I usually try to find something positive to say when an Air Force Colonel publicly opines on a matter of substance, a rarity in a service that prefers its officers remain intellectually compliant and carefully muzzled. But some thoughts are indeed better left unshared, as demonstrated by Robert Spalding’s exceptionally lamentable Sunday “article” vilifying the A-10 as an impediment to life-saving innovation only achievable by a rapid fielding of the F-35. Perhaps Spalding should be commended for intellectual consistency, given that the balance of his argument is as inaccurate and dishonest as this bankrupt premise.
Spalding starts with misattribution, claiming that A-10 advocates are really just F-35 opponents in sheep’s clothing. He clearly hasn’t surveyed the terrain of this debate carefully. Defenders of the A-10 are standing on the high ground of combat capability, well above the muddy trench warfare of budgetary politics where lesser arguments wrongly conflate the capabilities of these two very different aircraft.
As I wrote recently, overlap between the A-10 and F-35 is virtually nil. The A-10 does Close Air Support (CAS) better than any other weapon ever fielded, but notwithstanding Spalding’s omissions, it also interdicts armor and conducts combat search and rescue (CSAR). The F-35 might someday be useful against armor. By 2025, it might have the CAS capability of an F-16 or F-15E from 2005. It will never be useful as a CSAR weapon. The F-35 is not a replacement for the A-10, no matter how breathlessly the Air Force’s legion of puppets and parrots insist the contrary.
Stereotyping A-10 advocates with a hand-wave is a cheap tactic, but it typifies the “with-us-or-against-us” simplicity the Air Force has fostered by ignoring airpower in favor of rote recitation in its advocacy efforts. The move afoot is to make the A-10 just the latest victim of the F-35’s ill-justified costs and bloated overruns, but for the A-10 to become expendable, the Air Force’s apologists must pretend that those who believe it still has a place in national defense are either recalcitrant Luddites who refuse to gaze into the future or uninformed novices who don’t understand warfare at all. To this tortured taxonomy, Spalding attempts to add a third caricature: the under-informed ingénue with no appreciation of the past. This is laughable coming from the Air Force, which is beset with a culture that actively avoids historical reflection. But it’s made even more laughable by Spalding’s attempt.
In order to show us that there’s a history of advocates unproductively resisting innovation, Spalding takes us on a frenetic and slipshod stumble through previous episodes of aircraft modernization, explaining how resistance to the inevitable retirement of platforms like the Curtiss Jenny, the SPAD XIII, and the P-51 shows how it’s never easy to replace airplanes because of those darn airplane lovers. His analysis exposes the danger of hurriedly cramming important ideas into tight spaces for political consumption rather than to feed a genuine debate.
The Curtiss JN-4 Jenny wasn’t replaced after WWI, as Spalding claims. It was upgraded and standardized, continuing to comprise the spine of U.S. Army aviation until the guns of the Great War had been silent for nearly a decade. The Jenny was modernized and its service life extended before technology made it obsolete.
The SPAD XIII is even flimsier example, because no one resisted replacing it. The SPAD was an expedient solution fielded rapidly toward the end of WWI in the midst of a fiercely spiraling technological competition with the German aviation industry. It was a way to get more horsepower and a higher top speed into the field quickly, but it was not intended to be a lasting pursuit solution.
Development of the SPAD’s replacement, the MB-3, began in 1918, just a year after the Army begin operating it. The SPAD was retired without much fuss after five years of service. Spalding’s lone offering of evidence that the SPAD’s phase-out was hard-fought is his assertion that Eddie Rickenbacker was especially fond of the airplane he “rode . . . to 26 aerial victories.” But Rickenbacker got only 20 of his kills in the SPAD. He got the other 6 in the Nieuport and we have no evidence showing he favored one steed over the other.
But Spalding saves his most egregious abuse of history for last:
“The P-51 Mustang is another case in point. Winning fame during World War II as a capable fighter and the Army Air Force’s best bomber escort, the P-51 was a beloved aircraft that some pilots were reluctant to trade-in for the new F-86 Sabre—making their disagreement know[n].”
The P-51 (later re-named the F-51) didn’t get replaced by the F-86. It continued to operate in large numbers after WWII as the turbojet revolution gradually culminated. By 1950, most of the F-51 fleet had been declared surplus and placed in storage, but many airframes were sent to guard and reserve units. The F-51 was deployed and fought in the Korean War, providing considerable CAS and reconnaissance capacity. After airpower was forced off the peninsula in the wake of the first North Korean invasion, F-51s were actually favored over their jet-powered counterparts for strike missions staged out of Japan because of their superior range and endurance. The F-51 was a CAS and interdiction mainstay in Korea until it was replaced by the F-84 in 1953, eight years after Spalding implies it had become outmoded.
