Light Refreshments, “Light Attack”


Behind all of the public theater surrounding the proposed retirement of the A-10, the Air Force’s legislative liaison has been working hard on the Hill to leg sweep opponents. The effort won’t succeed, but it’s entertaining, to the extent the service affords we mere plebiscites an occasional if unintended glimpse.

The Air Force’s latest push to manufacture consent for this reckless idea continues with light refreshments served over a discussion of “light attack.” This Monday evening, the service’s Senate Legislative Liaison will conduct a “CAS education” seminar for legislative staffers.

It is said at least three Air Force “experts” will conduct this session.

Lt. Col. W. is a B-1 pilot with 110 air strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will undoubtedly extol the virtues of “CAS” provided by a gunless supersonic bomber dropping ordnance on a set of coordinates from standoff. Even the terminology of his impressive pedigree (“air strikes”) is foreign to the lexicon of CAS, thought it fits squarely within the dictionary of “global strike.” This makes sense given the impending move of the B-1 fleet to Air Force Global Strike Command, a shift likely to further attenuate the B-1’s focus on conducting genuine CAS.

Maj. H. is a former supply officer who cross-trained into the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) career field. The Air Force claims he has more than 5,500 air strikes and 1,300 troops-in-contact events under his belt. Sources behind the blue veil say those numbers rely heavily on his time as an aide to the Combined Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC) and that his up-close experience with troops-in-contact is extremely limited. One insider quipped that H’s testimony about CAS should carry about the same weight as “Joe Sixpack’s testimony about Navy SEALs after watching American Sniper,” hastening to add that this wasn’t an insult to H but a condemnation of the Air Force for holding him out as an apparent expert. 

Perhaps most notably, Brig. Gen. Patrick Malackowski will attend. “M-10,” a former A-10 pilot, is undoubtedly dispatched to this event to bolster the Air Force’s bona fides. But observers of the A-10 debate know he isn’t in this discussion for his expertise, but his political loyalty. Remember, this is the guy who gave USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook this little gem back in February:

“the most important thing is for the (warplane) to get there and provide support . . . [i]f time is an issue and you need to get there quickly, then the A-10 is not the preferred platform.”

This is essentially meaningless. Speed of response is one of dozens of factors in evaluating the effectiveness of a CAS weapon, and not usually the dispositive one. In the vast majority of scenarios, aircraft are not responding from a standing start on a distant flightline but a fluid orbit proximate to the ground fight. Having enough airframes and crews to meet theater demand is the key to avoiding the “speed of response” problem, and the key to mass is low cost. In other words, M-10 unravels his own argument with this scribbled rhetorical shorthand. Oh by the way, loiter, firepower, and survivability over a firefight are much more important than speed.

To the extent M-10’s words have meaning, they are misleading, which situates them perfectly within an article that was decried by many watchdogs as an example of gross misinformation from the Air Force. I wrote an article (“Lying to Win“) in response to that USA Today piece, and humbly suggest it’s worth revisiting in advance of Monday’s mobile Potemkin Village.

There’s a dark irony in all of this. The event is being billed as a way for Congressional staff to “better understand the complexity” of CAS, but the Air Force clearly intends to portray it in oversimplified terms. CAS is a spectrum of missions, a slice of which call for the unique mix of capabilities only found in a dedicated attack aircraft. Budget hacks and modernization cultists need Congress to see CAS as a unitary bloc of missions, with capabilities completely interchangeable in any scenario.

In that area of mismatch — where the Air Force is encouraging the conceptual conflation of CAS and straight-up fixed-coordinate bombing — lies the risk of lost lives, lost battles, and lost wars. This is a risk JTACs forcefully argued when they recently met with the service’s top officials. Their message seems to have fallen on deaf ears, which is striking since they’re the experts whose input should be given the greatest weight.

The ongoing effort to redefine CAS is a step away from genuinely providing it.

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