The Air Force’s proposal to use the B-1 in place of the A-10 in future close air support (CAS) missions on Tuesday drew the ire of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who told service leadership “you will not pursue” A-10 divestiture with such proposals.

McCain, who has vocally opposed Air Force efforts to get rid of the A-10, took advantage of a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on recommendations from the National Committee on the Structure of the Air Force to criticize Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah James on their plans to eliminate the A-10 fleet, which requires congressional approval. The Air Force believes it can save $4.2 billion by divesting the entire fleet.

The Air Force proposed divesting its A-10 fleet in its FY 15 budget request. Photo: Air Force.
The Air Force proposed divesting its A-10 fleet in its FY 15 budget request. Photo: Air Force.

After James proposed using the B-1, along with the F-15 and F-16E fighter aircraft, in place of the A-10 in CAS missions, McCain responded incredulously, telling James “that’s a remarkable statement” beyond his experience.

“This is why there’s such incredible skepticism here in Congress,” McCain said. “I can’t speak for the committee, I can only speak for myself and several others. You will not pursue the elimination of the finest close air support weapon system in the world with answers like that.”

Welsh defended James, saying the B-1 has been executing CAS missions in Afghanistan for “some time, a number of years,” to which McCain responded an “extremely limited number of missions.”

Chet Curtis, a spokesman for the Air Force Association (AFA), said in an email the B-1 has been doing CAS in Afghanistan since 2001 and that the Sniper pod was integrated on the B-1 in 2008 to aid its performance in CAS missions. The Sniper pod, developed by Lockheed Martin [LMT], is a targeting system for fixed-wing aircraft providing long-range target detection/identification and continuous surveillance for all missions, including CAS.

Welsh said the Air Force in June will hit a milestone in the KC-46A aerial refueling tanker program by flying the first sortie of the first test aircraft. Though the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said KC-46A program costs are coming in below estimates, the tanker is entering a challenging software phase over the next 12 months (Defense Daily, April 16). The KC-46A is being developed by Boeing [BA].

Congress established the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force in the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to provide an independent view on the future structure of the service, SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in his prepared remarks. Welsh and James agreed that of the commission’s 42 recommendations, the Air Force supported 86 percent. The two said in their prepared statement they do not agree with the commission’s recommendation to disestablish the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) because the Air Force currently doesn’t have a way of managing the readiness, force management and administrative oversight of reserve airmen without it.

Air Force leadership also disagrees with an aggregate active component-reserve component ratio of 58-42, citing insufficient in-depth analysis to determine that ratio. The commission presented its report to Congress Jan. 30.

This isn’t the first time the Air Force has tried to retire the A-10. Lawmakers successfully blocked the move in the FY ’14 NDAA by prohibiting funds to be used to retire the aircraft, also known as the Warthog. Lawmakers are critical of a two-year gap between total retirement of the A-10 by 2019 and the 2021 initial operational capability (IOC) goal for the Air Force’s conventional F-35A variant. Lawmakers recently also argued for the A-10’s “superior” capabilities like larger ammunition (Defense Daily, April 10).

SASC subcommittee markups take place May 20 while the full committee will mark up its version of the FY ’15 defense authorization bill May 21 in a closed session.