The House Armed Services Committee voted to adopt an amendment that keeps the Air Force's contentious A-10 "Warthog" aircraft flying through the next fiscal year.
The amendment passed through committee late Wednesday with a 41-20 bipartisan vote. It will be funded by moving $635 million over to the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which pays for the war in Afghanistan, where the A-10 has been used for years to support ground troops.
"There's no other fixed-wing aircraft that can do the job the A-10 can do," Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., who proposed the amendment to this year's National Defense Authorization Act, said late Wednesday.
In addition to continuing funding and operations through the next fiscal year, Barber's amendment also calls for the Government Accountability Office to study the best platform the Air Force should use for its close air support missions.
Air Force officials said the plan to cut more than 300 A-10s would save the service almost $4 billion.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., again directed heated questions to both the Army and Air Force about retiring the A-10s. "I find it curious that you come over here with all the necessity for cost savings and the A-10 cost for flying hour is $17,000 per flying hour," McCain said. "Fact is that the B-1 is much more expensive, it flies at high-altitude, and it attacks static targets. That does not fulfill the mission of close air support as I know it."
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh replied that the F-16, not the B-1, is the primary replacement for the A-10 on the battlefield. "It's already done more close air support in Afghanistan than the A-10 has, and it will work with other aircraft if the scenario allows it to provide the best possible close air support for our troops on the ground," Welsh said. "We are absolutely committed to it. We have been, and we will remain so."
The amendment also rejects a plan proposed by committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., to temporarily store the planes. That plan — involving what's called type-1000 storage — was immediately met by opposition from McCain and Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. They issued a joint statement on Tuesday saying the temporary storage plan was no "compromise" but rather a "short-sighted and dangerous proposal to divest their most combat-effective and cost-efficient close air support aircraft."
The amendment leaves the House Armed Services Committee for a full vote in the House in two weeks. The Senate will take up its own version of the NDAA around the same time.