New AF plan would start cutting D-M A-10s in '18
By David Wichner
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base would start losing its A-10 Thunderbolt II attack jets as soon as the fall of 2018 under a new plan to retire the entire A-10 fleet by 2022.
The Air Force said in early February it would delay its proposed retirement of the A-10 'Warthog' - a close-air-support jet that represents a mainstay of D-M operations - until 2022. Earlier attempts by the Air Force to mothball the jet by 2019 were turned back by Congress.
That announcement was cheered by A-10 backers in Congress, including Arizona Sen. John McCain and Rep. Martha McSally , a Tucson Republican and former A-10 combat pilot, who led efforts that halted A-10 retirements the Air Force had initially sought to start in 2015.
Under the Air Force's latest force-structure plan, the A-10 cuts would start going away in the 2019 fiscal year, when D-M would first lose 25 active-duty A-10s. The 2019 fiscal year will start Oct. 1, 2018.
Also in fiscal 2019, Davis- Monthan would lose six EC-130H Compass Call electronic-warfare planes - about half of a fleet based solely at D-M.
In fiscal 2020, D-M
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Sen. John McCain and Rep. Martha McSally helped deflect a Defense Department plan to mothball the A-10 by 2019.
MIKE CHRISTY / ARIZONA DAILY STAR 2015
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would lose 28 A-10s from an Air Force Reserve training unit, and in fiscal 2021, 30 A-10s would be cut from an active-duty training squadron.
Though the Air Force has said it would replace A-10s with F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters 'squadron by squadron,' the latest restructuring plan shows D-M only gaining a 21-plane Reserve squadron of F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighters in fiscal 2020.
The Air Force structure plan refers to aircraft and unit types, not specific squadrons. But based on the types of units cut, the initial A-10 cuts would come from the 354th Fighter Squadron, an active-duty combat unit under D-M's host 355th Fighter Wing.
The other two A-10 squadrons at D-M are the 357th Fighter Squadron, an active-duty training unit; and the Reserve 47th Fighter Squadron training unit.
Each squadron has an authorized contingent of 24 planes plus spares, for a total of more than 80 A-10s. A-10 supporters including McSally and McCain have argued that there is no ready replacement for the A-10 for persistent close-air support, and that retiring the plane would put American troops at risk.
McSally has pledged to keep fighting to keep the A-10 until a suitable replacement is found, and to keep the EC-130H Compass Call operation fully funded.
In announcing plans to put off the A-10 retirement in early February, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter acknowledged the Warthog was in high demand to battle Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
The head of a D-M support group said the announcement of a temporary reprieve for the A-10 appeared to give local supporters some breathing room.
But the new schedule shows supporters of D-M can waste no time in identifying new missions for the base, which pumps nearly $1 billion annually into the local economy, said Brian Harpel, president of the business-backed DM50.
'It goes back to what we've been saying, the A-10's going to go away at some point in time - it's not if, but when,' Harpel said.
'As a community, we need to be vigilant with our congressional delegation and with the Air Force in pursing any flying mission at DMAFB,' Harpel said. 'There's just no room to let up, no room for days off on this.'
To that end, a group called the DM Joint Steering Committee, made up of the DM50, the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance, the city of Tucson, Pima County and others, is poised to hire a consultant to help lobby for new missions to keep D-M open and relevant into the future.
Harpel said the group is finalizing a formal agreement with a consultant picked from more than a dozen groups that responded to a solicitation last fall.
Local supporters have floated several ideas for new D-M missions, including the idea of making it a central operations base, home to new unmanned-aircraft units or basing a next-generation close-air-support plane here.
Most recently, Air Force officials in December mentioned D-M along with several other bases as a possible home to expanded drone operations.
Harpel noted that D-M already is home to one unmanned aircraft unit. The 214th Reconnaissance Group has been based at D-M since 2007 and is under the command of the Arizona Air National Guard 162nd Wing at Tucson International Airport.
The unit remotely flies MQ-1 Predator drones and trains in takeoffs and landings at a facility set up last year at Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at email@example.com or 573-4181.
Capt. Brad Matherne, 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron pilot, conducts pre-flight checks inside an F-35A Lightning II. The F-35 has been mentioned as a possible A-10 replacement.
SENIOR AIRMAN BRETT CLASHMAN / U.S. AIR FORCE