Futurists in Foxholes: Fear-Driven A-10 Opponents Hunker Down, Avoid Debate


I wrote an article recently in response to a peculiarly toothless and inept essay insisting that the only argument for retaining the A-10 Warthog was rooted in how much people love airplanes and hate to see them go. To debunk that “theory” I did my best to provide an exhaustive analysis rich with fact, logic, and precedent, building on a capability-focused essay favoring retention of the A-10 that I’d written not long before.

The authors have now responded to my critique with (wait for it…) a(nother) peculiarly toothless and inept article – essentially a half-baked reiteration of their previous offering. This input again advances the thesis that A-10 advocates are an irrational bloc of misguided fanboys rather than a diverse and serious constituency of warfighters, analysts, and concerned citizens.

After having their frail and perfunctory “evidence” eviscerated on the previous attempt, the authors this time forego facts altogether and simply offer conclusions masquerading as dialogue, apparently believing that if they reiterate things frequently enough, their words will magically become authoritative. Such whimsy is increasingly noticeable among certain F-35 proponents, who seem to believe that fielding it will miraculously catalyze the instant surrender of every adversary for which its capabilities are ill-fitted.

The fictional character Michael Scott enacted a Golden Ticket promotion to encourage whimsy in the workplace. He nearly bankrupted his company. F-35 advocates bring a similar sense of wonder to the warfighting, and will generate similar results for the Air Force if left unchecked.
The fictional character Michael Scott enacted a Golden Ticket promotion to encourage whimsy in the workplace. He nearly bankrupted his company. F-35 advocates bring a similar sense of wonder to warfighting, and will generate similar results for the Air Force if left unchecked.

Such wondrous notions are reminiscent of Billy Mitchell’s theory that airplanes could alter the swarming patterns of insects. And like Mitchell’s outsized promises about airpower, Spalding and Lowther have gifted the world with an embarrassingly baseless collection of words, unwittingly upending the idea that a robotic argument is capable of generating inspired ideas about national defense. What it does manage to inspire is the compulsion to forcefully refute it.

First, let’s dispense with the implication that A-10 advocates are “emotional.” This is a loaded charge frequently made by F-35 advocates to marginalize anyone who dares to disagree. It gets bandied about on the Air Staff and implied or openly stated by senior leaders and their puppets with regularity. It’s a condescending, insulting charge to level, and comes off as a little fascist. “Oh, you’re not mentally conforming? You must be too emotional.” The suggestion made is that A-10 opponents are the calm, lucid, mature adults in the discussion. Everyone else is thinking like a child and not to be trusted. This is a lazy and disgraceful tactic already heavily disfavored in broader society for its chauvinist intonations. It’s also a dead giveaway of intellectual desperation.

At the risk of meeting sin with sin, let me suggest that the opposite is true. Opponents of the Cult of Modernization, including A-10 advocates, are attempting to speedbrake plans to eviscerate capabilities that are current and projected necessities in the security environment. This reflects careful thinking about risk.

On the other hand, F-35 advocates base their argument entirely on the assumption of vaguely defined future bogeymen with as-yet unpublished designs to existentially threaten the United States. We’re to believe that these future enemies will have the punch to compete with us regionally if not globally, and that if we’re not capable of peeling apart their air defenses with impunity, all hope for free societies will be lost.

This is a fear-based argument. F-35 advocates are afraid, and they want us to be afraid with them, especially if it separates us from our wallets. Moreover, their fear engenders a special myopia obscuring anything beyond the first phase of conflict; we’re to believe that although the F-35 will be needed to peel back enemy air defenses, the war will end at that point and there won’t be a maneuvering ground force to support, tanks to kill, or search-and-rescue missions to conduct. It’s a funny war these folks imagine. One might call it irrational.

But to quarrel even this much gives the authors more credit than deserved for their cheap labeling tactic. They provide no evidence of inappropriate emotion in the article to which they refer, which fits nicely with the fact that it doesn’t contain any. Now, if I had argued something like “do what I recommend or American children will die in a fight against a future Chinese fighter,” I could understand the charge. But that phrase appears in their allegedly emotion-free article, not mine. It seems even robots can feel.

The Air Force has a problem.
The Air Force claims to want an unemotional debate about modernization, but those arguing its case for the F-35 have resorted to cries of “won’t someone think of the children!” Fear about the future is simmering in the subtext of the debate, warping its surface. Did the service bring checkers to a nice game of chess?

The main quarrel Spalding and Lowther present is that A-10 advocates are exceedingly passionate. In the abstract, we’re to embrace the idea that passion blinds rationality, leading to impulsiveness and self-destruction. Then we snap out of it and realize this isn’t a Greek tragedy, but a debate about national defense, and in that context, passion has always been an essential trait. 

You know who had passion? Hap Arnold, whose public conflict with the Secretary of the Treasury over procurement policies got him banished from the Roosevelt White House and nearly ended his career.

You know who else? Robin Olds, whose staunch advocacy for better training and more tactical ingenuity was waged in scorched Earth fashion. Olds wasn’t interested in rational costs and benefits; he developed ideas with unparalleled drive and delivered them to the world around him with the heat and immediacy of a canister full of napalm. Innovation, as Olds taught, arises from belief in a version of the future not visible to others coupled with the courage to persuade others to that belief. Innovation isn’t just building airplanes. It’s breaking through conceptual stone walls, which requires more than heaving vials of honey at them with cyborg-like dispassion.