Spalding also conveniently fails to mention “can’t miss” innovation efforts that never materialized, failed before implementation, or under-performed. The F-111 never lived up to expectations, and more recently the Air Force insisted on a supply chain management solution that devoured $1B before limping into a crumpled heap without ever being fielded. F-35 opponents fear a similar fate. Military history is a tapestry of operational improvisations punctuated only occasionally by deliberate modernization programs of varying success. This is true because necessity remains the mother of military innovation, even if other motivations babysit from time to time.
Finally, Spalding mentions the B-52, clumsily reaching for the point that it too will be difficult to retire when the time comes. But this works against his argument, as he gestures toward an economically efficient warfighting solution that has long outlasted its programmed service life and proven critically valuable in fight after fight despite previous attempts by the Air Force to paint it as urgently in need of replacement. The B-52 stands for the proposition that the Air Force can only meet its national defense requirements with a blended fleet – partially constituted by cutting-edge airframes, but balanced by lower-cost capacity as a hedge against the support requirements of protracted conflict. We don’t choose our own fights, so we can’t dismantle our capability in any area where we might be called upon. On this reading, Spalding actually supports continuation and upgrade of the A-10, even if he does so unwittingly.
* * * * *
There is a rich irony in Spalding’s use of “Jenny,” because his piece sometimes reads less like a serious meditation on defense choices and more like something Forrest Gump would say about airpower. This isn’t intended as an insult to Spalding or his co-author (or Gump), but as a sober note of concern. It’s not acceptable for defense choices that carry the stakes of life, battle, and war in the balance to hinge on unserious or haphazardly formulated thinking. Just as Gump famously quipped to Jenny “I’m not a smart man, but I do know what love is,” Spalding is undeniably a smart man who might not know what CAS is.
We have reason to doubt his bona fides not only because he doesn’t know what a JTAC is (Joint Terminal Attack Controller and not Joint Tactical Air Controller as he states) — which recommends to suspicion that he hasn’t personally digested Joint Publication 3-09.3 — but because his description of CAS reads like a laugh line. CAS is not just a matter of a JTAC transmitting a set of coordinates to facilitate precision targeting from altitude, as Spalding claims. Most often, it first includes the shared task of the JTAC and aircrew locating and positively identifying the enemy before a strike can commence. When the aircraft is ill suited or the aircrew is inexperienced in this find-fix segment of the mission, kinetic strikes take longer to develop, and the penalty for this delay is sometimes paid in blood. This is the heart of CAS, and Spalding is clearly not an expert in it.
The most relevant expertise in the A-10 debate won’t emerge from the milieu of the bomber pilot PhDs, self-styled defense commentators such as yours truly, or even A-10 pilots with nicknames lifted from Forrest Gump references. The people the Air Force and Congress should be listening to are the JTACs themselves. They stand on the operational bridge between airpower and the ground troops whose lives depend on it, and they have the most accurate and probative notion of how a fight waged with or without the A-10 will or won’t advance combat objectives. They’ve been living this fight for 13 years. Charlie Keebaugh, President of the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) Association, which represents more than 3,300 current and former JTACS, provided a few relevant statistics in his online response to Spalding’s article:
“100% of the writers of this article have never been on the ground in combat, therefore they should not try to tell the reader what guys on the ground need when they are being shot at. 100% of the JTACs at our Reunion/Memorial event last month are against the retirement of the A-10. That should tell you something. 0% of the JTAC force has ever been consulted by the authors of this article.”
Indeed, why is the Air Force sending people like Spalding to make its arguments when it has the largest stable of expert CAS practitioners on the planet at its disposal? Probably because it knows they’ll disagree with its corporate position (“corporate” used purposefully in this instance). And therein lies the essential truth of this debate. The Air Force is not asking questions to which it doesn’t desire the answers. But in relying on spokespersons, budget officers, and doctrinarians to represent its position rather than engaging in an honest debate, the Air Force is trying to preserve its budgetary prerogatives by carpet-bombing those who stand in opposition, and this won’t work.
Tight budgets call for close engagement rather than simply putting rhetorical mass on a set of coordinates. Just as Spalding misapprehended that he could add meaningfully to the A-10/F-35 debate with a lazy wave of his theorist credentials, the Air Force is mistaken to think it will be able to dispense with an entire warfighting community with a “trust us, we know what’s best” argument. To hit the modernization target accurately means first finding and fixing a good, balanced argument with precision, and that means coordinating with its own experts.
As Forrest Gump famously proposed, “shit happens.” We have no idea what the next fight will look like, and we’ve been wrong every time we’ve ever been foolish enough to make a prediction. In a world less stable and more rapidly changing than ever before, Americans should be alarmed that the service they depend most upon to keep pace with change seems to have sedated itself into an oversimplified view of what modernization means.
Luckily, the Air Force need only consult less with its Spaldings and more with its actual experts to surface the key truths about CAS, the F-35, and the A-10 essential to a responsible decision process. Do some of those experts love the A-10, just as airmen have loved their Jennies, Phantoms, Eagles, and Buffs since the pioneering days of aviation? Absolutely. But knowing what love is does not mean they aren’t smart men.