House passes defense spending bill

An A-10 “Warthog” takes off at Davis-Monthan Air Force base.

The venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack jet — a mainstay of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base — would fly at least another year under a version of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act expected to be passed Thursday by the House Armed Services Committee.

Arizona Rep. Martha McSally, a Tucson Republican and former A-10 combat pilot, successfully tacked on an amendment to the defense bill that would prohibit the Air Force from spending any money to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack jet.

But during a sometimes passionate late-night debate Wednesday, McSally and her allies had to beat back an amendment that would have allowed retirement of half of the A-10 "Warthog" fleet.

House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, in his baseline version of the bill, provided $683 million to keep the A-10 fleet flying for another year, while blocking further moves by the Air Force to put A-10s in backup inventory status.

McSally said she offered the retirement ban, similar to a measure approved last year, as insurance to prevent any "back-door" measure to mothball more A-10s. The Pentagon announced in late February it would put 18 Warthogs —including nine at D-M — in backup status this year, under a provision of last year's defense authorization bill that allows the Air Force to put up to 36 A-10s on backup status.

She said retiring the A-10 would put American troops at risk because there is no replacement for the kind of low-level, sustained close air support the A-10 provides. She noted that the Air Force has acknowledged that the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter won't be fitted with key equipment for close air support until at least 2020.

"The A-10 keeps being called up by combatant commanders," McSally said, noting that a dozen Warthogs recently were deployed to the Middle East to fight Islamic State militants. "This debate is about saving lives."

But Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and former Marine Corps infantry officer who served in Iraq, introduced a substitute amendment to allow the Air Force to retire 119 of the remaining 283 A-10s in fiscal 2016.

Moulton proposed using the savings to pay for "unfunded requirements" of the Marine Corps, including $75 million for devices to counter improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and funding for more bunker-busting missiles and aircraft upgrades.

He said the Marine Corps successfully performs low-level close air support with a combination of helicopters and fixed-wing fighters and gunships.

Noting that IEDs were the biggest killer of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, Moulton said approving the IED funding would save "far more lives than the rare scenario where only an A-10 can provide close air support."

But McSally called Moulton's amendment a "poison pill" that would simply keep the Air Force's A-10 retirement plan on track, and said that pitting the A-10 funding against the need for anti-IED devices was a "false choice."

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Chairman Thornberry said he understood that funding the A-10 funding could subtract from other critical funding, including readiness items like training and equipment, but he was swayed by arguments that the A-10 is still vitally needed.

"This is an aircraft that is being used today... . I'm not ready to get rid of it," he said.

Moulton's amendment eventually failed on a 26-37 roll call vote, and McSally's original amendment passed on a voice vote.

The House committee's bill must still be passed by the full chamber. The Senate Armed Services Committee has yet to publicly consider the defense authorization bill, but the committee's chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, has vowed to stop the A-10 cuts.

The House committee's defense bill also provides $48 million in funding to halt a plan to retire roughly half of the fleet of 15 EC-130H Compass Call electronic jamming and surveillance planes — based solely at D-M — in fiscal 2016.

McSally along with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., had sent a letter asking Thornberry to block the Compass Call cuts, noting the planes have been continuously deployed in the Middle East and arguing there was no current replacement to match their sophisticated e-warfare capabilities.