Supporters of the A-10 “Warthog” close-air support jet got a double boost in Congress Thursday as the full House and a key Senate committee backed measures to save the aircraft — a mainstay of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base — at least through fiscal 2015.
But the full Senate must still consider its version of the National Defense Authorization Act; the final version will be hammered out in a conference committee — and the White House has threatened to veto any bill that exceeds the Pentagon’s budget request.
The full House passed a version including a committee amendment backed by Rep. Ron Barber, a Tucson Democrat, that would fund A-10 operations through fiscal 2015.
And the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously passed an amendment sponsored by Sen. John McCain, strictly prohibiting the Air Force from retiring the A-10.
McCain, a Phoenix Republican, said he also successfully pushed an amendment that would continue the Navy’s procurement of Tomahawk cruise missiles and another one halting a move to consolidate Army test units, including an electronic testing center at Fort Huachuca.
The Air Force has proposed mothballing the entire A-10 fleet starting in 2015 to save more than $4 billion — a move that would affect three D-M squadrons, more than 80 planes and more than 2,000 personnel.
But McCain and other supporters of the A-10 say the move would put troops at risk because there is no adequate replacement for the combat-proven Warthog.
“This heavily armed plane we call the Warthog may be ugly, but it flies slow and low and provides close air support and protection to our troops like no other aircraft we have today,” Barber said in a prepared statement.
McCain said his amendment would ban retirement of the A-10 for one year and fully fund flight hours, pilot training, fuel, maintenance and operations for all A-10 pilots and crews through 2015.
“We have tens of thousands of ground troops in Afghanistan today that depend on the A-10 for close air support,” McCain said in a news release. “If we did away with the A-10 capability before fielding a suitable replacement, it would dramatically increase the risk to our troops in the conflicts of today and the future.”
Barber’s amendment was adopted by the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month, but Senate leaders said they opposed the measure’s use of overseas war funding to support the A-10.
It was not immediately clear how McCain’s plan would fund the A-10 operations, though Armed Services Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has said the committee’s plan wouldn’t use overseas war funding.
The House defied the Pentagon and the White House with its overwhelming vote for a $601 billion defense authorization bill that besides saving the A-10 would keep military bases and Navy cruisers despite warnings that it will undercut military readiness.
The House bill would also stop an Army plan to pull all of the AH-64 Apache attack helicopters out of Army National Guard bases including Marana’s Silverbell Army Heliport.
The bill also included a floor amendment sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks, a Glendale Republican, that adds $99 million to the sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense program to fund nine additional Standard Missile-3 Block IB interceptors made by Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems.
A White House veto threat — reiterated just hours before the vote — had little impact in an election year as lawmakers embraced the popular measure that includes a 1.8 percent pay raise for the troops and adds up to hundreds of thousands of jobs back home. The vote was 325-98 for the legislation, with 216 Republicans and 109 Democrats backing the bill.
The Senate Armed Services Committee bill backs several of the Pentagon proposals while breaking with the administration on some weapons.
Most notably, the Senate panel “created a path to close Guantanamo,” Levin said. Under a provision of the bill, the administration would have to produce a comprehensive plan for transferring terror suspects from the U.S. naval facility in Cuba that would be subject to a congressional vote.
The Senate panel backed the administration on some personnel benefits and a 1 percent pay raise for the military, while breaking with the administration on sparing the A-10 and an aircraft carrier.
Certain to frustrate the administration was a provision that would authorize the military to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels battling forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
Republican Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, defended his House bill and rejected the suggestion that the measure was a “sop to parochial interests,” arguing it makes “the tough decisions that put the troops first.”
But the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, complained that the House rejected the Pentagon’s cost-saving proposals and came up with no alternatives.
“We ducked every difficult decision,” Smith said.
With the ending of two wars and diminishing budgets, the Pentagon had proposed retiring the U-2 and the A-10, taking 11 Navy cruisers out of the normal rotation for modernization and increasing out-of-pocket costs for housing and health care. Republicans, even tea partyers who came to Congress demanding deep cuts in federal spending, and Democrats rejected the Pentagon budget, sparing the aircraft, ships and troop benefits.
The House also engaged in a spirited debate over post-Sept. 11 laws and practices, and whether they are overly broad and still viable nearly 13 years after the terror attacks. Lawmakers pressed to sunset the authorization given to the president to use military force, to end the indefinite detention of terror suspects captured on U.S. soil and to close the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The House rejected all three amendments to change current law.
To address the pervasive problem of sexual assault in the military, the bill would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using good military character as defense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime.
The “good soldier defense” could encompass a defendant’s military record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as an individual who could be counted on in war and peacetime.
Overall, the legislation would provide $495.8 billion for the core defense budget, $17.9 billion for energy programs within Pentagon spending and $79.4 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations.