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The Air Force intends to ground the A-10 Warthog aircraft, including the 21 stationed in Fort Wayne.

A-10 fans decry Air Force move

Pentagon plans to ground fleet, convert to F-35

– It’s often called the military’s ugliest aircraft, a snub-nosed tank of an airplane that’s nicknamed “Warthog” for its appearance and ferocity. The A-10 Thunderbolt has been the Air Force’s equivalent of an in-the-trenches grunt for almost 40 years: heavily armed and armored, designed to fly low and take out the enemy at close range.

But now, the Pentagon has proposed shuttering the fleet as part of across-the-board cuts in defense spending.

“While no one, especially me, is happy about recommending divestiture of this great old friend, it’s the right military decision,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “And it’s representative of the extremely difficult choices that we’re being forced to make.”

The Air National Guard 122nd Fighter Wing in Fort Wayne flies 21 of the Warthogs. Officials at the base announced in March that the planes are to be replaced by F-16 fighter jets under the fiscal 2015 budget proposed by the Obama administration.

Getting rid of the remaining about 300 aircraft would save $3.7 billion over five years, Defense Department officials say, and allow the Air Force to bring in more sophisticated aircraft, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, to provide what is called “close air support.”

Supporters of the A-10 have launched an aggressive campaign to save an aircraft they say is unparalleled in the history of American aviation: a slow-flying airplane designed to fly close enough to the ground so that pilots can distinguish friend from foe, often with their own eyes.

The A-10 has saved dozens of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it has performed in a way that modern planes – flying high and fast – never could, they say.

“The best close air support platform we have around is the A-10,” U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte , R-N.H., said at a news conference Thursday, where she was joined by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and several A-10 pilots. “And we owe it to our men and women in uniform to ensure that they have the best when it comes to this incredibly important mission.”

Air Force officials argue that with the defense spending cuts, they have no choice but to get rid of the entire A-10 fleet. Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that officials had looked at ways to save the A-10 by cutting other programs. But they ultimately decided that the A-10 was the option with the lowest risk.

“We have a lot of other airplanes that do close air support that can do those other important things,” he said. “The A-10 isn’t used in that way. It doesn’t mean it’s not a great platform. … The comment I’ve heard that somehow the Air Force is walking away from close air support I must admit frustrates me.”

One of those aircraft will be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, officials have said. But the aircraft, which has been repeatedly delayed and has seen its cost skyrocket, is not expected to be ready until at least 2021. And the Air Force is planning to get rid of the A-10s by 2019.