By David Pittman –
Pentagon Delays A-10 Retirement But Phaseout On The Horizon
Arizona congressional leaders, top-ranking Tucson and Pima County political officials and Southern Arizona business interests all rejoiced over a decision by the Pentagon in February to delay the planned retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt II jet aircraft until 2022.
But a recent announcement that phaseout of the A-10 actually will begin in 2019 and will be completed by 2022 has renewed local concern over the overall vulnerability of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and its massive economic impact on the Tucson community.
Yet there are positive signs that the base is well respected nationally. On May 9 the Air Combat Command announced that the air base received the 2016 Commander-in-Chief’s Installation Excellence award – which the base won previously four years ago. D-M is now competing at the Headquarters AF level with other Major Command submissions. The award recognizes the outstanding and innovative efforts of the people who maintain and operate U.S. installations.
“Congratulations to all of you,” said U.S. Air Force Col. James Meger, 355th Fighter Wing commander. “Thanks for providing a combat-ready force, developing our airmen, taking care of our families and for optimizing the resources we are given to accomplish the mission.” Meger stressed that D-M receiving the award wouldn’t be possible without the outstanding support of the Tucson community. “Our community partners are amazing wingmen and provided unrivaled support to the base,” he said.
The A-10 is the backbone of the 355th Fighter Wing, which is the host unit and primary mission at Davis-Monthan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Feb. 2 that final mothballing of the A-10 “Warthog,” used primarily to provide close-air support and search and rescue operations to American and allied ground troops, would be deferred until 2022, as it is replaced by F-35 Joint Strike Fighters “squadron by squadron.”
The decision to delay retirement of the A-10 was widely viewed as a victory for U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, a Tucson Republican, and U.S. Sen. John McCain, Arizona’s senior GOP senator. McSally and McCain, both former military pilots, successfully fought an Air Force plan to scrap all 300 A-10s in the U.S. fleet by 2019 in contentious budget battles over the last two years.
However, the Air Force’s latest force-structure plan calls for phaseout of the A-10s to begin during the 2019 fiscal year and putting the last Warthog in D-M’s “boneyard” by October 2021, the start of the 2022 fiscal year.
Many base supporters also remain concerned that ending the A-10 mission makes D-M more vulnerable to future closure.
There are 83 Warthogs in three squadrons at D-M, making the base home to the nation’s largest contingent of A-10s. According to the Air Force’s A-10 retirement plans, 25 A-10s at D-M would be mothballed in fiscal year 2019, followed by 28 in 2020. The last 30 A-10s at the Tucson air base are scheduled to be retired before the close of 2021.
While McSally was pleased with the Pentagon’s decision to delay retirement of the A-10, she vowed to continue fighting to keep the aircraft in action beyond 2022.
McSally was an A-10 pilot based at D-M, was the first female fighter to fly in combat, and was the first woman to command a fighter squadron in U.S. history. She said the new plan to retire the A-10 by 2022 is still premature because the Pentagon spent more than $1 billion a few years ago to re-wing the aircraft and upgrade its electronics so that it could be operational until 2028.
“With the A-10s deployed in the Middle East to fight ISIS, in Europe to deter Russian aggression, and along the Korean Peninsula, administration officials can no longer deny how invaluable these planes are to our arsenal and military capabilities,” said McSally, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
“We need to have a thoughtful discussion about what should replace the A-10 once it can no longer fly. What airplane is that? Until we have a proven, tested airplane that is going to provide close-air support in combat and search-and-rescue to our troops on the ground that are under fire and in harm’s way, we should not put the A-10 in the boneyard.”
McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Defense Department’s announcement delaying the A-10s retirement “is a credit to the brave airmen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and military installations across the country that are providing unmatched close-air support in critical missions throughout the world.
“There is no weapon in our arsenal that offers more effective close-air support to American ground troops serving in harm’s way than the A-10 aircraft,” McCain said. “I look forward to seeing our A-10 pilots continue to make important advances in the fight against ISIL in the Middle East, boosting NATO’s efforts to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and supporting vital missions for U.S. national security wherever they are needed.”
According to missionstrongaz.org, the website for the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance, D-M’s annual economic impact on the local community is $1.75 billion and the base creates more than 19,000 direct and indirect jobs.
A Davis-Monthan study places the local economic impact of the base in 2014 at $974 million. However, when the 19,000 military retirees living in the Tucson area are included in the calculation, that estimate of local economic impact jumps to nearly $1.5 billion.
David Godlewski, president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association and the 2016 chairman of SADA, said it is “welcome news that we are hearing the A-10 retirement is going to be pushed out. We need to make sure there is an appropriate replacement for the A-10. As we have seen in recent conflicts, the A-10 has played a critical role and it would be shortsighted to move too quickly in retiring the A-10.”
Sharon Bronson, chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, said the county’s support of D-M is unequivocal.
“We are thrilled the Air Force is extending the life and the mission of the A-10 until 2022,” she said. “Pima County and the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution early on that supports D-M no matter what the future mission or future aircraft serving that mission may be.”
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said, “The A-10’s greatest supporters are among our U.S. ground troops, who value its performance in providing close-air support. I know this because I have spoken with any number of them who told me the A-10 saved their lives.
“The A-10 is currently the principal flying mission at Davis-Monthan and it will be for many years to come,” Rothschild said. “This gives us opportunity and we must be alert and working hard to expand current missions and look for future missions at D-M.”
Mike Varney, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber, called the Defense Department’s announcement on the A-10 “good news.”
“Maintaining a flying mission at Davis-Monthan has been the subject of an aggressive advocacy campaign by local interests, including the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance and DM50,” Varney said. “The Tucson Metro Chamber is proud to have been a part of the SADA advocacy effort since its inception several years ago. The A-10 is a key component of the war on terror in the Middle East and in other important locations around the globe.”
Eric Gibbs, president of the board of directors of the Tucson Association of Realtors, said, “The A-10 is critical to operations at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which in turn makes it vital to the Southern Arizona economy. Our member Realtors know this well, which is why we are so pleased at the news the A-10 will continue to fly until 2022.
“Southern Arizona stands united behind its air force base,” Gibbs said. “This issue isn’t about politics or politicians. It’s about our community, the men and women who serve at D-M, and the future of the base.”
However, Brian Harpel, president of DM50, warned that the A-10 ultimately will be retired and that new flying missions need to be located at D-M to guarantee the base’s future.
“The A-10s are going to go away at some point; it’s not if but when,” Harpel said. “As a community, we need to be vigilant with our congressional delegation in pursuing and welcoming any flying mission the Air Force wants to bring to D-M.”