Brace Yourself: the A-10 Debate is Coming

The Air Force has recently announced the deployment of a dozen A-10s and 300 airmen to the Middle East in support of developing operations in the region.  The deployment occurs in the shadow of a growing debate about the attack jet's future. Credit: Getty Images
The Air Force has recently announced the deployment of a dozen A-10s and 300 airmen to the Middle East in support of developing operations in the region. The deployment occurs in the shadow of a growing debate about the jet’s future. (Credit: Getty Images)

In the Theater of Absurd that hosts the annual defense budget “process,” it’s possible to behave both honestly and dishonestly all at once. The Air Force managed to pull this off last year with its move to retire the A-10. The service’s leaders genuinely wanted rid of their only dedicated attack aircraft, which made their movement toward that objective an honest act. But the means by which they did so involved a level of intellectual dishonesty that openly mocked the service’s purported exaltation of integrity as a core value.  

In the end, the A-10 was spared, though everyone on all sides felt a little oily.  Now, the sequel is upon us, and it promises yet another chapter of sordid political chicanery.  Persisting in the pipe dream that it will someday field 1,000 F-35s (let alone the more than 1,700 currently programmed), the Air Force is preparing to once again sell the farm to preserve, without compromise, this most treasured priority.  If it means cutting airmen, no problem. If it means permanently chocking a jet that is inconsistent with the service’s chosen view of future combat, even better.  

With the curtains about to raise on another round of Pentagon puzzlement, watch for these and other shenanigans in the weeks and months ahead.

1. The Air Force will claim it doesn’t need the A-10. The mind boggles to understand how this argument can be maintained when multiple theaters expect the A-10 to be available for their campaigns. Notwithstanding those plans, General Welsh has remarked that theater commanders, when asked what they want more of, do not ask for the A-10. He says they want more of other things, like reconnaissance and special operations. While certainly true, this contention is incomplete.  Just because they want more of X and Y doesn’t mean they don’t also want or need more of Z. Asking every theater commander if they want more A-10s would be like asking them if they want more cowbell.

How is the Air Force framing this question to combatant commanders? We have reason to wonder, because staff officers are reportedly working on gimmicks designed to park the fleet in actuality without officially divesting it. If true, this shows the service has made up its mind on the A-10, and any questions it asks theater commanders are as empty in gesture as the evidence it extracts from the answers and offers to the public or Congress.

2. Air Force will claim B-1 = A-10.  Never mind that General Welsh was excoriated for this last year by John McCain (skip to 4:30 for the relevant sequence).  By now, he has no-doubt hotwashed that incident with his staff and will come to this year’s process forewarned and forearmed with improved and newly dazzling data spun into a convincing narrative. We should respect this.  It is demonstrable of a learning organization, and if applied to actual problems of training, leading, and warfighting, could induce mass hysteria among potential adversaries on a whole new level.  

But while new rhetoric can help Welsh avoid the wrath of McCain, it can’t change the truth. The capabilities between these two aircraft are different. It’s painful to have to say that because it’s so obvious, but the Air Force has pretended there is no difference, begging all sorts of questions about why the B-1 hasn’t itself been retired as the more expensive platform of the two.  That any debate would necessitate a reminder to the Air Force that two of its aircraft produce qualitatively diverse effects that are regarded differently by joint partners and enemies is embarrassing. 

Stooping to engage in this game of make-believe has placed the service on the horns of an argumentative dilemma. To substitute the B-1 for the A-10, it has to make the subject Close Air Support (CAS) and claim that the effect created by each aircraft is more or less the same. But this induces CAS experts and beneficiaries take interest and start pointing out the massive world of difference contained in “more or less.” The ambiguity of that clause is the arena of this entire debate. The Air Force cannot prevail in this debate without admitting it is giving away capability that its joint partners value.  That is exactly the level of honesty that should be the basis for a decision this enormous — a decision that will be measured in lives preserved or lost. Experts of the CAS mission know the real difference an A-10 can make in close skirmishes, especially at night or when loitering over a developing fight is necessary.  By making this a debate about CAS, the Air Force defeats its own argument, because people who care about this mission won’t muzzle themselves as a dishonest debate about it unfolds.

But it’s not just A-10 champions who get that not every CAS provider is built alike. An unclassified executive summary taken from the official Central Command (CENTCOM) investigation into a May 2009 incident involving huge civilian casualties (resulting from a B-1 CAS strike) directed the Air Force to conduct a platform-by-platform CAS capability analysis.  This, by definition, means CENTCOM sees substantial differences between the effects created by different CAS aircraft and wants the Air Force to investigate and register those differences.

Has the ordered review been done? Anyone’s guess. But if Congress is smart, it’ll ask the service to bring a few CAS experts with it to the Hill – aviators and ground party members alike – and ask those experts direct and probing questions to flesh out the differences between platforms.

3. The Air Force will ask us to imagine ourselves in the whimsical World of Tomorrow. For the last decade or so, the Air Force has suffered from debilitating “present bias” in most of its big decisions.  The era of “All In” and “Fight Tonight” brought with it a dangerous disregard for the future.  But it appears the pendulum has roared past center and is full-scale deflected on the other side now, at least where modernization matters are concerned.  In a recent interview with Joint Forces Quarterly (JFQ), General Welsh said the following:

“[W]hen [we] talk about what airpower brings to a ground force commander or a joint force commander, there are a couple of really important points. Close air support is not the way we reduce most losses on the battlefield. CAS is important, critical to understand, and personal, but it’s not the way to save huge numbers of Service members on the ground. That’s done through air superiority. When you provide freedom from attack and freedom to attack, you eliminate the enemy nation’s will to fight and it shortens the war—including strategic bombardment, deep interdiction, destroying their infrastructure and their command and control capability. You eliminate the enemy’s second echelon forces including their operational reserve so they cannot commit at the time and place of their choosing, which causes a huge impact on friendly forces. Those are the things you do to really affect the ground fight. A-10s don’t do those things. But F-16s, F-15Es, and B-1s do. That’s why the operational analysis showed we could give up the A-10. Those other platforms can do CAS, although not as well as the A-10, but they are really good at those other concepts.”

