By AARON MEHTA
WASHINGTON — The battle over the fate of the A-10 took a turn last week, when House appropriators became the first congressional committee to support retiring the fleet. But sources say the Senate will continue to protect the close-air support aircraft, and that the Warthog is likely to survive an Air Force attempt to retire it for at least one more year.
However, that decision could have major implications on the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program, another congressional favorite. The contract award is expected before the end of the month.
An amendment to fund the A-10 by transferring $339.3 million from operations and maintenance accounts, put forth by Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., was voted down 13-23. That marked the first time the A-10 hasn’t won in Congress, where supporters have added funding for the Warthog in the House and Senate armed services committees.
However, congressional sources say the Senate Appropriations Committee is leaning toward funding the A-10 for another year. That would make it three out of four committees in favor of keeping the plane.
One congressional source said the Air Force should use the next year to regroup, develop its argument for retirement and better pitch it to congressional leaders.
“If the Air Force really wants it retired, they need buy-in from senior folks [on Capitol Hill],” the source said. “If the Air Force does a better job lobbying in the future, then maybe it can be done. You need senior people to weigh in on why it’s important.”
While acknowledging that the A-10 is likely safe for the coming year, Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute said the House appropriators’ decision not to fund the A-10 should be seen as the “first step” toward sensitizing the other committees to make a decision on retirement.
“House defense appropriators are a leading indicator of where Congress is eventually going to have to go as a group, whether they like it or not,” Eaglen said. “This is the beginning of the end for the A-10.”
“At the end of the day, appropriators are the only people that matter when it comes to defense budget decisions, as much as the authorizers hate to be reminded of that,” Eaglen added.
However, keeping the A-10 for even one more year puts other key programs in danger, according to service talking points circulated on the Hill.
Among those notes is a section highlighting the risk to the CRH program, which will produce 112 new helicopters to replace the service’s aging H-60 Pave Hawk combat search-and-rescue machines and could be worth as much as $7 billion. That contract will be awarded to the team of Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin before the end of the month, and perhaps as soon as this week.
“The CRH program already has an identified $435.8 million shortfall in the [future years defense program] that the AF has to resolve in order to not breach the contract that will be awarded,” the notes read, alluding to the shortfall caused by the late inclusion of the program into the budget request. “Additional funding offsets in the CRH program due to A-10 retention puts the CRH program at very high risk.
“The Air Force may be forced to terminate the CRH contract, which drives a $345 million bill in [fiscal 2015] as well as forces the Air Force to invest approximately $1 billion into the HH-60 service-life extension program.”
Like the A-10, CRH has been a popular program on the Hill. Originally left out of the Air Force’s budget request, it was added at the last minute due to pressure from Congress. And like the A-10, supporters of the helicopter program are willing to sacrifice other programs to make sure their pet project keeps going.
“Whatever that takes, we’re going to fight for it,” the congressional source said of the CRH program.
Keeping the A-10 requires an offset if Congress sticks with its capped budget, said Russell Rumbaugh, a defense analyst at the Stimson Center in Washington. But that doesn’t mean the Air Force is afraid of pushing political buttons like the CRH, which they know remain popular on the Hill.
“None of this is purely political nor purely operational. Each program has detractors and backers,” Rumbaugh said. “We’re watching the process sort out those various equities of which ones are more powerful.
“I think they’re trying to illustrate that this requires choices. Capped budgeting requires choices. That doesn’t mean within those choices there aren’t still tactical moves to make, including trying to play backers of different programs against each other. But it’s a capped budget. You can’t just have everything at this stage. Not surprisingly, they pick a high profile issue.”
Another alternative mentioned in the notes is the B-1B Lancer fleet. Maj. Gen. James Jones, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, told reporters in March that retiring the B-1B fleet would be the cost equivalent of the A-10 fleet, while Eric Fanning, Air Force undersecretary, acknowledged that the service looked at the B-1 when formulating its budget plan.