Lying to Win: Air Force Misrepresents Combat Records In Campaign to Retire A-10

The A-10 is a superb weapon, but it doesn't fit into the Air Force's vision of the future. The service has committed itself to getting rid of the warplane, and will stop at nothing to make it happen.
The A-10 is a superb weapon, but it doesn’t fit into the Air Force’s vision of the future. The service has committed itself to getting rid of the warplane, and will stop at nothing to make it happen.

Lie: to create a false or misleading impression.”
Win: to achieve victory in a fight, contest, or game.”

There’s a game afoot, and the Air Force is lying to win it.

The game is the annual round of sanctioned government chicanery attendant to passing a defense budget. The Air Force’s objective in this game is to rid itself of the A-10 so it can re-purpose the funding it occupies for other priorities. After failing in previous attempts to achieve this objective, the service is engaged in a take-no-prisoners effort to make it happen, and is willing to leave its integrity at the door in the process. This is extreme and regrettable behavior from an institution that claims integrity as its guiding value.

What explains the willingness to betray that value?

The Air Force says the A-10 issue is all about money, and that is has no choice but to pursue the jet’s retirement. Getting rid of the A-10, so the argument goes, is necessary to free up budget tradespace for modernization, particularly funding of the F-35. But this doesn’t really explain a willingness to abandon its core values and undertake an “any means necessary” approach. What does explain that approach? The answer lies in the difference between rhetoric and reality.

Contrary to the Air Force’s insistence, this isn’t just a routine budget issue. This is about ridding itself of a Close Air Support (CAS) mission it doesn’t really want — a function it doesn’t consider to be part of its core duty to national defense. The campaign to retire the A-10 has been carried on intermittently for two decades, and misrepresenting its contribution to national defense has been part of that campaign. By this view, the service’s recourse to dishonesty, while disappointing, should not be surprising.

But something is different this time. The current debate has occasioned a particular episode unique in its sheer mendacity, gesturing toward something more primal than run-of-the-mil anti-CAS or anti-A-10 motivations. After being humiliated on the A-10 issue over the past several budget cycles, senior officers might just be letting emotion, frustration, and a desire to establish dominant control over service priorities overtake reasoned advocacy. Recent attempts to chill A-10 debate within the service by marking its advocates with the stain of treason are evidence of this.

The latest signal that emotion has surpassed reason among service leaders is the recent article by USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook, caustically titled “A-10 warplane tops list for friendly fire deaths.” This is a lamentable article that advances a despicable bundle of misrepresentations on behalf of the unnamed officials who made the reporter their message mule.

Relying on selectively declassified information he obtained from the Air Force, Vanden Brook lays out a number of claims, among them that the A-10 “has killed more U.S. troops in friendly fire incidents and more Afghan civilians than any other aircraft flown by the U.S. military.” He offers these claims in largely conclusory fashion, supporting them with scant evidence sprinkled throughout the article, interwoven with superficial commentary starved of useful context.

These claims are fundamentally misleading. Let’s take them one at a time.

In order to formulate the sensational claim that the A-10 is responsible for more civilian casualties than any other aircraft, several feats of analytical metaphysics are required. While Vanden Brook bears some culpability for advancing a narrative based on flawed data, the clear culprit here is whoever shaped, molded, and then gifted to him the data upon which he relied.

First, the Air Force supplied USA Today with civilian casualty data starting in 2010 (despite providing fratricide data extending back to 2001). This was deliberate. Had the service included data from 2009, a B-1 strike inflicting massive civilian casualties would have been part of the calculation, easily construing the B-1 as the most risky CAS platform in terms of civilian deaths. According to an unclassified executive summary of a U.S. Central Command investigation, between 26 and 86 civilian deaths were suffered in a B-1 strike incident in Farah Province in May, 2009. This isn’t an indictment of the B-1 or its committed and capable crews, but the Air Force’s knowing omission of this data is misrepresentative in the extreme.

