Congress Issues Air Force Sharp Rebuke, Bars A-10 Retirement

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[Updates to this story:

Late Wednesday, it was reported that President Obama is threatening to veto the 2016 NDAA discussed here, which has now passed both chambers of Congress. Such threats are not uncommon (Obama has made this threat every year in office), but actual veto of a defense authorization almost never occurs. 

It was also reported that the House Armed Services Committee called the Air Force’s proposal to retire the A-10 “misguided.” Read more here.]

The final version of the 2016 defense Bill was released yesterday, and it contains more bad news for the Air Staff: barring a Presidential veto, the A-10 isn’t going anywhere for a while. In a sign of the absurdity of the moment, this is good news for basically everyone else, most of all ground troops engaged in dispersed combat and the airmen committed to providing them with dependable, competent overwatch.

Key provisions in the conference report prevent the Air Force from using any of its budget allocation to retire, prepare to retire, or place into storage any A-10 aircraft. This year’s Bill also provides a strongly-worded prohibition against reductions in A-10 manning before the end of 2016, leaving Congress time to pass another defense budget before the service can diminish its A-10 capability.

Had the language contained just these elements, it could be safely theorized that it was a “close call” and Congress merely chose to stand on the status quo. But additional language in the Bill makes it clear just how forcefully both the House and Senate have repudiated the Air Force’s arguments for retiring the A-10. 

Subsection (e) of Sec. 142, which is titled “Prohibition on Availability of Funds for Retirement of A-10 Aircraft,” obligates the Secretary of the Air Force to:

“commission an appropriate entity outside the Department of Defense to conduct an assessment of the required capabilities or mission platform to replace the A-10 aircraft.”

Congress is ordering the Air Force to genuinely study how it will replace the A-10, and is concerned enough about the service’s demonstrable lack of objectivity to mandate that such a study be done outside the agency and free from the direct influence of service leaders who have already staked their reputations on killing the A-10.

This can be seen as a stinging indictment of the leadership of Gen. Mark Welsh, with Congress saying it doesn’t trust his discretion on this particular issue. More painful for Welsh and the Air Force is the comfort with which Congress can make such an indictment. The A-10 fight has done considerable damage to service credibility, culminating ultimately in this considerable loss of latitude and agenda control.

Section 142 spends its next 10 paragraphs telling the Air Force, in embarrassingly exacting detail, what its obliged study of an A-10 follow-on must encapsulate.

Key requirements contemplated by Congress include the ability to engage moving, camouflaged, or dug-in troops; the capacity for armor-piercing weaponry, including cannons and missiles; the “ability to remain within visual range of friendly forces and targets to facilitate responsiveness to ground forces and minimize re-attack times”; the ability to operate beneath low cloud ceilings, at low speeds, and within the range of typical air defenses found in enemy maneuver units; and most critically:

“[t]he ability to deliver multiple lethal firing passes and sustain long loiter endurance to support friendly forces throughout extended ground engagements.”

This is a veritable laundry list of the ways in which the A-10 favorably contrasts with its proposed replacement, the F-35. Without mentioning the F-35 explicitly, Congress is clearly questioning the Air Force’s plan to fulfill its Close Air Support (CAS) duty with the high-tech, over-budget, under-performing fighter … and insisting — now with the force of law and the purse strings attached — that the Air Force begin questioning its own assumptions in this regard.

To underline its seriousness, Congress embedded an additional provision rolling back last year’s compromise measure allowing the Air Force to move 36 A-10s into backup inventory status, which would have allowed the service to move funding and manning elsewhere.

That compromise was enacted as latitude to transition two sequential tranches of 18 aircraft. The Air Force moved the first 18 into backup status over the past year, but this year’s Bill revokes authority to move the second tranche. This draws a red line under what has been done to shelve the A-10 up to this point, and requires every airframe in the active inventory to remain in full operational status with adequate manning.

These provisions can be seen as a consensus in Congress to entirely abandon the Air Force position that it can accomplish its duty to national defense without a dedicated CAS weapon system and community. Most remarkable about this development is how little it reflects stock political calculations rooted in district votes or campaign contributions … and how much it therefore reflects a lucid sense of appropriate risk and capability in national airpower portfolio.

It’s a remarkable moment when Congress can claim the mantle of mission focus. It’s only possible in this case because of the Air Force’s persistent allergy to honest, on-the-merits discussion of its own mission. 

This final conference version of the Bill is expected to sail through Congressional approval in both chambers — though opposition can’t be completely ruled out — and make its way to the White House for signature, where it is unlikely to trigger a veto and even less likely to trigger one on these grounds.

This means that once again, a cobbled coalition of legislators, practitioners, commentators, and concerned citizens, acting without the sponsorship of a major defense contractor and traveling exclusively on the rails of strong arguments, have thwarted a plan to gap America’s defense for the sake of political expediency.

No doubt the shenanigans will re-commence after a short respite, and little doubt the same re-warmed rhetoric and emotional rattle-tossing will attempt to obscure bad arguments and worse ideas. But perhaps this rebuke will jar the service and its leaders into fresh thinking and a more fulsome debate.

Either way, it looks like the Hawg will continue to rage for the foreseeable future, and that’s good news for American defense and those who engage in it.

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