By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon's decision to retire the entire U.S. fleet of popular A-10 "Warthog" aircraft is painful but necessary as the military is forced to save money now to develop tomorrow's weapons, Air Force leaders said on Friday.
General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told a panel in the House of Representatives that eliminating the 283 tank-killer jets would save $3.7 billion over the next five years plus another $500 million in planned aircraft upgrades.
The money saved would in turn be used to bolster current Air Force readiness, which has slipped in recent years because of budget cuts, and to focus on priorities for the future, such as the radar-evading F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a new aerial refueling tanker and a new long-range bomber.
"By making these tough choices today ... we think we're going to preserve our combat capability and make each taxpayer dollar count better for the future," Air Force Secretary Deborah James told the House Armed Services Committee.
The Air Force bid to retire the A-10 comes as the Pentagon works to comply with White House and congressional directions to slash a trillion dollars in planned spending over a decade.
It is one of several Pentagon proposals included in the president's budget this month that have met resistance on Capitol Hill.
The heavily armored, slow-flying Warthog is enormously popular among soldiers and Marines. It can withstand ground fire while loitering for long periods above a battlefield spraying 30mm armor-piercing, depleted-uranium cannon rounds at tanks and other targets.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers last week the A-10 had come to his rescue in battle and called it "the ugliest, most beautiful aircraft on the planet."
The 40-year-old plane also has strong supporters in Congress and has survived previous Air Force attempts reduce the fleet. But Welsh, himself an A-10 pilot, told lawmakers that in the current budget climate "trimming around the edges just wasn't going to get it done" and the whole fleet needed to go.
"While no one, especially me, is happy about recommending divestiture of this great old friend, it's the right decision from a military perspective," Welsh said.
He said the Air Force had looked at eliminating other aircraft fleets, but further cuts in fighters could jeopardize its ability to control the air in a theater of operations and eliminating the KC-10 tanker aircraft would have too big an impact on potential missions.
The Air Force reconnaissance fleet is already far too small to fulfill all the needs of regional military commanders, and the Army, which is cutting more personnel than the other service branches, needs a substantial air transport fleet to ensure the flexibility of its smaller force, Welsh said.
Analysis found "that cutting the A-10 fleet was the lowest-risk ... option from an operational perspective," he said.
Acknowledging concerns about the loss of the A-10, Welsh and James promised that other aircraft could take on the close-air support role and that mission would be a remain priority.
"Close air support is not an afterthought to me and it's not going to be a secondary mission in the United States Air Force," said Welsh, whose son is a Marine. "But close air support is not an aircraft. It's a mission, and we do it very, very well with a number of airplanes today."
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Tom Brown)