Update: through a spokesman, Gen. Welsh acknowledged on October 28th that his statement was erroneous. Read more here.
For a few years now, the Air Force has committed itself to a political campaign geared toward earning Congressional consent to retire its best Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft, the A-10. Throughout that time, the service has resorted regularly to underhanded, dishonest, and sometimes unlawful tactics. Doing so has backfired, with Congress recently signaling the service in strong terms that it won’t permit retirement of the A-10 without a replacement, and that it’s the Air Force’s job to field that replacement before it dismantles a capability that saves lives on the ground in the nation’s wars.
Despite the dubious track record of this dishonorable strategy for mothballing the A-10, it continues to thrive. Increasingly, it’s clear why: the effort is sponsored at the highest level by none other than Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff (CSAF).
Consider Welsh’s recent comments to an audience of airmen at Hill Air Force Base (my emphasis):
“The A-10 will not be used in a high threat environment. Seventy percent of the A-10s we used during the first Gulf War suffered battle damage. It’s a rugged airplane, but it’s not hard to hit.”
Pausing for a moment, it should be pointed out that even if this claim were to be accepted as true, it wouldn’t support Welsh’s argument that it’s time to retire the A-10. Desert Storm happened nearly 25 years ago, and the A-10 has racked up nearly 15 years of inarguably valuable combat service since then. It’s also been modernized with new systems, tactics, and techniques making it less exposed and less vulnerable to the threats while making it an unmatched CAS weapon.
When you find yourself ignoring the current performance of an aircraft, reaching back a quarter century to find a flaw, it might occur that you’ve got a weak case.
But even without the interceding history he ignored, Welsh would at most be able to claim that in the course of destroying 967 tanks, 1026 artillery pieces, 1306 trucks, 281 military structures, 53 SCUD missiles, and 12 enemy aircraft while squaring off against one of the most modern and heavily equipped militaries of the time, the A-10 fleet took battle damage at a predictably elevated rate — given its operational proximity to the adversary on a daily basis — and yet continued its non-stop pounding of the enemy without so much as a flinch.
That’s the limit of what he could say if his claim were indeed factual.
But his claim isn’t factual at all. It’s pure fiction, and as such, it not only fails to support his argument but actually damages it considerably, along with CSAF’s already ailing credibility.
According to the survey, between January 17 and February 28, 1991, a fleet of 132 A-10s executed 7983 combat sorties. There were 13 recorded instances of battle damage from enemy fire. In addition, there were four combat losses.
Even if we assume that each incident involved a separate aircraft and even if we ignore the fact that a total of 169 A-10s participated in the operation due to airframe rotations, the total proportion of the fleet suffering battle damage would be 12.9%.
This means Welsh exaggerated the battle damage rate by at least 57.1%.
He also went astray in saying the A-10 was “not hard to hit,” as the excerpted table below demonstrates. The fleet suffered just 1.6 damaged aircraft per 1000 sorties despite operating constantly within range of enemy anti-aircraft and shoulder-fired missile threats, and carried a loss rate among the lowest across the entire coalition.
CSAF also omitted the fact that every instance of A-10 battle damage arose from either anti-aircraft fire or infrared missile fire. This is important because it says more about the operating envelope required of any aircraft performing large-scale CAS and interdiction than it says about the survivability or evasion characteristics of that aircraft.
The F-35, which Welsh proposes will succeed (but not replace) the A-10, is touted for its radar-evading stealth capabilities. But they will make it no more resistant to typical shoulder-fired missile threats than the A-10. Given that it will lose any stealth advantage when carrying enough ammunition to perform CAS or interdiction on any kind of useful scale, the F-35 would fare no better than the A-10 in the relevant operating environment.
It’s understandable CSAF would omit context when mentioning it would undercut or mortally wound his argument. But that doesn’t make it any less misleading.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
This is a sizable misrepresentation. Whether it was knowing or oblivious is a separate question, but either CSAF didn’t know what he was talking about … or he had the requisite knowledge and actively misled his audience. Given his position and his responsibility to represent the service in Congress and to the American public, this is no small deal. But given the context and prior conduct of the A-10 debate, it is, distressingly, no surprise either.
Congress, the American people, and airmen themselves need to be able to trust what the Air Force and its most senior officer communicate to them. When that trust breaks down, the debate quickly devolves into a contest of talking points rather than a contest on the merits. When we forego the latter and choose the former, we get something less than the defense the nation should be able to expect for the investment it provides.
We also get a broken Air Force in noticeable abandonment of its most important, bedrock value.
Whatever decision is made about the future f the A-10, it should be made on the facts. And if retiring the A-10 is such a good idea, an honest presentation of the facts should be more than enough.
(Note: the original version of this article incorrectly overstated the size of the A-10 fleet in-theater as 144 aircraft. The figure has been corrected and related calculations adjusted accordingly.)
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