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Last updated: Thu. May. 09, 2013 - 01:58 pm EDT

Local Air Guard in line for F-35 fighters – if base stays

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FORT WAYNE — If it remains a fighter wing, Fort Wayne's Air National Guard base is likely to someday convert from A-10 combat jets to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, judging by the talk of Air Force leaders.

Two Air Force officials told a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday that the F-35, which is still under development, will replace the A-10.

"We'll have a mixed force for a while, and the A-10 is uniquely capable at its mission," said Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff. "It just is not as capable at multiple other missions. So over time the intent is to replace it with the F-35 because we just can't afford both anymore."

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley praised the A-10 but said it lacks the versatility of the F-35.

"The A-10 provides great air-to-ground support. They've done tremendous work in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other operations in close air support to ground forces," Donley told the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"But as we go forward, there will be more pressure I think for multirole capabilities like provided by the Joint Strike Fighter," Donley said.

Donley and Welsh were responding to a question from Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., during a hearing by the subcommittee on the Air Force's fiscal 2014 budget.

In video of the hearing released by his office, Coats asked Air Force leaders about expectations for modernizing the A-10.

Officials at Fort Wayne's 122nd Fighter Wing have been saying since 2008 – when the base was still flying F-16 fighters – that they hope to be assigned the supersonic F-35 jets at some point. Col. David Augustine, the base commander, said last week after a closed meeting of state military leaders that the local base is an ideal site for F-35s because of its rural setting, capacity for expansion and community support.

But last year, the Air Force proposed replacing Fort Wayne's 20 A-10 jets with half as many propeller planes used for surveillance and gathering intelligence. Congress scuttled that and other planned changes in missions at air bases around the country.

Coats said after the May 1 meeting of Indiana military commanders, which he organized, that the prospect of recommendations for military base realignments and closings by an independent commission is "pretty strong."

The F-35, built by Lockheed Martin, is reportedly the most expensive procurement project in U.S. military history at nearly $400 billion. The planes are expected to be ready for missions by 2020.

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