The Dog With the Least Fleas: Air Force Chooses Killing A-10 Over Upholding Integrity

As Chief of Staff, General Ronald R. Fogleman insisted his Air Force embrace integrity as its calling card, and he set the example in both word and deed. Two decades later, the Air Force's unfolding Faustian bargain for modernization is threatening to destroy the strong culture he put in place.
As Chief of Staff, General Ronald R. Fogleman insisted his Air Force embrace integrity as its calling card, and he set the example in both word and deed. Two decades later, the Air Force’s unfolding Faustian bargain for modernization is threatening to destroy the strong culture he put in place.


First, a few thoughts about integrity. It’s more than a word — or at least it should be. It’s an idea. An idea to morally bind together the world’s most consequential air service. For it to do that, like any adhesive, it must be properly applied. Recent events raise concerns about whether that’s the case.

Make no mistake, the mantle of “integrity first” is a damned heavy thing for the Air Force to carry. It’s a tremendously high, self-imposed standard designed to reach for a high moral aspiration and pull it down into achievable reality, creating the kind of implicit trust that multiplies the effectiveness of combat teams and holds them in good health during peacetime.

The Air Force has embraced, championed, and rhetorically propounded this principle as the bedrock of its institutional identity, demanding that airmen uphold it without fail. In the Air Force lexicon, “integrity” has always meant something much more than simply abstaining from literal lies. It’s a “do the right thing” standard. It’s a “whole truth and nothing but the truth” standard. It is zealously enforced within the ranks, with airmen sometimes losing their careers or service reputations for coming up short. Integrity is the reason that an airman who withholds probative information is considered just as culpable as an airman who actively falsifies something. Integrity dissolves any distinction between the two, holding that the only honesty is perfect honesty.

Integrity is the thing that lets airmen trust in one another, and trust is the fundamental quality of any fighting team.
Integrity is the thing that lets airmen trust in one another, and trust is the fundamental quality of any fighting team.

But while fielded airmen continue to be carpet bombed with messaging insisting they carry the banner of inviolate integrity, senior staff are defiling it. They’re trading away an institutional article of priceless value for little more than a few budgetary table scraps. In doing so, they’re upsetting not just the critical notion that leaders must always set an unquestionable moral example, but the basic idea that airmen are presumptively honorable. Self-inflicted injuries to integrity destroy the presumption of trust among teammates. Nothing devised by man is more capable of rapidly disintegrating a fighting force than the loss of trust.

This is obvious to anyone with a whit of military sense. But the A-10 debate, center stage for the Air Force’s ongoing disembowelment of integrity, is not being conducted by leaders per se. It’s a proxy battle being waged by budgeteers, back-bench bureaucrats, and professional narrators, with actual principals deigning to comment only when compelled by Congress or given an opportunity by friendly media to rend untested witticisms.

But the problem with the Air Force letting the junior varsity carry out its dirty work is that along with dishonesty, there’s the danger of tactical stupidity. There’s some dark wisdom in the notion that if you’re going to sell your soul and risk your future, you should at least be proficiently corrupt. That wisdom is nowhere to be found in the Air Force’s inept drive to rid itself of its most inconveniently awesome weapon.

I wrote recently about a manifest campaign of misrepresentation undertaken by the service (and aided by an article in USA Today) in its effort to mothball the A-10. In that recent column, I attributed much of the inaccuracy of the unfair USA Today piece to the Air Force rather than ascribing it to a wayward or biased reporter. In response, I’ve received a bit of harassing fire offline, with various parties insisting that the service wasn’t behind the story.

This idea is unserious.

Context is important. The Air Force was caught red-handed last year in a series of misrepresentations concerning the A-10. It later strangled publication of a video showcasing the exploits of an A-10 squadron in Afghanistan despite releasing a similar video about an F-16 unit. An Air Force 2-star general is currently under investigation for allegedly accusing A-10 advocates of treason for speaking to Congress about their views. 

It doesn’t end there. A ceremony late last year honoring a battlefield airman’s receipt of a second Silver Star received zero four-star mention and scant service attention. More recently, the Air Force made no noticeable effort to generate high-profile coverage of ceremonies honoring two A-10 pilots’ receipt of the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for their roles in saving the lives of several Marines during a 2008 firefight. Ironically, the Marine Corps made a more earnest effort to call attention to the story, featuring one of the pilots on a popular facebook page under the caption “Badass Alert.”

