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Pentagon to cut A-10 jets, a Davis-Monthan Air Force Base mainstay

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WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday that the Pentagon will retire the A-10 Thunderbolt fighter jet, a fixture of the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson for decades.

Hagel called the decision to retire the A-10 was “a close call,” but said it was necessary as part of a sweeping series of cuts to the 2015 defense budget that also aim to increase readiness and modernize the department.

But lawmakers in Arizona and other parts of the country where A-10s are based have argued that cutting the “Warthog” does not make economic sense, since it is a proven and inexpensive-to-maintain aircraft.

“If the Air Force were to divest itself of the Warthog, it would create a critical capability gap that cannot be bridged in the near future,” Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, and other members wrote in a Feb. 6 letter to President Barack Obama. “The A-10 is unsurpassed in its ability to provide close-air combat support for service members on the ground.”

Retiring the A-10 could also hit the Tucson-area economy, which reaped a $1.1 billion economic impact from operations at Davis-Monthan in fiscal 2012, according a report by base officials that was released last year.

“With the A-10 gone, it will leave a vacuum that’s hard to fill,” said Mike Varney, CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber. He called the A-10 the biggest part of Davis-Monthan.

But Hagel said the budget decisions unveiled Monday were carefully weighed to let the U.S. maintain a “technological edge” against its adversaries while keeping the defense budget under control. Retiring the A-10 is expected to save $3.5 billion over five years, he said.

“The choices ahead will define our institutions for years to come,” Hagel said.

The cut would also accelerate the “long-standing” Air Force plan to replace the A-10s with the new F-35 fighter jets, he said. Other Air Force cuts included retiring the aging U-2 spy plane, which Hagel said can be capably replaced by the the military’s Global Hawk surveillance drone.

Supporters of the A-10 have argued that the plane still has up to 20 years of life still left if properly maintained, but Hagel dismissed that claim Monday.

“It cannot survive or operate effectively,” Hagel said of the A-10, whose age will cause it to be more “difficult and costly to maintain.”

But supporters have said there is “no clear replacement” for the A-10 and that its loss would cripple the military’s ability to provide close-air support. The heavily armored Warthog, which is able to fly low and slow over battlefields, has a history as a major tank-buster.

Barber insisted Monday that he is not done fighting to keep the A-10, which he called a victim of budget sequestration, the across-the-board budget cuts mandated by Congress.

“We must instead do the hard work of going through the entire budget and cutting programs that are wasteful, outdated or duplicative,” Barber said, according to a statement from his office. “Sequestration is causing deep harm to our country – and this is only one example of that.”