Arnold and Olds are the airmen who showed us how to argue about national defense. We should be following their example, not re-living high school debate club with loaded words and gimmicky ploys.

But you know who else is passionate? Mark Welsh. He tells commanders to know the stories of their airmen. He inspires with stories of airpower and leadership. He is invested in his job and connected to his people. The leadership he demonstrates inspiring people is sorely absent from his service’s programmatic arguments.

* * * * *

Passion is here to stay in matters of war. No one will ever remove passion from war or its subsidiary activities, because war is an inescapably human activity. The idea that you can remove human passion from war is fallacious, reflecting an erosion of the philosophical underpinnings of war among the Air Force’s intellectual class, something I mentioned in another recent article.

Budget choices are characterized by numbers, but they’re still human processes, and thus will include passion and its cousins. It’s a good thing, too. Any choice involving a trillion dollars should be hard fought. Any choice involving hurriedly boneyarding a capability for which we have no replacement should be hard fought. Any decision that will leave enemy forces more comfortable should be hard fought. And by “enemy” I mean not just the vague, undefined “future enemy” Spalding and Lowther have concocted as the foundation for their insistence upon a budget-eclipsing modernization strategy. I mean also the real, actual enemy. We have to deal with that enemy too, and the Air Force doesn’t get a pass.

Believing we get to pick our wars is what led us to permit gaps in our portfolio – gaps that necessitated hasty improvisations undertaken at great risk and cost to ourselves and our partners. Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. Gates lamented this in his “pulling teeth” speech in 2008, referring to the Air Force’s unwillingness to embrace the drone mission. A short span of time later, we’re an institution running at full throttle from his wise intuitions about our bad habits, fueled by a visceral attachment to modernization and unduly influenced by fear of an unknown future. This fear is cynically stoked by an industry happy to profit from our folly.

The bottom line is that the Air Force of the future needs both the A-10 and the F-35. We can’t pretend there won’t be brush fire wars and we can’t wish away large-scale conflict with modernized enemies. What we should be debating is how much of each capability is best advised. It’s a hard debate, but the juice is worth the squeeze.

What we should not be doing is pitting one platform against another under the false pretense that they are mutually exclusive. They’re not. We just have to be innovative and passionate enough about the future to find the budgetary and political solution that unlocks the resources to retain both in the proper balance.

Throughout its history, the Air Force has been criticized for taking too narrow a view of war. In 2008, Robert Gates lamented a service stuck in old ways of doing business. Six years later, the Air Force is desperately trying to exclude low intensity conflict preparation from its portfolio. This is an understandable response to pressure, but an unacceptable threat to national defense.
Throughout its history, the Air Force has been criticized for taking too narrow a view of war. In 2008, Robert Gates lamented a service stuck in old ways of doing business. Six years later, the Air Force is desperately trying to exclude low intensity conflict preparation from its portfolio. This is an understandable response to pressure, but an unacceptable threat to national defense.

Do we want a future Air Force that reflects a clinical, antiseptic philosophy? One that wrongly apprehends the nature of war and how to prepare for it? Must we become soulless in order to do the right things to prepare for our future? History and common sense suggest just the opposite – that human judgment is core to our prospects in any future conflict, and thus should be at the core of how we prepare for it. An Air Force that trades its soul, extinguishes its passion, and suppresses its judgment in order to field any particular weapon system is an Air Force not worth preserving as a separate department. 

America’s Air Force must remain a broadly capable, strategically agile air service. We owe maximum coverage of the warfighting spectrum to the joint force, deliberate plans, and the unspoken strategic consensus. If it comes from the sky, it’s our responsibility, and we don’t get to give it away for the sake of budgetary or managerial tidiness. Not even for the sake of appearing to be stoically mature pillars of rationality.

The Air Force knows this on some level, which is why members of its chattering class continue to suggest the F-35 will replace the A-10 — a falsehood cynically employed to pit two communities against one another. But just as we’ll never see an A-10 sent against a J-31 (and thanks to Spalding and Lowther for the comic value of this absurdity, even if the unseriousness of it is beneath this debate), we’ll never see an F-35 selected out of the stack by a JTAC to turn the tide of an unfolding gunfight on the ground. Even if theater commanders were willing to send a prized $200M stealth fighter into the weeds, ground parties will have little use for a single burst of 25mm, assuming they can overcome sensor limitations to put attacker and target accurately in the same space. JTACs know better than to bring a pocket knife to a gunfight, which is why they passionately want to keep the right weapon for the job in their kit.

No matter what we decide as a nation, the right answer is unlikely to emerge from mechanistic talking points, appeals to irrational fear, and vain attempts to marginalize using false labels. Intellectual integrity is an undervalued but important fixture in debates about the nation’s defense, so I’m disheartened that my colleagues failed to acknowledge a single substantive point in their latest offering, choosing instead to barricade themselves behind tired ideas and more hand-waving. Much as I respect Secretary James and General Welsh, I’m disappointed to see them send proxies forward with political arguments instead of doing what airmen do, which is to engage the Congress and the country in a discussion of the importance of airpower and how best to pay for it.

Speaking directly to Spalding and Lowther: if this is your case for abolishing America’s best attack aircraft so you can shift $5B to a conspicuously fragile and bloated modernization project, you have no case. I hope you’re able to come up with one, since the best move forward from here will arise from genuine debate rather than repetitive chanting.

Then again, if it’s so difficult to get passionate about the F-35, maybe we already have all the information we need to make this decision.

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