Debrief: Senate Close Air Support Academics


I told you a week ago about a then-imminent trip to the Hill by a small band of airmen. Their dubious task: “educate” Senate staffers on Close Air Support (CAS) in advance of key legislative waypoints in this year’s national defense budget process.

With this immodest charge, Lt. Col. W. and Maj. H. — a duo whose sparing CAS credentials I discussed last week — charged forth and did what was (t)asked of them. Brig. Gen. Patrick Malackowski, who was expected to attend, reportedly did not.

Some context is important. As the House nears culmination on its version of the budget Bill, it looks like the A-10 will receive a full funding recommendation accompanied by — in all likelihood — language prohibiting the Air Force from retiring the fleet. This will leave the final fate of the A-10 in the hands of the (newly CAS educated?) Senate. If it ratifies the House’s proposal, as expected, the A-10 is safe for at least a year. Because the House provision includes service life extension funds, passage would send a strong message to the Air Force dissuading further near-term attempts at this gambit.

The political backdrop makes more important than first-blush this recent Air Force effort, led by our two presenters, to sway Senate staffers by persuading them of the veracity of the “CAS is a mission, not an airplane” talking point.

How successful was their attempt? Only a solid debrief can tell the tale.

An effective debrief compares objectives and outcomes, explaining any delta between the two through scrutiny of performance in planning and execution. While a true debrief requires much more data than we have to work with here, essential truth is still obtainable, and worth the exercise.

An email to Senate staff announcing the CAS event pronounced:

Our two expert briefers will cover the air and ground perspectives of what CAS is, what it isn’t, and how it has been changing … [t]his invitation is open to all staff who would like to better understand the complexity of the CAS mission and how the USAF supports Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines on the ground.

Three objectives emerge.

1. (Re)claim the Air Staff/corporate Air Force mantle of CAS expertise.
2. Be seen accounting for both air and ground perspectives.
3. Demonstrate the complexity of the CAS mission set.

Performance highlights, as reported by sources present for the event:

  •  At the request of airmen in attendance, the two briefers tried to work their way through a “9-line” air/ground coordination sequence. They “failed horribly.”
  • A legislative aide raised the question of last summer’s fratricide incident involving a B-1. The resulting exchange was described as “awkward.” In fairness, these two officers arguably are not the most appropriate responders to a question of this sort. But also in all fairness, if they’re on the Hill to hock the Air Force’s CAS wares, this is a reasonably foreseeable question that they should have been negotiable. While the sentiment wasn’t apparently uttered, the implication of a fratricide resulting from lack of CAS expertise reportedly hung over the room during this exchange.
  • A question was asked concerning the impact on CAS training of moving the B-1 fleet to Global Strike Command. The answer contended there would be “no effect.” This mind-boggling assertion makes questionable the entire construct of functionally distinct major commands as custodial agents for mission readiness. If there will be “no effect” attendant to moving the B-1, why move it?
  • The JTAC-qualified briefer contended he didn’t care about platform, only the “bombs and effects” delivered. This is consistent with the company line, but inconsistent with what JTACs have overwhelmingly told the Air Force, something about which savvy Senate staffers are lucidly aware. Given recent lobbying by veteran JTACs at Air Force Headquarters — during which the central point was made time and again that platform does matter — the advancement of a platform-neutral “expert” position without a disclaimer is at this point misrepresentative.
  • Grilled on B-1 CAS capabilities, the briefers compared the current iteration of the B-1 to its former self in order to say favorable things, which is different than comparing B-1 CAS capabilities with those of other aircraft, which would have meant surrendering unfavorable conclusions.
  • Under sometimes tense questioning, the pair avoid conceding that a pilot who focuses on CAS exclusively is better at the mission than a pilot/crew focusing on a broader variety of mission sets.

Assessment from the cheap seats:

Objective 1. (Re)claim the Air Staff/corporate Air Force mantle of CAS expertise. Fail. The briefers did not demonstrate the requisite expertise to convince the audience they were credible CAS practitioners.

Objective 2. Be seen accounting for both air and ground perspectives. Marginal. While the exchange made evident that the Air Force sees it as perceptually important to account for both perspectives, the chosen briefers were not sufficiently credible as experts to handle tough questions and “pushes” in their claimed areas of expertise. Any true CAS devotee should be able to ring out the lessons of any recent fratricide incident chapter-and-verse, and it’s something between unusual and incredible for a JTAC to pretend there are no differences between delivery platforms. The crowd noted these incongruences.

Objective 3. Demonstrate the complexity of the CAS mission set. Satisfactory. The inability of the briefers to crisply snap through a 9-line or respond in depth and detail to questioning unintentionally demonstrated the technical challenge presented by the CAS mission set. To be fair to the briefers, CAS performance and coordination (according to experts) are perishable skills. They’re best demonstrated by those with recency in the field. This shows why the Air Force hurts its own case by sending on a thinly-bearded F-35 sales pitches people who “say the right things” rather than those who “say the things right.”

As with any debrief, additional learning points emerge during analysis. It’s up to those involved whether such opportunities translate into “lessons learned” or remain “lessons observed.”

The first bonus lesson for the Air Force is that the Senate staff has long since progressed beyond the Crayola stage on this particular issue, and won’t be easily hoodwinked by Potemkin Village tactics.

The second is that what happens on the Hill is public, and tactics like these are increasingly likely to be exposed and critiqued. This is a necessary counterweight to the opacity and leg-sweeping political tactics the service has regrettably employed in its effort to rid itself of the A-10 without a proper accounting of the ensuing risks.

The third is that political tone deafness is no substitute for a sound strategy to achieve organizational objectives. Last year’s fratricide fanned flames of doubt in the minds of many stakeholders as to the Air Force’s contention that CAS is a “mission, not a platform.” Despite this, the service continues to equate B-1 and A-10 CAS capabilities, to the growling disapproval of key lawmakers and the quiet chagrin of its own operators. A few tweaks to its political strategy — among them the de-emphasis of the B-1’s CAS role — would give opponents of A-10 divestment (including me) less to work with.

Much potential for learning in this debrief (at least for those who read blogs). Perhaps the biggest takeaway for the Air Force: know when its time to stop investing in lost causes. As I’ve said for a month now, the A-10 is not going anywhere any time soon

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