Earlier this month, while Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James was busy rolling out diversity initiatives to engineer an enlarged future role for women among her service’s senior ranks, a former Air Force officer who pioneered the role of women in airpower was putting James’ boss on notice, requesting that he stop the service from defying Congress in its stubbornly misguided campaign to retire the A-10.
In an early March letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter that has all the subtlety of a 30mm strafing pass, Rep. Martha McSally, a retired Colonel and the first woman to fly an Air Force combat aircraft into enemy territory, registered her objection to James’ recent decision to place 18 Warthogs into Backup Aircraft Inventory (BAI) status. Service leaders claim they’re acting within authority granted in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). But McSally’s letter makes it clear she suspects the move is a “backdoor route to divestment” of the A-10 fleet, something the Air Force is prohibited by law from undertaking.
She’s got a point, and is uniquely positioned to opine about it. As she cites in her letter, McSally once led an A-10 squadron, and thus understands the implication of coding aircraft BAI. As commander, she was responsible for generating two dozen A-10s for worldwide deployment on 24 hours notice. To make this prospect feasible, the Air Force gave her 27 A-10s, coding three as BAI but not providing manpower or resources to maintain them.
McSally presciently schools Carter that this shows the intent of BAI, which is to give commanders a few “spares.” This facilitates rotation of each airframe through heavy maintenance schedules without disrupting the ability to generate combat capability. This was especially necessary in the A-10 community after the Air Force provided zero funding for heavy maintenance for the aircraft throughout the 1990s.
The Air Force’s current use of BAI is an abuse of discretion. It’s not being done to facilitate readiness, but to kill capability by starving a squadron’s worth of A-10s of the necessary resources to operate. As McSally explains to Carter, the move is essentially irreversible, even if Air Force officials don’t openly say so. They’re planning to shift the manpower and training dollars currently assigned to the targeted A-10s to the F-35 program, and moving that manpower back to the A-10 becomes essentially impossible in very short order.
To the extent airmen could be theoretically re-directed to the A-10 in the event Congress removes BAI authority from the Air Force in the coming budget (as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain has vowed will be the case), the hardship imposed on the airmen and families caught in the middle would be excruciating. This illustrates why BAI has traditionally been understood as a one-way street. The Air Force’s use of it in this case is a clear signal that the aircraft will not be coming back to the primary inventory. In other words, it’s just as McSally postulates — a backdoor route to the retirement of A-10s. This is prohibited by law and defiant of Congressional intent, and therefore something Carter should not allow to happen.
What McSally doesn’t say but knows painfully well from her own experience is that the BAI move also creates a compound challenge for squadrons who are stuck holding the custodial bag for airframes without the resources or manpower to properly care for them. This fits in with the Air Force’s demoralization of its own A-10 community, exemplified by a senior general’s application of the “traitor” label to its advocate practitioners and by the service’s censorship of a video portraying an A-10 squadron’s achievements in Afghanistan.
McSally doesn’t stop at exposing the BAI gambit as brazen political chicanery. She also confronts Carter with the immutable reality that the Air Force decision flies in the face of operational requirements. Even as James and General Mark Welsh try to shove the Warthog into the boneyard, it’s been deployed to Europe “to show resolve … in the face of increased Russian aggression.” She goes on to reinforce that A-10 crews are currently conducting strikes against the Islamic State while providing the only Rescue Mission Commander (RMC) capability currently available to theater commanders. In an operation where the capture of an aircrew is certain to portend grimly savage consequences, the ability to rapidly locate and recover downed airmen is strategically essential.
The RMC point is a bigger one than most observers realize. Escorting and directing Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) operations is something the A-10 does that isn’t replicated elsewhere in the Air Force inventory. Efforts to build this capability into other communities have failed. There is no answer for filling this capability gap once the A-10 is gone, a point never publicly acknowledged by senior Air Force officials.
In making her case about CSAR capabilities, McSally skillfully tangled General Hawk Carlisle, Commander of Air Combat Command and proponent of retiring the A-10, in the web of his own rhetoric. Carlisle recently cited the downing of Jordanian F-16 pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh (who was later burned alive by his captors) as evidence of the hazards of operating in contested airspace. Rather than expose this argument’s countless fallacies, McSally simply offers the same piece of evidence to support her claim that the rescue capability of the A-10 is not something the US arsenal can live without.
McSally isn’t just turning the argumentative tables on the Air Force here. She’s doing what politicians do: getting on the record. She’s calling attention to the risks of removing the A-10 from the campaign to battle the Islamic State, which the Obama Administration expects to carry on well past the Air Force’s timeline for mothballing the A-10 fleet. In the event subsequent losses are incurred or inhumanities suffered that might have been preventable with the A-10, McSally and her allies will be positioned to exercise public accountability and harvest the political gains that always come along with being able to say “I told you so” on a matter of national security. By making explicit her awareness of this political calculus, she hopes to coerce Carter into reining in the Air Force on the A-10 issue.
The stakes for McSally are as much electoral as they are substantive, and she disclaims this in her letter. Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which stands to lose nine A-10s in the BAI move, is in McSally’s district. Her constituents expect her to take an active hand in this debate and fight for her district. She has a clear political interest in preserving the A-10, and there are considerable costs if she doesn’t prevail.
But this doesn’t make her wrong, and her interest has more overlap with legitimate national defense considerations than the interests of those who want to see the A-10 pushed out of the way to make room for the F-35, a runaway pork factory masquerading as an acquisition program that is “$163 billion over budget, seven years behind schedule, and will cost taxpayers about twice as much as sending a man to the moon.” While the A-10 actively advances national defense today at modest cost, the “too big to bail” F-35 is years from genuine operational capability and will never fill the gaps created by the budgetary pressure it is exerting on the Air Force.
McSally saves her strongest ammunition for the letter’s final flourish, castigating Carter to stop “tak[ing] actions against the intent of Congress.” Here, she invokes the legal constraint in last year’s NDAA that “forbids the Air Force from retiring any A-10s without an independent assessment.” The assessment ordered by Congress has been completed but concealed by the Air Force, raising questions about its methodology, recommendations, and the level of independence with which it was performed.
Without access to this document, Congress and the public are unable to judge whether the Air Force’s BAI decision — a contrivance attempting unsuccessfully to hide the service’s de facto retirement of 18 A-10s — is at least justified by the study. Congress placed upon the service a burden of persuasion it had to meet before it began divesting the A-10, and the service can’t claim to have satisfied that burden if it is unwilling to persuade.
McSally’s letter is significant. With a voice of military credibility and a track record of being willing to challenge traditional power structures, she could become a dangerous political force capable of disrupting the Air Force agenda. With arguments sounding in tones of public accountability, she might also gain a following among airmen and affiliates who are exhausted at watching the service debase itself and its people at the twin altars of modernization and budgetary politics. The chapter chronicled here can be seen as nothing less than an upstaging. While service officials natter about diversity quotas, a legislator who beat the system long before “diversity” was a buzzword is filling their leadership void by focusing on matters of mission readiness and operational effectiveness.
Like any elected official, Martha McSally has her detractors. In fact, as someone who has taken controversial positions for two decades, she likely has more detractors than others who have played it safe. She’s also a barely-elected novice in the House, and her power as a new member is limited. Still, as a credible airpower practitioner with a reputation for fearlessness and a willingness to provide vocal oversight on national defense issues, she’s a rarity and a potential game-changer.
It’s too early to say how much weight Ash Carter will give to her recent appeal on the A-10. But one thing’s for certain: the debate just got more interesting.