WASHINGTON - Arizona congressmen Thursday renewed calls for the Pentagon to drop its "absolutely ridiculous" plan to retire the A-10 fighter, saying the replacement F-35 is 10 times as costly and does not protect ground forces as well.
The Air Force announced in February that it would retire the 40-year-old, close air support jet as part of its 2015 budget cutting, saying it can no longer afford the aging, one-mission plane.
But lawmakers with A-10s in their districts battled back Thursday, saying scrapping the jets would hurt local economies while weakening troop support.
Keeping the A-10 "is a mission we will not stop fighting for," said Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, whose district includes Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where more than 80 of the jets are based.
Barber joined Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and lawmakers from five other states who argued that F-35 jets that are supposed to replace the A-10s will not be online until 2021, leaving a huge gap.
"We are then going to have some kind of nebulous idea of a replacement with an airplane that costs at least 10 times as much?" asked McCain. "That's ridiculous. That's absolutely ridiculous."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in February that the Pentagon plans to retire the A-10 and replace it in the short-term with F-16s until the F-35s are flying.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Davis told a Senate subcommittee hearing Tuesday that the F-16s will be phased out as F-35s become "fully fielded and ready." He told the Armed Services subcommittee that there should be more than 100 fully operational F-35s by 2016.
The A-10 was designed for one purpose - close air support for soldiers on the ground, Davis said. But A-10s only fulfill about 20 percent of missions today because they are about 30 years old, on average, and do not have the technology to communicate information as quickly and easily as newer jets.
The new F-35 will bring "a net-enabled linkage that shares data with the entire joint force, and it's that alone that probably makes this airplane more valuable," Davis said.
Barber said Thursday that the A-10′s one-function design lets it fly at only a few hundred feet, assisting ground troops better than any jet today. He called it the "most important aircraft today."
"The men and women on the ground deserve our full support. The A-10 provides it," Barber said. "Ugly though it may be, it is one fine plane."
Barber said the fleet at Davis-Monthan generates as much as $1.5 billion in economic activity for Tucson and the rest of Pima County per year.
"Clearly there is an economic impact on the community should the A-10 be divested," Barber said. "It's an important asset that we have to keep telling the Air Force about. They know about it, but we have to emphasize the A-10 needs to fly here."
McCain said he and his colleagues will work to "make sure that any decision made by the United States Air Force regarding the A-10 … is something that is clearly justifiable."
"At this point in time, I certainly do not think that's the case," McCain said.