Budget: More Airmen at Hill and move to retire A-10

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HILL AIR FORCE BASE — The Air Force’s fiscal year 2016 budget includes several effects — both positive and negative — on Hill Air Force Base.

The proposed budget, which needs congressional approval, includes a plan to increase the Air Force’s total number of active-duty personnel by some 4,000 airmen. The Air Force will grow its active-duty force partly to address what it calls “key capability gaps” in the nuclear weapons program, cybersecurity and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The budget includes 1,120 military and civilian personnel as part of a “Force Improvement Program” for the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise. As part of the plan, 158 technical and engineering staff positions will be added at Hill to support an initiative to recapitalize the Minuteman III infrastructure. Hill is home to the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center ICBM Systems Directorate, which is responsible for inception-to-retirement management of Minuteman weapon systems.

The Air Force also plans to increase its reserve force by about 2,000. According to an article in the Air Force Times, the reserve increase would add 200 full-time and 925 traditional reserve positions at Hill, Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

Kari Tilton, spokeswoman with Hill’s reserve component, the 419th Fighter Wing, said it’s not yet known how many new reserve positions will be included at Hill.

The budget also includes another request to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II, commonly referred to as the Warthog. Hill’s Ogden Air Logistics Complex conducts maintenance, modification and repair work to the Warthog on the base. The Air Force had a plan to retire the A-10 last year, but the initiative was ultimately blocked by Congress.

According to Air Force budget documents, the A-10 was the primary Air Force Close Air Support aircraft, but as weapon systems, smart munitions and tactics evolved over the last 20 years, other platforms became capable of providing the same close air support. During recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force says the A-10 accomplished only 20 percent of all close air support missions.

“Due to budget limitations and to better protect ground forces against high-end threats, the Air Force will begin retiring the A-10 Thunderbolt fleet in FY 2016 to focus available funding on more survivable, multi-role platforms better capable of providing CAS to ground forces in future conflicts,” says a Department of Defense overview brief on the budget and the decision to retire the Warthog.

The retirement is phased across four years in coordination with the F-35 procurement plan, so the plane would still fly until 2019 under the proposal, but 164 A-10s would be retired in the next year.

Several Utah lawmakers, including Rep. Rob Bishop and Sen. Orrin Hatch, have been vocal in their opposition to the A-10 retirement plan and others across the nation have already vowed to halt the retirement plan.

“The A-10 has proven time and again over several decades to be an extremely effective weapons system for close air support,” Bishop said.

Bishop said the Air Force has spent millions of dollars, including money spent at Hill, to upgrade the A-10 to make a high number of them viable for many years into the future.

“Until the F-35 comes online and is fully operational, I don’t see an acceptable alternative to the A-10 in protecting lives on the battlefield,“ Bishop said. ”I believe that the decision to retire the A-10 by the Obama Administration is premature, budget-driven and highlights a lack of proper funding of national defense requirements in favor of greatly expanded social spending.“

Bishop vowed to work with his colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee to explore viable funding alternatives to keep enough A-10s flying in the short term to fill the void.