For the first time, the largest group of tactical air control party airmen have joined with lawmakers to publicly oppose the Air Force's plan to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a jet beloved by troops on the ground but in the budget cross hairs of the service.
The Tactical Air Control Party Association joined lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday to call on the Air Force to reconsider its plan to cut the entire A-10 fleet, a move that has already faced stiff opposition from lawmakers and is not likely to move forward the way the service had planned.
"This is the first time we've spoken publicly about this issue," said retired Master Sgt. Charlie Keebaugh, president of the TACP Association. "We are compelled to take action at this point. Knowing the status of the world and our brothers, and our friends who are being sent downrange, they deserve to have the support that they need to do the mission."
Thursday's press conference reignited the debate over the Air Force's plans to retire the A-10 as Congress returned to Washington after a break for mid-term elections to take up unfinished business, including the defense authorization bill. Both the House and Senate authorization committees have moved to block the A-10 from being retired.
"I've been fighting so hard for the A-10, and there's only one reason for that," Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said. "I believe when we send our men and women to fight on our behalf, that they deserve the very best and we have a responsibility to ensure we can do everything we can to bring them home.
There's no doubt the A-10 is the best close-air support platform out there. It is very important that we preserve the capacity to give the very best close-air support to our men and women."
The press conference came just days after the Air Force disclosed it was working on a compromise plan to retire about 72 A-10s in order to move maintenance airmen over to the F-35. The service needs 1,100 maintainers to help the F-35 reach initial operating capability in 2016.
The plan has not received much support on Capitol Hill.
"We understand that as time goes on, the A-10 will be replaced by the F-35," said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga. "But it makes to sense to take a weapons system away that works right now based on problems right now … to have another weapons system in five, six, seven years."
The TACP Association holds a conference every October. At the conference last month, the association polled all of its members to see if there was any support for the service's plan to retire the A-10.
One hundred percent of the airmen opposed the move, Keebaugh said. The association has 1,300 active-duty and Air National Guard members who have been directed to not speak about the issue, but the 2,000 retired members are united in opposition to the Air Force's plan, Keebaugh said.
The association has sent letters to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James urging them to reconsider the move. The association also suggested a meeting with the secretaries and its members to "get their opinion with no fear of retribution for their career."
The leaders who are suggesting the retirement are out of touch with what troops on the ground need, he said.
"The people who are saying this have never been shot at, have never been on a battlefield and had to employ that asset, and look up in the sky and see a stack of ten different airframes, and choose what they want," he said.