WASHINGTON -- Congress moved one step closer to saving the embattled A-10 "Warthog" for another year, with Senate Appropriations Committee approval Thursday of a defense funding bill that included $338 million to keep the jets flying.
It is the latest step in a battle that began in February, when the Pentagon unveiled a budget request that called for the decades-old fleet to be retired, worrying officials around Tucson's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base where 83 of the jets are based.
Davis-Monthan's "economic impact for Tucson and southern Arizona is enormous," said Mike Varney, CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber. He said the base contributes an estimated $1.2 billion to the region's economy.
The amendment was part of Appropriation Committee approval of a $549.3 billion Defense Department budget, which now goes to the full Senate for consideration. The committee amendment restored funding for flight hours, pilot training, fuel, maintenance, and operations for A-10 pilots and crew.
The House in June passed a $570.4 billion defense budget that also protects the A-10. Instead of funding continued operation like the Senate, however, the House bill prohibits the Pentagon from spending any money to "divest, retire, transfer or place in storage, or prepare to divest, retire, transfer or place in storage any A-10 aircraft."
The differences between the bills would have to be worked out in committee between the two chambers, and it was unclear Friday whether that would come before the August recess. But A-10 backers welcomed news of the Senate committee vote, nonetheless.
"I am pleased that the committee affirmed the value and unique close-air support capability the A-10 provides," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a statement after Thursday's vote.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II -- affectionately known to troops as the Warthog -- has been the primary aircraft for close-air support of ground forces since its introduction in 1977.
But in February, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Air Force would shelve the A-10 fleet for budgetary reasons and replace the venerable jets with the new F-35.
"Retiring the A-10 fleet saves $3.5 billion over five years and accelerates the Air Force's long-standing modernization plan - which called for replacing the A-10s with the more-capable F-35 in the early 2020s," Hagel said when he announced the Pentagon's fiscal 2015 budget request.
The plan quickly ran into opposition on Capitol Hill from lawmakers who had A-10s in their districts.
McCain in April called the Pentagon plan "absolutely ridiculous." He said it would "do away with the finest close-air support weapon in history … to have some kind of nebulous idea of a replacement with an airplane (F-35) that costs at least 10 times as much."
Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, who pushed hard for the Warthog to be included in the House version of the budget, said in a prepared statement this week that the A-10 "is essential to the safety of our men and women in our armed forces who are engaged in ground combat."
An aide to Barber said "there are still a number of steps" before the future of the A-10 is assured, but Varney said the House and Senate bills are giving "us more time to advocate for the A-10."
"There is general agreement that there is no other replacement" for the A-10, Varney said. "We would like to see the A-10 fly far a long, long time."