HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Congress seems dead set on keeping the A-10 in the air and a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) plans to make that happen includes shelving an entire fighter squadron and 24 F-16s at Hill Air Force Base.
The committee last week released a nearly 600-page report on its markup of the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. The committee’s version of the NDAA includes a provision that would prohibit the Air Force’s planned retirement of the A-10 Warthog and require that the force maintain at least 171 combat-ready A-10s.
“The committee believes that the Air Force is proposing the retirement of the A-10 fleet purely on the basis of the fiscal environment and not on grounds of the ability of the combat air forces to effectively meet the requirements of the combatant commanders and defense strategy,” the report says.
The committee says that with the A-10 fleet currently performing air attacks against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, any withdrawals of the close air support aircraft would create “unacceptable risk in the capacity and readiness of the combat air forces without a suitable replacement available.”
But with an Air Force-wide shortage of maintainers, keeping the A-10 at work while the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter comes on board leaves the Air Force with a manpower problem. To combat this, the committee has included a provision in the NDAA that would call for the Air Force to stand down one of the two F-16 fighter squadrons currently operating at Hill, along with the accompanying 24 jets.
The stand-down would happen some time in FY 2016, the committee’s report says.
The plan is similar to one included in an Air Force talking document that was provided to the House and Senate Armed Services committees in April. That document said if lawmakers keep the A-10 flying for at least another year, there wouldn’t be enough maintenance personnel at Hill to stand up the first operating unit of the F-35.
Hill will house the Air Force’s first operational F-35 squadrons and is expected to receive 72 of the jets by 2019. The base currently has two F-16 fighter squadrons with 48 total jets.
“It would be premature to speculate on final courses of action before we have an NDAA and an appropriation,” a statement from the Secretary of the Air Force says on the issue. “The Air Force has actively explored a range of options to address its maintainer shortage. An inability to divest A-10s will impact the ability to provide experienced maintainers to support the F-35 mission.”
The Senate committee’s report also recommends the Air Force cut back its headquarters staff and use some of the 6,000 additional positions it has requested in 2016 to go toward F-35 and A-10 maintenance workers.
“The committee believes that combat capability, not headquarter staffs, should be the priority of the service leaders,” the report says.
The committee’s plan also includes a limit on how much money the Air Force can spend in 2016 on F-35 procurement. The cap would be set at $4.3 billion. The committee reasons that the Air Force’s FY 2016 budget request for 44 F-35s, which represents a 57 percent increase from 2015, would increase the risk of cost growth and schedule delays that have already plagued the F-35 program.
The cap would remain in place “until the Secretary of Defense certifies to the congressional defense committees that F–35A aircraft delivered in fiscal year 2018 will have full combat capability with currently planned hardware, software, and weapons carriage,” the report says.