 program.

“He’s finally woken up after being asleep at the wheel,” McSally said, pointing to statements he made to the Arizona Daily Star in September downplaying short-term risks to the A-10 program.

McSally said it would be naïve to think the Pentagon wouldn’t eliminate the planes even after spending more than $1 billion to refurbish them.

She did agree, however, that the A-10 “provides a unique capability that no other airplane does,” and should be preserved.

McSally flew A-10s for the Air Force and commanded a squadron at D-M.

The A-10 has long been revered for its durability and years of successful ground-support service, but its future has been the subject of speculation for several years.

The Defense Department has sought to replace the A-10 — nicknamed the “Warthog” because of the 30 mm Gatling-style cannon protruding from its nose — with the ultrahigh-tech F-35, which has been in design phases for years.

Despite few of the planes making it off the assembly line, numerous performance issues and ever-increasing costs — as much as $150 million per unit, by some estimates — the F-35’s clout could prove difficult to overcome.

That is in part the result of the wide net of government contracts the development of the F-35 has cast, affecting more than 1,300 producers in 45 states, supporting jobs in potentially hundreds of congressional districts.

Added to that, communities across the country have lined up to become the home of the vaunted fighter once production of the jet takes off starting in about 2017.

Barber said Tucson, too, should make a play for the F-35. But we shouldn’t expect it to replace the A-10.

“The F-35, to be clear, does not have the same capabilities as the A-10,” he said.

McSally also said the region should make a play for the advanced fighter in the long term but it should not be considered a replacement for the A-10 anytime in the near future.

“We’ve got to advocate for the A-10 and the F-35,” she said.

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at 573-4241 or pmcnamara@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @pm929.