There will eventually arrive a year in which the Congress will allow the Air Force to retire the A-10 Warthog. It won’t be 2015.
Not just because John McCain has taken a blood oath to prevent it. Not just because Martha McSally pinned senior officials to a rhetorical clothesline for contemplating it. And not just because the A-10 is deployed worldwide, giving potential adversaries second thoughts on one continent while finalizing the thoughts of declared enemies on another.
There is a different reason the Hawg will live to fight another budget, and it’s both unmysterious and transcendent. At the end of the day, we’re all accountable to the thoughts between our ears, and human psychology is a bar to A-10 divestment under the current conditions.
Sen. Joni Ernst (who ironically rose to political fame touting her background as a hog castrator) perfectly captured this concept in a recent exchange with Air Force officials (1:23). She explained, in the simplest terms, that soldiers fighting on the ground prefer the A-10 when they look skyward for help, and that as a result, she would not defend a decision to divest it.
The word “defend” is important. Congress is an undeniably craven collection of mostly myopic and often self-obsessed rationalists. But even Congress is wise enough to avoid decisions that appear unconscionable. If legislators can’t explain the rationale for something back in their district, they’re not going to vote for it. Even a mostly unaccountable entity is still answerable at the clear extremes.
Congressional unease about retiring the A-10 is remarkable. The Hawg isn’t lining anyone’s campaign coffer. No one with electoral clout is pushing for it to stay in service. Yet it stubbornly hangs on, and it’s because the battlefield psychology of the A-10 has, quite incredibly, crept upstream into politics.
“The moral is to the physical as three is to one.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
You can be overmatched and win. You can outnumber and overpower an enemy and still lose. Fighting spirit matters. Morale can turn the tide in any competitive situation.
The squabble over the A-10 exposes differences between how infantrymen and airmen think about war, and the role of morale in it. From the air, war seems largely reducible to a scientific exercise. On the ground, as Carl von Clausewitz insisted, “military action is intertwined with psychological forces and effects.”
For the rifleman, war is battle. Winning each engagement and adding them all up is the road to victory. Losing an engagement isn’t just a swerve or slowdown on the road to victory, but a threat to survival. Winning and living to fight another day are handmaidens. This, together with sensing the searing realities of war up close and personal, means that the grunt thinks about war viscerally.
By contrast, aviators wage war at arm’s length, creating effects distant from where the trigger is pulled. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually near the core of airpower’s advantage. The ability to hold the enemy at risk without him being able to touch you provides impunity. This limits the enemy’s mobility, constrains his options, and assails his reasoning. But it can also make war more of a clinical exercise.
As it turns out, distance from the fight has something to do with the psychological response to war. This helps explain why attack pilots think about war differently than most other airmen. They spend their time close to the ground-waged fight and interoperate constantly with grunts. Borrowing from the ground force mindset is part and parcel of being an A-10 pilot.
The rest of the Air Force, and especially its senior officials, should take a cue. While some functions of airpower are emotionally disconnected from the ground fight and rightly should be, some functions of airpower can never be disaggregated from the waging of close battle on the ground below. In these areas of the airpower spectrum, losing track of what airpower means to the grunt is akin to being in the same war but in different fights. Divergent psychology can lead to diverging approaches or even disparate objectives. Lacking a unity of purpose corrodes our combined arms advantage, leading to unnecessary losses and perhaps even overall defeat or stalemate.
The A-10 makes enemy combatants piss their pants. When it arrives, they immediately realize the folly of their choice to oppose us. They go from organizing, shooting, and moving, to praying, hunkering, and running. This is a documented reality spanning from at least Desert Storm to the present day, and is the reason we have A-10s dispatched to Europe and the Middle East. We know its’ the case even if Air Force senior officials find it too inconvenient to state explicitly.
But more importantly, the arrival of an A-10 swells the veins of soldiers with adrenalin and emboldens them to shred adversaries. Just as artillery barrages are sometimes used to “buck up” troops locked into tough battles, a strafing pass from an A-10 can renew the fighting will of an exhausted and embattled formation, sometimes giving the commander the little edge he needs to rally the troops and turn the tide.
History offers a relevant note here. Military airpower grew from a desperate desire to avoid repeating the miserable trench warfare of the First World War. The origins of airpower have everything to do with establishing an asymmetric advantage that can quicken tempo, create shock, and abbreviate conflict. Airpower is about reducing bloodshed and diminishing the costs of war.
One airpower subculture, the one championed by Italian theorist Giulio Douhet, carried that logic the next several steps and theorized that control of the air meant inevitable victory. That the ability to attack and hold at risk enemy vital centers was the best and in fact the only valid use of airpower.
This seductive theory and its progeny carried the Air Force into institutional existence, and these ideas remain deeply embedded in the institutional DNA. They can sometimes be glimpsed behind the veil that mostly obscures the logic animating Air Force budget priorities. Airmen generally believe — not without merit — that even if they can’t win a war outright through strategic bombing doctrine, it remains important to deterring and remaining ready to confront peer adversaries.
The problem, of course, is that viewing war through the lens of strategic bombing can lead to forgetting why we have airpower in the first place, which is to lessen the costs of all wars, not just those fitting into a preferred mold.
History says some wars favor strategic bombing. But history says more often, we’ll need to take and hold territory, committing ourselves to an enduring presence. As long as that stays true — which is likely for as long as there are humans and the wars we inevitably start with one another — Close Air Support (CAS) will be necessary. And as long as CAS is necessary, it must account for the psychology of land combat.
When you’re sitting in the dirt with your buddies, you’re not thinking about budgets, authorizations, or appropriations. You’re thinking about the assholes tens of yards away who want to kill you. Anything that makes them suffer, puts fear in their hearts, or makes them second-guess the decision to array themselves against you is priceless.
On some level, Congress gets this, even if the airmen best qualified to talk about it have been largely intimidated into silence by their bosses. It’s one of the few bright spots in an otherwise decaying relationship between citizens and military servants, but the fact is no legislator wants to be accused of failing to do what’s right for those who voluntarily live in the dirt and get shot at by thugs in the name of national defense.
To cast a vote perceived as making ground troops less safe is to tread in a political minefield. Thus, when the A-10 issue grew a high public profile, the fate of its opponents was sealed in much the same way enemy fighters’ fates are sealed when an A-10 arrives on station. All that remains now is the necessary theatrical exercise in Congress to formalize the decision.
Things might be different if the troubled F-35 was online and could do CAS. But it won’t be operational for years and will never backfill the A-10. It might be different if the Air Force was actually as broke as it claims to be. It might be different if the Air Force had any discernible intention of replacing the A-10 with a new attack platform.
Hell, even if none of that were true, it might be different if the Air Force could be trusted on anything it says about the A-10.
But things being as they are, 2015 will be another year no Hawgs will die.