This sounds really impressive to an untrained ear, but there are some unsettling clues within. Welsh rightly sees it as his job to theorize about future conflict and cultivate capabilities to ensure the Air Force is postured for it. Fair enough. But has theorizing wandered into idealizing?

Welsh’s imaging of the enemy as an organized peer with discernible features we can hold at risk is seductive. It frames the warfighting problem as one uniquely addressable via precision, simultaneity, velocity, and freedom from surface tethers. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Air Force has long considered this model of enemy behavior the beating heart of its doctrine, regarding it as both an analytical tool and a planning engine. Indeed, this idealized version of war does exist. It goes by the doctrinal label of Major Combat Operations (MCO), and defines the opening phase of a new operation. Any enemy dumb enough to organize itself will quickly find out that crushing a systematically organized enemy is what the Air Force does best.

But there are at least two reasons to be concerned about this idealized rendering. First of all, implying the A-10 would not be part of operations in such a theater is dishonest. It pretends the A-10 operates in isolation rather than integrating with forces capable of suppressing and degrading enemy air defenses. In fact, any imaginable scenario requiring an appreciable quantity of CAS probably happens outside the context of a denied access environment, meaning that to the extent the A-10 is inconsistent with the theater Welsh envisions, this doesn’t mean it won’t be relevant beyond that theater.

And this leads to the second concern.  The scenario Welsh lays out does not totally encompass the Air Force’s duty to national defense.  While preparing for and conducting MCO is necessary for the Air Force, it’s not sufficient. It’s prudent of Welsh to lend high-intensity operations priority, but not to screen out the rest of the spectrum in an attempt to wish other responsibilities out of the budget. Most of the fighting the Air Force will do in the future is unlikely to take the form Welsh imagines in this quote. It’ll instead be mostly the painstaking and persistent chores of stabilization, sustainment, support, and patrol. Look no further than Welsh’s own words (from the same JFQ article) for evidence:

“One of the problems we have right now is that for the last 14 years all we have done is close air support [CAS].”

Even Welsh himself stipulates that we’ve been heavily dependent on the A-10 for 14 solid years.  And now we’re completely sure we don’t need it anymore? Understanding that drawing down forces while we’re still asking them to deploy is in style these days, this doesn’t seem to pass the modest muster of logic. It would seem more logical to refrain from divesting aircraft (and people) until they’ve been operationally dormant long enough that we can reasonably suspect our war effort no longer requires them.

Re-drawing the idea of future war is a rhetorical device designed to build support for the F-35. But as arguments go, it’s not a stallion or even a colt so much as a hobbled donkey. No one intelligent enough to be invested in this debate is also dumb enough to think there is any other aircraft currently fielded or envisioned that can do what the A-10 does. Not the B-1, and certainly not an ill-designed fighter several years from being fielded and completely unproven as a CAS platform. When this rhetorical donkey shows up for its hot-walk, remember also how close today and tomorrow are on a calendar. The world of tomorrow might believe it’ll be just fine without the A-10, but today, a dozen A-10s and 300 airmen are deploying to the Middle East. Seems commanders aren’t done with it yet, which begs the question of why the Air Force feels so bold about getting rid of it.  As a principle, shouldn’t field commanders have what they need rather than what we think they need?

* * * *

The Air Force’s own strategy calls for agility and adaptability in the face of an uncertain future. In a rational world, this would mean preservation of the A-10 . . . because it implies a need to fight along the entire spectrum of conflict, to include the “low end” where the Air Force argues the A-10 operates. But in the budget world, rationality is elusive. So is honesty.

This isn’t about the future, at least not in the sense the Air Force contends. It’s a reverse mortgage. We’re trading away current and future latitude as to how the Air Force is composed and managed in order to gain present resources.  The salience of one over-arching and expensive priority is leading the Air Force to trade away presently-needed capabilities in order to preserve one future program.  The fact we’re seeing weapons we actually still need — and still deploy — placed on the chopping block to make room for the F-35 should serve as a giant red flag that the American Air Force can’t affordably be built around it. But such a conclusion assumes a form of realism that tends to elude budgeteers and their masters.

General Welsh is not asking for the advice of a dubiously qualified pundit in making his budget recommendations.  If he were to ask, I’d tell him to cut the F-35 purchase by at least enough to continue operating the A-10 until the F-35 is fielded. This would at least allow a side-by-side CAS comparison before any permanent decisions regarding retirement of the A-10 or whether to develop a follow-on attack aircraft. I’d also tell him to speak in straight, clear, and candid terms about the unique capability of the A-10, safeguarding his all-important credibility and ensuring budget decisions are grounded in truth, or at least one of its close cousins.

But he’s not asking me. He’s asking a bunch of guys and gals who are going to tell him what they think he wants to hear, which coincides closely with what they think Congress is willing to ratify.  In other words, political feasibility — not what is most operationally advisable — is likely to animate the Air Force’s position on the A-10. So, if you value that timepiece around your wrist, prepare to lift it as high above your head as possible. The Air Force will need a new airlifter just to haul to the BS likely to accompany this debate.

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