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Last updated: Tue. Feb. 25, 2014 - 10:24 am EDT

122nd longing for new F-35 fighter

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For the second time in two years, the U.S. Department of Defense says it wants to retire A-10 combat jets – the type flown by Fort Wayne’s Air National Guard base.

This time, the Pentagon is talking about eliminating all 340 of its Warthogs and ultimately replacing many of them with the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – an aircraft openly coveted by the local 122nd Fighter Wing.

Whether such a swap might happen, and whether the Fort Wayne base would continue to maintain and operate a squadron of 20 planes, will ultimately be decided by Congress.

The commander of the 122nd Fighter Wing played down Monday’s recommendation by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said mothballing the A-10 fleet would save $3.5 billion over five years.

“Nothing new here – this is consistent with USAF discussions over the past few months,” Col. David Augustine said in an email, referring to talks among Air Force leaders. “Our strategic goal remains to bring the JSF to Fort Wayne.”

How many F-35s the base would receive is “anyone’s guess,” Augustine said. “I would hope for a minimum of 18 JSFs to be placed at the 122nd.”

But a national security analyst said the F-35’s high price will prohibit a sweeping conversion from A-10 and F-16 jets.

“Somebody is going to be left standing when the music stops,” John Pike, director of in Alexandria, Va., said in a telephone interview about competition for the new planes.

“The reality is we have a force structure and a base structure that was predicated on airplanes that cost $30 million or $40 million, not $200 million,” Pike said.

The Air Force Times reported last year that, according to the Government Accountability Office, the hourly operational flying cost for the F-35 will be double that of the $17,564 for the A-10.

In 2012, the same year the Fort Wayne base finished its switch from F-16 fighter jets to A-10s, Congress rejected a Pentagon cost-cutting proposal that, among other things, would have replaced the Warthogs at the Ferguson Road complex with half as many propeller planes used for intelligence and surveillance. Had the mission shift occurred, the 122nd Fighter Wing stood to lose about 150 of the 1,200 personnel assigned there, including 85 full-time jobs, many of them in ammunition maintenance.

A-10 advocates sing the praises of the 1970s-era jet for its singular ability to provide close-air support to ground troops in combat. But Hagel reportedly said Monday it is out of date, designed “to kill tanks on a Cold War battlefield.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. – whose husband is a former A-10 pilot – issued a statement Monday to saying she will oppose the retirement of the A-10 fleet.

Ayotte is a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee. Its chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has fought the elimination of A-10s, which are flown from an Air National Guard base in his state.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is a member of the same committee. Donnelly “supports the current A-10 mission and will be working closely with the DoD and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure that Fort Wayne retains an air combat mission,” his communications director, Elizabeth Shappell, said Monday in an email.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, issued statements saying they will continue to work to keep a fighter wing in Fort Wayne.

The Pentagon’s proposed budget for fiscal 2015, which is to include the A-10 cuts, is scheduled to be released March 4.

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