Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., the successor to Rep. Gabby Giffords, likely faces a rematch with Republican Martha McSally, whom he narrowly bested in 2012. the budgetary threat to the long-term viability of the A-10 is shaking up their race: The district is home to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the 355th Fighter Wing, which flies 82 of the planes.
There’s another personal angle to the story: McSally is the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, and the first to command a fighter squadron — and in those roles she flew the A-10, logging about 325 combat hours.
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is also where A-10 pilots are trained, and both McSally and Barber cited the $1.6 billion in economic activity the base has generated annually in their district.
“If anyone is going to fly the A-10, they come through Tucson to train on it,” McSally said. “Their flying overhead everyday is a symbol of our community."
In remarks explaining the Pentagon's efforts to cut costs, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel singled out the Warthog, saying that the Defense Department hoped to eliminate the entire fleet of A-10s to save $3.5 billion over the next five years.
“The Warthog is a venerable platform,” Hagel said. “But the A-10 is a 40-year-old single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield. It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses.”
McSally’s expertise with the A-10 is plainly more personal than Barber’s — in an interview, she recalled vividly the first time she flew the jet and fired its 30mm gun, which comes in at about the size of a Volkswagen.
“It was awesome and startling all at the same time,” she remembered. “I could smell the gun gas coming through, which is an awesome smell.”
Where Barber lacks in personal experience, he leans on his political experience as a member of the House Armed Services Committee. He points to his membership on two committees relevant to the A-10, the subcommittees on Readiness and on Tactical Air and Land Forces.
His efforts to protect the A-10, Barber said, go back to when he was a staffer for Giffords and was the lead liaison for her office to Davis-Monthan.
The Arizona Congressman said he has been building a bipartisan coalition to create “hard pressure” on the Pentagon to reconsider its efforts to mothball the storied fighter jet, and has worked closely with Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire to do so.
“This should never be, and hopefully never will become a partisan issue,” Barber told the Washington Examiner.
And though the Warthog isn’t a partisan issue — both Republicans and Democrats in the district support maintaining the fleet of A-10s in Arizona — it figures prominently in the campaign. After Hagel’s announcement about cuts, McSally slammed Barber for being “asleep at the wheel.”
“[Barber] has done nothing to fight for this thing,” she said.
Barber, who helped organize a bipartisan group of lawmakers to write a letter to the president urging continued funding for the fighter jet, said that the blame was to be laid at the feet of sequestration, the automatic budget cuts that were enacted because Congress didn't find a comprehensive deficit reduction package.
“[McSally] really doesn’t understand what’s going on. If she would pay attention to what’s really happening in Congress. … This issue has to do with one word: sequestration,” Barber said. “That’s the real villain here.”