Make no mistake about it. The U.S. Air Force's close-air support mission is about saving lives. American lives. U.S. troops on the battlefield, under fire, in duress, desperate for help from above.

Here's how one old soldier described the way it feels when you're in a firefight for your life: "The only thing I cared about is the effect on the target. I don't give a rat's ass what platform brings it in."

That was Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley's response to a question about whether there will be a "capability gap" if the A-10 is retired before a suitable replacement is developed.

"I could care less if it's a B-52, if it's a B-1 bomber, if it's an F-16, F-15, A-10 — I don't care if the thing was delivered by carrier pigeon. I want the enemy taken care of. So it's an Air Force decision."

For now, that Air Force quest to save money is focused mainly on retiring the much-venerated ground attack A-10 "Warthog," so nicknamed because of its ugly duckling snub-nosed appearance, but beloved for its fearsome firepower and unparalleled survivability.

The A-10, (official name Thunderbolt II) was on the verge of forced extinction, a victim of the Budget Control Act, when an army of supporters in Congress rallied to its cause.

A former A-10 squadron commander and aviation pioneer Martha McSally, who is now a Republican congresswoman from Arizona, led the charge. One of America's first female combat pilots, McSally flew the A-10 in combat, and knows firsthand why pilots love it.

Designed in the 1970s, the twin-engine A-10 is armed with mix of Gatling guns, missiles and bombs, all on an airframe that encases the pilot in a protective titanium "bathtub," with the ability to loiter over the battlefield for hours.

Last year, McSally famously tangled with now-retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, who insisted the A-10's role in close-air support could be handled by the pricy, and as yet-unproven F-35, as well as F-15s and F-16s.

So she's encouraged by the admission of Welsh's replacement that right now, there's no other aircraft in the inventory that can provide the level of air support to ground troops.

"The A-10 community is actually our Ph.D. force when it comes to close-air support, and they set the bar for not only the joint team, but for the coalition team," Gen. David Goldfein testified at his Senate confirmation hearing last month. "Anybody who does close-air support, they try to reach the level that the A-10 community has been able to achieve."

That's music to the ears of McSally, who succeeded in getting $100 million added to the House version of the Pentagon budget to replace wings on older A-10s to keep them flying until a new ground attack plane can be developed, perhaps in another 10 years.

"It was good to see him say that on the record," McSally told the Washington Examiner. She said she's also encouraged by her private meetings with Goldfein. "I look forward to working closely with him to make sure that the critical mission that the A-10 does, not just close-air support but also combat search and rescue are protected until we have a proven, tested replacement."

McSally has also inserted language in the House bill requiring a David and Goliath fly-off between the A-10 and the uber-high-tech F-35, to compare their performance in a ground attack role.

The congressional dogfight is not over. For one thing McSally's initiatives have to make it through the conference committee process in which House and Senate versions of the defense bills are reconciled.

But so far the powerful A-10 coalition, which includes Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has mowed down the opposition as effectively as the A-10 has vanquished foes on the battlefield.