Hawg: The Story of the A-10 and Close Air Support in Afghanistan

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Several months ago, I came to possess film footage depicting the exploits of an A-10 Fighter Squadron in Afghanistan during the fighting season of 2014. The story it renders, through interviews and first-person experiences on the battlefield, vividly illustrates the essential role of the A-10 Warthog, its community of pilots, and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers working together expertly to save the lives of ground troops engaged in close combat in the most dangerous place in the world.

At the time, I assumed (and have since unofficially been given reason to believe) that the documentary had been created by Combat Camera airmen. ComCam is perhaps alone in its possession of the unique combination of access and capability to create something this close to the mission with such superior production values.

The importance of the video was instantly unmistakable. At a time of constrained budgets, shuffling fiscal priorities, and escalating global instability, national defense choices must be as maximally informed as possible. The voting public needs information, as do its elected representatives, to make the best use of scarce defense resources. I was excited to think the Air Force had seen fit to make the video, and eagerly awaited its official release. When a similar documentary chronicling an F-16 squadron hit the streets, I and others aware of the A-10 footage assumed it wouldn’t be long. We were mistaken.

As the weeks ticked by, the video never appeared. I and others made media inquires with the Air Force. Time after time, those inquires dead-ended or went unanswered. I knew from my own experience working with Air Force Instruction 35-102 that policy reviews for unclassified information of this sort were allocated no more than 10 working days. I also recalled that instruction’s imposition upon the Air Force of an obligation to “provide the public maximum information about Air Force operations and activities … [and to] clear, without delay, the maximum amount of information at the lowest competent review level.” I concluded there must be some other explanation for the delayed release.

It occurred to me that force protection might be a concern for the Air Force, given that the airmen and soldiers depicted in the video were still deployed and operating. This idea was contradicted by the existence of the F-16 video and other articles released around the same time that revealed even more particularized information about participants. Still, it seemed reasonable to wait a while out of an abundance of caution.

Nine months later, the video still has not been released. In that time, no one has been able to get the Air Force to confirm it exists, much less explain why it hasn’t been made public. In response to my most recent inquiry, Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Karns wasn’t able to offer any comment on potential release of the video, but he speculated — based on my description — that I might be in possession of a “draft” copy of a film produced in theater.

It’s increasingly clear that regardless of patience, prodding, respect for process, and good faith efforts to have this video made public by the Air Force, the service is disinclined to claim responsibility for its production, much less publicly release it. The passage of enough time to ameliorate any reasonable concerns about releasability doesn’t seem to matter.

Equally unimportant to officials is the fact that (speculatively, since I can’t get it officially confirmed), a ComCam airman risked mortal danger to make this film and tell this story, getting immersed in a firefight along the way (you’ll see him drop his camera and hear him discharge his weapon in the video). The fact that taxpayers funded this project also appears inconsequential. 

Is this message being suppressed? And if so, why?

Well, we can only speculate (in addition to having already speculated that it’s an Air Force product) that the reasons are political. The service likely strangled this production because the powerful message it conveys would have been inconvenient to narratives insisting the A-10 should be retired. Around the time this documentary surfaced, other A-10 stories were being actively suppressed, a manipulative effort that continued until the A-10’s deployment to fight ISIS and respond to Russian aggression made public acknowledgment of its crucial role unavoidable.

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As early 2015 arrived, General Mark Welsh and Secretary Deborah Lee James knew they had an uphill battle selling Congress on the idea of retiring the A-10 without a proven replacement. Having this video on the street before that sales pitch got started might have made it nigh on impossible to convincingly put across the proposition that other platforms could do the same job without a potentially disastrous spike in risk to ground troops.

This doesn’t mean Welsh or James had an active role in suppressing this video. Only that someone, at some level, likely thought it would be inconsistent with the service’s espoused narrative. We know now that the service had created a climate where its top generals considered cherishing the A-10 too enthusiastically to be not just disobedient, but treasonous.

Since we can’t know who authorized production of the video or why it was never shared, we have little hope of understanding why it was (or wasn’t) suppressed. Still, Congress should be curious about what appears to be a particularly duplicitous species of message control from a public agency that spends more than $100B in taxpayer funds every year and owes a duty of basic transparency. That the Air Force claims it values integrity as a core value makes suppression of this important story all the more disappointing. Congress should also wonder about a command corps that fails to energetically champion those doing the heavy lifting in America’s war effort, choosing politics over leadership. Such conduct is somewhere between derelict and outright toxic, and widens the already gaping maw between military members and the society they defend.

Was holding this back an effort to actively misrepresent the relevance of the A-10 and the expert opinions of its practitioners and direct stakeholders? Difficult to say. But in the end, it proved irrelevant as Welsh and James failed to persuade Congress to their point of view even without this video being made public. They also suffered the indignity of having to explain why a 2-star general sought to unlawfully restrict A-10 advocates from communicating with Congress, a debacle that cost both of them and the Air Force itself a huge measure of public credibility.

With General Welsh having recently conceded, for the first time, that the F-35 will not be able to step into the shoes of the A-10, the distinctive value of the A-10 in close air support is more relevant than ever. The country and Congress need to understand what we will be losing if it is retired. The Air Force and its sister services need to acknowledge what capability gaps will be created, so that future plans, operations, and training routines can be adjusted accordingly. Otherwise, there is a danger of uncounted risk which will only manifest itself when a future fight occurs and the Air Force is unable to meet unwittingly hollow expectations. Hiding risk compromises the future of American defense, and is ethically unacceptable no matter the perceived gains to be harvested.

That’s what makes this video important. Wherever it came from, whoever authorized and made it, for whatever purpose, it exposes an essential truth about what it takes to win, at acceptable cost, in this kind of war. Its very existence also demonstrates that even (and perhaps especially) within the Air Force, there is nothing close to a consensus that the A-10 should be retired.

Aptly titled “Hawg”, this chronicle also crystallizes the A-10’s meaning. Budget jargon, empty platitudes about modernization, and statements of vague principle unchained from on-the-ground reality tend to populate official positions about this aircraft and community of practice. The signal gets buried in the noise. This video cuts through all of that, making the importance of “grunts in the sky” to grunts on the ground obvious and undeniable.

It’s arguable that this video is the best argument yet made for continuation of the A-10 mission. That it was almost certainly made by airmen using taxpayer funds makes its beauty all the more poetic.

While I can’t say exactly what this is or where it came from, I know it’s important. Enjoy it, and share it energetically. The next round of the fight to kill this capability is never far off.

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