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The Journal Gazette

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Wednesday, August 01, 2018 1:00 am

Congressmen make pitch for fighter jet swap

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

Federal lawmakers again are pressing the Air Force to speed up the planned swap of jets flown by Fort Wayne's Air National Guard base.

Their latest sales pitch: Most of the A-10 attack jets flown by the 122nd Fighter Wing have gotten new wings and would be in demand by air bases facing long waits to have planes similarly upgraded.

Trading the A-10s at the Fort Wayne base for F-16 fighter jets would “offer a creative solution to address the Air Force's short-term challenges related to A-10 wing replacement,” Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, wrote in a letter this week to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.

The lawmakers point out that replacement wings might not be available until fiscal 2022. But, they wrote, “an increasing number” of A-10s are being grounded because their wings are at the end of their service life.

The 122nd Fighter wing has said 16 of the 22 planes in its A-10 squadron have been rewinged. The Air Force has more than 100 A-10s nationwide with their original wings – the jets were built in the 1970s and 1980s – and awaiting replacement parts.

The Fort Wayne base flew F-16s for two decades before switching several years ago to A-10s, which provide close air support for ground troops.

In 2014, when the Air Force was proposing to retire its A-10s, the Pentagon called for the return of F-16s to the local base, and the change to either the F-16 or the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was contained in the fiscal 2017 defense bill.

Since then, however, the Air Force has decided to extend the life of the A-10 into the 2030s.

Young and Banks wrote to Wilson that the 122nd Fighter Wing is “ideally suited” for F-16s because of its “deep experience” with the aircraft. They noted that the Indiana National Guard has a long-running partnership program with NATO ally Slovakia, which is buying F-16s from the U.S.

Their letter urges that the exchange of planes be made during fiscal 2019, which begins Oct. 1.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., has also advocated for the switch. At an April hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he reminded Air Force leaders about their Fort Wayne conversion plan and the need for rewinged A-10s by other bases that fly the plane. Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris told Donnelly that the transition to F-16s in Fort Wayne “is still solid. We expect that to happen.”

But at a second committee hearing in April, Wilson told Donnelly “there is no strategic basing action with respect to that.”

Donnelly's office told The Journal Gazette this week that Donnelly discussed the F-16 conversion again during a private meeting with Wilson two days after the hearing. His office said the Air Force is expected to finish a strategic review of its entire aircraft fleet this fall.

Banks said Tuesday that “the earlier we transition to the F-16, the more certainty there is” the Fort Wayne base will remain a fighter wing and improve its chances to someday fly the F-35.

“That's the long-term hope,” Banks said in an interview.

The 122nd Fighter Wing had been among 18 Air National Guard bases under consideration to fly F-35s beginning in 2023, but the base failed to make the cut to five finalists in late 2016. The Air Force later chose bases in Alabama and Wisconsin for the jets.

bfrancisco@jg.net