Unlike her previous public appearances, Ayotte didn’t have any tough questions on the subject — or any questions, at all — for Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James or Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Instead, she chatted amiably with the service leaders and talked generally about the importance of communication between the active and reserve components. (The hearing itself was focused on recommendations from a congressionally mandated panel to restructure the Air Force in part by shifting more personnel to the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.)
The shift in tone caught reporters off guard and led many to speculate about her motive. After all, she helped coordinate a news conference earlier this month on Capitol Hill featuring lawmakers and even former Warthog pilots and joint terminal air attack controllers who favor keeping the plane.
Perhaps she was playing nice cop and letting Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., play bad cop? McCain earlier in the hearing excoriated the service leaders for saying the B-1 bomber could help perform the A-10’s close air-support mission.
“You will not pursue the elimination of the finest close air-support weapon system in the world with answers like that,” he scoffed at James. “So I hope you will come up with something that is credible to those of us who have been engaged in this business for a long, long time.” When Welsh stepped in to support James on the B-1 statement, McCain interrupted him, saying, “General, please don’t insult my intelligence.”
Or, perhaps Ayotte, whose husband was an A-10 pilot, was simply playing politics. She repeatedly mentioned an upcoming trip James was making to New Hampshire — and it was in this context in which she referenced another aircraft, the KC-46A refueling tanker.
“Secretary James, we are very much looking forward to you coming to New Hampshire on Friday, so I look forward to joining you there,” she said.
Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H., is one of three bases across the country that will station the new tanker. The others are Altus Air Force Base, Okla., and McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The KC-46A program is on schedule, with four aircraft on the production line, one of which will begin testing this year, Welsh said.
It remains to be seen whether Ayotte’s silence on the A-10 debate will continue or whether it signals more congressional support for the Air Force’s plans to retire the aircraft. McCain said there is still “incredible skepticism” in Congress about the proposal and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee’s chairman, reportedly later said he’ll try to preserve funding for the aircraft.
The service in its budget request for fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1, has recommended retiring its fleet of the Cold War-era planes, known officially as the Thunderbolt II and unofficially as the Warthog. The service estimates it will save $4.1 billion over five years by retiring the almost 300 A-10s that remain in the inventory.