Vanden Brook attempts to deal with this by saying civilian casualty information wasn’t collected before 2010. This is inaccurate. Not only did the Air Force have access to the 2009 executive summary cited above, but as a general matter, one of the abiding objectives of the entire war effort in Afghanistan has been the minimization of collateral damage. This is not only a matter of operational efficacy, but a requirement of international law and expressly required of the Air Force under the Law of Armed Conflict. This implies a duty on the part of operational commanders to know when civilian casualties occur and to take corrective measures to prevent them.

Minimizing civilian casualties and friendly fire is the solemn duty of an entire community of battlefield airmen. Their favored weapon system: the A-10.
Minimizing civilian casualties and friendly fire is the solemn duty of an entire community of battlefield airmen. Their favored weapon system: the A-10.

In 2008, as the number of airstrikes in Afghanistan increased to keep pace with operations undertaken by a rapidly expanding ground force, leaders worried about the potential for increased civilian casualties (the discussion was showcased in this USA Today article). The role and relevance of kinetic airpower in counterinsurgency was an issue of central debate, occupying the minds of many airpower theorists and practitioners. Against this backdrop, for the Air Force to say it doesn’t have civilian casualty data for the first nine years of the war is to feign incompetence for the sake of avoiding accountability.

After constraining the data temporally, the Air Force engaged in another sleight of hand by focusing on civilian deaths rather than civilian casualties. This runs counter to long established traditions of historians, journalists, and other war researchers, who ordinarily report casualty figures — including both dead and wounded — when assessing the cost of war. If the idea is to understand how often we harm what we didn’t intend to harm, why leave out those unfortunate civilians who “merely” lost a limb or suffered some other traumatic injury? The answer is to advance a misleading narrative, of course. If the Air Force had spoken in terms of casualties, the B-1 would have once again been portrayed as a much more high-risk CAS weapon than the A-10.

The third trick played here by the Air Force was to speak in terms of total civilians killed rather than the rate at which they were killed as a function of total sorties. This method obscures the fact that the A-10 flew more than four times as many useful CAS sorties in the same span of time as the B-1 while causing fewer casualties. In fact, the data demonstrates that the A-10 inflicted civilian casualties at a rate of 1.3 per 100 kinetic sorties, while the B-1 rate was 6.6. This means the A-10 was actually five times more effective than the B-1 at exercising combat power without harming Afghan civilians.

But wait. There’s more. The A-10 also typically flies more passes over a combat engagement in a given kinetic sortie than its counterparts, meaning it spends much more time engaging enemies and operating proximate to civilians while inflicting fewer unintended casualties. Experts in the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) community contacted for this article said the A-10 not uncommonly executes 6-8 more passes than any of its CAS cousins. The aircraft is able to do this because of its weapons capacity, fuel efficiency, and the superb training and expertise of its pilots. But even if we cut the JTAC estimate in half and assume 3-4 more passes, this means the A-10 presents 15 to 20 times less risk of civilian casualties than the B-1 when all relevant performance data is included in the analysis.

That the A-10 would have inflicted fewer civilian casualties in Afghanistan since 2010 than the B-1, F-16, F-15E, AV-8, and F-18 (according to the Air Force’s unclassified data) is not a surprise. It’s the best CAS weapon in the inventory and its crews specialize in achieving this result. That the Air Force would denigrate or allow to be denigrated the committed and capable airmen who have racked up such an effective record of discriminate warfare is shocking, at least when viewed through a moral lens. That it would take an active hand in prevaricating through data trickery is beyond disappointing.

To make out the claim that the A-10 was the worst killer of Americans in Afghanistan, the level of dishonesty necessary was even greater.

First, the data set was broadened to include operations dating back to 2001 (!), including both Iraq and Afghanistan. This is professional dissembling of the first order.

Why not constrain the data to 2010-2014, as was done with the civilian casualty numbers? Because by broadening the data in both time and space and including Iraq, the Air Force gets to include years worth of A-10 CAS sorties and their associated fratricide risks — sorties flown at a greater frequency over those years by the A-10 than by other platforms — in order to establish a foundation upon which to sensationalize.

This is deeply dishonorable. The service is obliged to champion its people rather than painting their valorous acts in a unfairly unfavorable light. Its leaders should be pushing for national coverage of the heroism of the A-10 community rather than poisoning its public image with half-baked statistics.