The Air Force's PR operation is capable of generating national media attention when it chooses to do so. Yet, it has time and again failed to pull the big media levers to bring notice to the feats of airmen. Those who fly the A-10, like Maj. Jeremiah Parvin, see their stories actively downplayed by the service that should be championing their deeds.
The Air Force’s PR operation is capable of generating national media attention when it chooses to do so. Yet, it has time and again failed to pull the big media levers to bring notice to the feats of airmen. Those who fly the A-10, like Maj. Jeremiah Parvin, see their stories actively downplayed by the service that should be championing their combat contributions.

Within the context of an Air Force that has actively suppressed celebration of its A-10 community for a while now, its fingerprints on the USA Today article should be examined with appropriate skepticism.

Within that context, the direct evidence is compelling. Tom Vanden Brook’s article was based on data provided to him by the Air Force. He quoted three Air Force officials in the piece, including the Chief of Staff. Each official advanced the story’s central theme. This indicates there was coordination between Vanden Brook and the Air Force as he prepared the story, and this means the service knew or should have known — especially given the selectively declassified data it provided — that there was a danger of inaccurately unfavorable reporting.

For several days after the USA Today article was published, the Air Force did nothing to refute, correct, or interpret the article’s main assertions. This despite officers on the Air Staff having been aware of the article’s substance and tone before it was published. But even if Vanden Brook had somehow immaculately conceived his column, the Air Force adopted it by standing silent.

Of course, we now know that any claims of not being involved in the article beforehand were specious, because spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Karns has stipulated as much in a subsequent interview with Military Times (incidentally a USA Today sister publication). In this latest report, which gives voice to the Air Force’s disagreement that the data in the original article was manipulatively employed, Karns makes several statements that are worth examining more closely.

“Karns said the numbers provided are the most accurate data the Air Force has to date. He said the 2010 time frame for civilian casualties was used because that was when the Air Force began tracking civilian casualty data using new Defense Department guidance prompted by the joint staff.”

This statement has two problems. First, it is a classic quibble. Without being explicit, Karns is implying that the Air Force has other data that it didn’t provide, because it chose instead to provide only the data it considered most accurate. As I wrote recently, the Air Force must have data on civilian casualties dating to 2001 because it has a duty under the Law of Armed Conflict to minimize civilian casualties, and therefore must collect and analyze data to make corrective adjustments. The second issue with this statement is that it is contradictory. In Karn’s second sentence, he says the Air Force only started collecting data using new guidance in 2010, which implies the service was collecting data under the former, not new guidance before that time. 

Karns’ recourse to double-talk is a desperately weasel-worthy ploy to avoid admitting there is indeed civilian casualty data in existence for the period prior to 2010, because to admit that would be to explicitly stipulate to defrauding the public by withholding that data. This choice shows that as between being accused of lying and losing the fight to retire the A-10, it considers savaging its own integrity the dog with the least fleas.

“The incidents captured were entered into a data base, validated and met a common definition applied across all the services, Karns said.”

This is an utterly useless statement. Whether some tracking database met some kind of management science approval threshold is irrelevant to whether civilians were killed or injured by American munitions. The fact that it took nine years for this database to be enshrined shows just how unimportant it is to the underlying issue. People are dead or harmed whether or not the database was aware before 2010. Karns’ implication that casualties before 2010 are less relevant is shameful.

“When you look at the percentage of sorties flown and incidents for the 2010-2014 data for civilian casualties, the most accurate platform based on when ordnance was expended would be the F-15E, then followed by the A-10.”

Wrong. Across this timeframe, F-15Es inflicted 22 civilian casualties in the course of 1,345 kinetic sorties. That’s a casualty inflicted roughly every 61 sorties. The A-10 inflicted 38 civilian casualties in the course of 2,689 kinetic sorties, causing a civilian casualty roughly every 71 sorties. That’s 16 percent less often, which clearly contradicts Karns’ assertion.

Of course, Karns’ loose application of the word “accurate” is also misplaced here. Accuracy is a term of art in combat aviation, having to do with the closeness of munition impact relative to intended target. The data from which he draws does not support claims about accuracy without more information, but given his lack of operational or aviation background, this is to be expected.

Karns’ disgraceful diatribe continues with this gem:

“If a reader looks at civilian casualty by incident, however, the A-10 had the highest number of incidents in comparison to other Air Force manned aircraft.”

This is peculiarly brazen attempt to mislead by talking manipulatively about raw numbers. It’s the equivalent of saying 100 is bigger than 99 without disclosing that the 100 is divided by 50 and the 99 is divided by 1.  Hiding denominators to make lies more believable is something that would get the most junior airman or lieutenant in the service harshly disciplined, and yet Karns engages in it with the national media without batting an eyelash. The public and Congress are entitled to better, not to mention airmen themselves. When Karns’ debases himself while acting as the service mouthpiece, he damages everyone wearing a blue suit.

