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House To Vote On Fate Of A-10 Warthogs


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Congress ordered big savings in defense spending. Now, Congress is moving to block those savings. What follows is a classic story of how federal budgeting works.

MONTAGNE: The Pentagon faces budget restraints. Lawmakers favor cuts in general, but objected when the cuts became specific. When the Defense Department said it doesn't need some old weapons, lawmakers disagreed.

INSKEEP: One battle involves the low-flying plane called the A-10 Warthog, which the full House may vote on as soon as today.

NPR's David Welna reports on the battle in Congress to get Congress to agree with what Congress said Congress wants.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: On this much, everyone agrees: No warplane provides troops on the ground with better close air support and more deadly firepower than the A-10 Warthog. The problem: That's about the only thing the Warthog does well, while the Pentagon wants jet fighters capable of a broad array of missions.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: The Warthog is a venerable platform, and this was a tough decision.

WELNA: When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled the Defense budget in February, he declared the A-10 obsolete.

HAGEL: The A-10 is a 40-year-old, single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield. It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses.

WELNA: Hagel's budget consigned the entire fleet of several hundred A-10's to the boneyard. At first, Congress seemed inclined to go along with that plan. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon had this to say about the A-10's fate earlier this month.

REPRESENTATIVE BUCK MCKEON: For the sake of every American who's been in a firefight, I want to save this plane. But I just can't do it, not at these budget levels. The money simply isn't there.

WELNA: McKeon proposed putting the Warthogs in storage, wrapped in latex, lest they be needed again. But later, when his committee met, he got scant support. Arizona Democrat Ron Barber gave McKeon's storage proposal a thumbs down.

REPRESENTATIVE RON BARBER: While the bill claims that the fighters could be put back into service if the military needs them, it's not that simple. We won't be shrink-wrapping the pilots, nor will we shrink wrap the maintenance crews.

WELNA: Parochialism wrapped in strategic arguments carried the day. Like other lawmakers with A-10's based in their districts, Missouri Republican Vicky Hartzler said this is no time to be sending these aircraft into retirement.

REPRESENTATIVE VICKY HARTZLER: These platforms are over in Afghanistan right now, and I'm proud of the 442nd unit out of Whiteman Air Force Base, which I represent, which was just deployed a month ago to be there and provide that close air support.

WELNA: Hartzler and Barber offered a measure blocking any A-10 retirements next year. More than two-thirds of the committee's members voted for it. Gordon Adams was a national security budget official in the Clinton White House. He says the committee pulled an accounting trick to keep the A-10's flying by drawing funds from a future war budget that simply does not exist.

DR. GORDON ADAMS: The committee on the House side right now has decided they're just going to hope for more money in the future and leave the things in there that are going to cost money.

WELNA: The push is now on in the Senate to keep the A-10 flying. It's being led by New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, whose husband is a former A-10 pilot, and whose state makes components for the plane. Last week, Ayotte held a news conference with five other GOP senators.

SENATOR KELLY AYOTTE: I think the positive message that we have to say to you is it was an overwhelming vote in the House to say preserve the A-10.

WELNA: This is not the Pentagon's first attempt at retiring the A-10. And as Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss pointed out, nor is this the first time Congress is pushing back.

SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Look, guys. We know you had a tough decision to make. You made this decision several years ago, and we changed your mind then. We need to change your mind again, now.

WELNA: The A-10 is only one of many items the Pentagon says it no longer needs, but which Congress says it does too need. Lawmakers also plan to block the Pentagon's plans to retire the U-2 spy plane, lay up 14 warships for modernization, dock an aircraft carrier, and carry out another round of base closings. Despite a White House veto threat, Congress shows no sign of relenting.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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