CSAF’s Public Unraveling Exposes Anxiety About F-35 Program

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The Air Force has tried forcefully over the course of several budget cycles to rid itself of the A-10, an aircraft specially designed for Close Air Support (CAS) and unrivaled in that mission. Harboring doubts about the ability of the service’s new multirole fighter, the F-35, to competently conduct CAS, Congress has repeatedly overruled the service’s plans to retire the A-10.

In the wake of recent budgetary skirmishing that brought out the worst in the Air Force, Congress and others recommended a closer analysis of the F-35’s CAS capabilities. It was announced earlier this week that the Department of Defense (DoD) would conduct a fly-off to test the comparative CAS capabilities of the A-10 and F-35.

This drew a swift grumble from General Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff (CSAF), who dismissed the idea thusly in response to a reporter’s question:

“I think that would be a silly exercise. So I don’t know anything about that. The F-35’s mission in the close air support arena will be to do high-threat close air support in a contested environment that the A-10 will not be able to survive in. That will be the role of the F-35, and it will not be able to do that until it’s fully mission capable in our full operational capability at age 2021 and beyond. So the idea that the F-35 is going to walk in the door next year when it becomes IOC and take over for the A-10 is just silly. It’s never been our intention and we have never said that.  And so that’s not a plan.”

One problem with Welsh’s push-back here is that it’s not his decision to make. Dr. J. Michael Gilmore, DoD’s chief of operational test and evaluation, made that pretty clear when he initially took Welsh to the woodshed:

“[T]he General is wrong. It is deadly serious to the Army troops and Marines engaged in ground combat whether, as its requirements stipulate, the [F-35] will be an across-the-board replacement for the A-10. That is why I am focused on conducting rigorous, realistic comparison testing providing those troops full, unvarnished knowledge of what the F-35 can actually do; anything less would be a disservice.”

Gilmore went on to say that his office had been planning for some time to conduct the comparison test, essentially admonishing Welsh that the idea wasn’t about politics but proper acquisition processes.

In a rather embarrassing turn of events, Welsh later backed away from his “silly exercise” comment. He claimed to have not understood that comparison tests were part of DoD’s standard process and stipulated that the F-35 should demonstrate its ability to meet program requirements. In another subsequent revision, Welsh stated that he was confused by the question, believing it must be referring to additional testing requirements since he understood “we already have formal comparison testing.”

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Gilmore has since said he takes Welsh at his word that he supports the fly-off. Still, it’s not every day a four-star feels compelled to sheepishly revise his comments to avoid being seen as either inept or duplicitous. 

But being out of step with DoD isn’t the only problem with Welsh’s expressive tirade. By insisting the F-35 will not replace the A-10, Mark Welsh got himself out of step with, well, Mark Welsh.

Laying aside for the moment the fact that across-the-board replacement of the A-10 is formally codified in the F-35’s requirements, which would nullify any statement by Air Force officials to the contrary, Welsh has himself stated, implied, and represented for as long as he has been CSAF that the F-35 would indeed replace the A-10.

Dan Grazier at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) chronicled a few such statements in a piece published Thursday.

In September, 2013, Welsh said “[i]f we have multiple-mission airplanes that can do the mission – maybe not as well, but reasonably well – you would look at eliminating the single-mission platform.” This is pretty unambiguous given that the F-35 is only multiple-mission airplane being procured by the Air Force and the A-10 has been repeatedly (and inaccurately) labeled a single-mission platform by the service.

In February of this year, Welsh said “[w]e have to look at different ways to do the close air support mission with new airplanes like the F-35.” Again, his meaning is plain. “Different” from what? Presumably, the A-10.

In May of this year, Welsh said “Air Force officials have consistently maintained that other aircraft, including the developing F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, will be able to perform close-air support missions.”

But even if these statements, by not directly invoking both aircraft in the same bundled syntax, leave room for interpretation, Welsh was more direct when pinned down by Rep. Martha McSally back in March. Fast forward to 4:40 and watch for 30 seconds, and you’ll hear CSAF repeatedly state that the A-10 will be replaced by the F-35.

The exchange followed Welsh’s attempted refutation of McSally’s factually valid statement that there are certain circumstances in which the A-10 is the only platform capable of saving lives on the ground. 