The A-10 indeed had the highest number of civilian casualty incidents (8) of any of the aircraft included in the Air Force’s already constrained data set, with two more incidents than the F-16. But it also flew far more sorties in which a weapon was unleashed (2,689) than any other platform on the list (66% more than the F-16). The rate at which the A-10 was involved in civilian casualty incidents was actually lower than any other aircraft save the F-15E, which had just two incidents in more than 1,300 firing sorties. Interestingly, those two incidents claimed an average of 11 casualties while the A-10’s eight incidents inflicted fewer than five casualties per incident. This indicates that even when A-10 munitions unintentionally harmed civilians, the damage was more discriminate.

“[C]lose air support is a mission, not a specific platform.”

Prove it. Unmask the data and prove that statement to be more than a doctrinarian platitude. Don’t do it selectively, fraudulently, or maliciously. Don’t approach from a position of bias. Hire an outside agency or request a GAO study to survey the joint fleet and the effects it has rendered in the last 14 years. Apply the results responsibly, even when they predictably demonstrate that platform is not irrelevant in the CAS mission set, and that within that mission set, there are different “flavors” of CAS that align especially with specific platforms. Until you’re willing to do this, stop making the false claim that platform doesn’t matter. No one is buying that, least of all airmen, and you shouldn’t be selling it.

“[W]ith the aircraft being 40-plus years old, you have to consider what is needed and required in the future.”

Well, first of all, we always “have to consider what is needed and required in the future,” so that’s just spam.

But let’s discuss this oft-repeated “40-plus years old” claim that Karns has been serially spouting. First of all, it’s inaccurate. The A-10 first achieved operational mission readiness in 1978. That’s 37 years ago. The average age of the A-10 fleet is around 34 years, and that fleet has been upgraded continually while maintaining a very low cost per flying hour. As I’ve written recently, if the case against the A-10 is strong, it shouldn’t require elastic facts. And if we’re going to start including embryonic weapon system development in our discussions of service life, the F-35 is already sprouting wisdom teeth and will be a gray-haired nag long before it ever fumbles its first attempted CAS mission.

The B-52 achieved operational status in 1955, more than two decades before the A-10. If fleet age were the driving factor in budget decisions, the A-10 would still be considered in the prime of its service life.
The B-52 achieved operational status in 1955, more than two decades before the A-10. If fleet age were the driving factor in budget decisions, the A-10 would still be considered in the prime of its service life.

More importantly, Karns’ reference to age is irrelevant. The question isn’t how old a given platform happens to be, but how well its capabilities align with the demands of combatant commanders. With A-10s currently pressed into service against ISIS and recently ordered to Europe as a check against Russian geostrategic designs, it seems there is still ample demand for its capabilities.

The Air Force, of course, knows the statement is empty. It has many fleets older than the A-10 that it doesn’t currently seek to liquidate, though I will refrain from giving undeserved life to Karns’ tedious gambit by listing them here.

Interestingly, General Mark Welsh’s service life is on the 40-plus side, having started with his freshman year at the Air Force Academy in 1972. Does Karns believe Welsh should step aside? Does he believe Welsh’s length of service is relevant to discussions of his job performance?

The real objective here, of course, is to paint the A-10 as an elderly platform standing in the way of a cutting edge replacement. But that replacement, the F-35, will never do what the A-10 does. It’s the CAS equivalent of proposing an old but sturdy horse be replaced with a younger donkey and pretending age somehow matters.

* * * * * 

In early 2015, the A-10 debate has both devolved and evolved. The Air Force has not only decided to sell off some of its soul on the mistaken bet that it can retain enough collective conscience to live with itself when this battle is over, but it has entrusted this delicate effort to the junior varsity. It continues to pay the price for substituting a public relations effort — and not a very good one at that — for real leadership on an issue it claims is important.

But in another way, the debate over the A-10 has been extraordinarily revealing. It has become less about platforms or budgets and more of a lesson in how the Air Force perceives its duty and the competition between its values and perceived interests in effectuating that duty. How the Air Force goes about parlaying with the public, Congress, and its own airmen in equipping itself for the future says a lot, perhaps unintentionally, about the state of morality and ethics at the top level of the service. Tough fights have a way of distilling essential truths, and in this case those exposed truths are unflattering to say the least.

As General Welsh reportedly prepares to add a fourth core value to the service’s framework (to the collective eye roll of everyone who hears about it), it’s fair to suggest that he first create a climate within which his staff and fellow senior leaders live dutifully according to the existing three.

The first, integrity, would be a great place to start.


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