Whiteman Personnel Worried about Possible Fighter Loss

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WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE - Pilots and support personnel at Whiteman Air Force base are speaking out about their concerns the Air Force is planning to kill the A-10 fighter program, a move they say would put soldiers' lives in danger on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

The possible elimination of the A-10 is a huge topic of conversation--and worry--at the base, according to Air Force Reserve Lt. Colonel Tony Roe and Sgt. Mauricio Alejandro Arias of the Missouri National Guard. Whiteman houses both Air Force and Army personnel in support of the A-10 program.

The Air Force has been touting the next generation F-35A fighter plane as a replacement for the A-10. But the Air Force Times newspaper reported the decision "Isn't likely to be popular with ground troops who rely on close-air support and hold the A-10 in high regard."

Roe said he understands the need for the Air Force to plan for the future and modernize. But he said, from his point of view as a pilot, the A-10 is the best available plane for close air support, which he calls "a key doctrinal mission of the Air Force"--defending troops on the ground.

"I'm not a politician. I'm a fighter pilot," said Roe, adding "We want to have the best equipment and the best training and then bring all of our guys home. In my mind that's what we owe the guy on the ground. We owe him the best platform that can hit the target the quickest, and the most lethal way possible to let them get away from the enemy, get away from a bad position, and get everybody home."

Roe admits the the F-35A can do things the A-10 can't. He said the former excels at air-to-air combat, for instance. But what makes the A-10 the best plane for close air support is its gun, Roe said.

"A lot of times in Afghanistan, we're too close for bombs," he said. "We get inside the mid-risk distance where the gun is the best option for us to kill the target but not hurt any friendlies."

Roe and the Times note the F-35A carries 180 rounds of ammunition, compared with the 1,170 rounds carried by the A-10.

"Your perspective on how much that matter varies depending on whether you're a politician sitting in Washington or the guy in the first truck at the head of the convoy in Afghanistan," Roe said. "If it's your life on the line, you want the best possible protection, not 'close enough,'" he said.

No one disputes the A-10 saves lives. Arias said he is living proof. He credits the A-10 with saving his life, and the lives of 16 in his convoy, when they came under heavy attack in Afghanistan in 2008. Arias worries that if the A-10 is eliminated, that protection won't be there for his wife, an Air Force medic, when she deploys to Afghanistan this month.

"My question is how many lives are we going to lose?," said Arias. "Has anybody asked that question--'How many live are we going to lose?' Because that day 17 lives were saved. I don't know if anybody knows what 17 lives are. Is that important?"

Last month, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R, N.H., grilled the nominee for Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James, about the Air Force's plans for the A-10. During confirmation hearings, Ayotte held up a slide she said was from the Air Force's Air Combat Command that outlined plans to eliminate the plane. That slide has fueled talk the plane is on the chopping block.

Ayotte said that while she supports the F-35A, she is concerned that it is too soon to kill the A-10. She asked James to promise to notify Congress if the Air Force makes definitive plans to kill the A-10, so that Congress can weigh in on this issue.

James agreed, adding no decisions had been made but admitted, "Planners and people who are looking at budget and possible scenarios are looking at options. And everything, including complete divestitures of aircraft fleet are possibilities. They are on the table."

The Huffington Post reported that Ayotte blocked James' confirmation as a result of concerns about the A-10.

Neither Senators Ayotte nor Claire McCaskill, D, Mo., could be reached for comment because of the government shutdown.

Roe said that while critics might call the A-10 a single mission plane, the military has other single mission weapons, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are intended to do only one job and do it well.