Behind these many public statements, and notwithstanding attempted rhetorical gymnastics to the contrary, the Air Force has been representing to legislators and their staffs for a long time that the F-35 is being fielded for the express purpose of replacing both the A-10 and the F-16. One staffer shared this excerpt from a written response sent by the Air Force to a U.S. Senator’s office in 2013: “[t]he [Operational Requirements Document] specifies that the F-35 will assume the current roles of the F-16 and the A-10 as it replaces them in the combat fleet.”

So, as it turns out – or actually as was always the case — the F-35 is, unambiguously and despite any “silly exercises” to the contrary, being built to replace the A-10. The fact Welsh publicly said the opposite is revealing in two key ways.

First, it showcases Welsh admitting, if not in so many words, that the F-35 won’t be a capable CAS platform until at least 2021. Even under this rubric, he caveats that it will do something called “high-end” CAS, which we take to mean CAS in a denied access environment. This is a valid requirement in a narrow number of imaginable scenarios, but it doesn’t mean the F-35 will be backwardly compatible with the meat-and-potatoes, broadly required, tightly coordinated CAS mission the A-10 currently performs in support of large-scale ground operations by maneuvering forces.

In other words, the F-35 will never be anywhere near as effective as the A-10 at traditional CAS, something proponents of the mission have long known and contended.

Second, this shows how frightened Welsh is of a CAS face-off between the A-10 and F-35 – especially one over which the Air Staff has no control and limited influence. His initial attempt to marginalize the idea before realizing it was non-negotiable was an attempt to avoid a direct comparison between the two platforms on terms unfavorable to the F-35.

Welsh knows — or should know — that such a comparison will show the F-35 has been oversold as a CAS weapon, and that it is years from being even modestly capable in the mission set. His loss of rhetorical coherence reflects a sort of wobbliness, which in turn reflects fear about the potential impact to the service’s modernization priorities if the F-35 is exposed as toothless in one of its hyped mission areas. It’s one thing for a weapon to come up short. It’s another for the service’s credibility to be publicly impeached.

But the wobbling didn’t start this week. Sources tell me anonymously that CSAF and Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, have been getting unfavorable reports about the F-35’s CAS performance for months, even as they’ve continued to tout its promise. One source shared that newly evident air refueling difficulties mean the jet can’t be fully topped off and takes excessively long to receive an onload from an air refueling tanker.

This implies either unacceptably short loiter times – a crippling deficiency for a CAS platform – or the reality of another costly and milestone-busting re-work for an already late and wildly over-budget program. All of this internal chaos in the program makes Welsh’s public unraveling on the issue explainable, even if it still invites disappointment from observers and stakeholders who expect more from America’s top airman.

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Air Force generals are indoctrinated, trained, educated, and socialized to believe that fielding the latest aerospace technology is not only an absolute good – irrespective of cost – but the very thing that makes a separate Air Force important, distinctive, and essential to national security. They see modernization as their most solemn duty, operating on the background belief that an air force not constantly chasing the next advancement isn’t innovating fast enough to dependably dominate enemies, and isn’t differentiating clearly enough to dependably maintain institutional independence. There are many reasons to quarrel with these ideas, but as descriptive theories for institutional behaviors and choices over time, they’ve proven remarkably durable.

If the F-35’s inability to perform CAS nearly as well as promised becomes publicly undeniable, the program stands to have its currently exorbitant scale trimmed back appreciably. This will become necessary in order to find budgetary tradespace to keep the A-10 operational for the foreseeable future. This manifests a threat to the F-35 program, which, given the foregoing, Mark Welsh likely perceives as a larger threat to the entire Air Force institution, not to mention his legacy as Chief.

It’s my guess that this is why Welsh is rhetorically turning, pulling, and throttling radically enough that he’s occasionally spilling out of the design envelope. His rapid gallop from “silly exercise” to full support of said exercise to professed confusion, all in a single news cycle, can be seen as well-founded anxiety about the viability of the F-35 program beginning to bubble out into public view. 

The fly-off Welsh had clearly hoped to avoid will eventually take place – probably when the A-10 gets enough of a break from ongoing wars to take a breather and trounce the F-35 as a fun sidelight.

In the interim, Welsh should come to grips with the inevitable reality that he and the Air Force have over-promised and are destined to under-deliver with the F-35. Internalizing that reality should lead to a new budget and acquisition plan that not only contemplates a legitimate CAS follow-on, but the money to operate the A-10 until that follow-on is ready.

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