It should surprise no one that the military’s CAS workhorse, having spent more time and flown more passes supporting troops in contact than any other weapon, would have been responsible for more friendly fire incidents. The Air Force knows better. But the dishonesty didn’t stop there.

The next move was to screen out coalition casualties, because if non-US casualties were part of the calculation, the B-52, F-18, and F-14 would be seen as responsible for more fratricide. But after pretending allied casualties were irrelevant, the data still had to be doctored to screen out those “merely” wounded in fratricide incidents, because if the standard definition of “casualty” were applied, the B-52, F-18, F-14, and the F-15E would be seen as responsible for more fratricide. So for the sake of narrative, the Air Force pretended once again that lost limbs and traumatic brain injury have no material relevance, and was thus able to advance the strategic talking point that the A-10 had killed more Americans than any other warplane.

The actual facts in the unclassified data paint a much different picture.

Here are the total raw numbers of US and coalition dead and wounded via fratricide, by platform, since 2001, including both Iraq and Afghanistan (along with a disclaimer that given the problems already identified with this data, it should not be assumed complete or accurate):

F-18: 98
B-52: 85
F-14: 65
*A-10: 61
F-15E: 53
AC-130: 29
Drones: 17
F-16: 14
B-1: 6

It’s worth taking a moment to register what the inclusion of the F-14, retired since 2006, says about the Air Force’s stretch backward to find enough data to support its objective. 

But the more important notation here is that we’re once again dealing in raw numbers rather than in the rates at which fratricide occurred over time. Given that the A-10 flew many more kinetic sorties over this period than its counterparts, and given that it flew many more passes on those sorties, the rate at which it inadvertently harmed ground troops is certainly lower than these numbers would indicate. How much lower? We can’t know, because the Air Force kept sortie numbers classified.

* * * * *

There are other issues with the USA Today article, to not least of which is its basic premise. As the article itself points out, “[m]ore than 99% of the missions in which warplanes attack enemy ground fighters avoid harm to U.S. troops or civilians.” In other words, as another writer already pointed out, the piece disclaims its own uselessness, admitting it is describing marginal phenomena we shouldn’t be spending inordinate time worrying about. While civilian and friendly losses in combat are inevitable, aircrews and JTACs have done a remarkable and historically unprecedented job of minimizing those losses.

The Air Force spent a generation developing the precision to minimize unintended battlefield losses. Why is it now taking an active hand in portraying its own warplanes as dangerous?
The Air Force spent a generation developing the precision to minimize unintended battlefield losses. Why is it now taking an active hand in portraying its own warplanes as dangerous?

Vanden Brook also reports that “[s]ince August, [the A-10] has flown 14% of the missions against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIL.” This is once again astray from whole truth. The A-10 was not deployed to fight ISIS until November (though A-10 pilots would have given their teeth to get out there sooner). As retired Colonel, veteran A-10 pilot, and newly-sworn Congresswoman Martha McSally pointed out, the fact that the A-10 has made a double digit showing in total sortie counts that date back to three months before it was deployed illustrates how much work it has been doing in theater.

The article also features a quote from ubiquitous Air Force spokesman Chris Karns, who noted that:

“[t]he A-10 has been in service for 40-plus years . . . [w]hile [it] and its airmen have a long and proud history, fiscal realities and the significant cost savings associated with A-10 divestment are resulting in tough decisions.”

Why does Karns feel the need to mention the 40-year service life of the A-10? Obviously to construe the best attack aircraft in service today as somehow belonging to the past. This connotes the Air Force’s fixation on the flawed idea that newer automatically equals better, which is not true when the enemy is employing old-school tactics and low-tech human innovations to achieve asymmetry with America’s high tech force presentation.

Karns’ statement has the added feature of sidestepping Air Force agency for its decisions as he attributes them instead to ephemeral budgetary forces. But make no mistake, this is an Air Force choice. Other options exist, but scrapping the A-10 is the solution most aligned with service’s institutional interests. Those interests are rooted in technological solutions to a narrow vision of high-end war. They take too little notice of the enemy’s eternal right to vote, sometimes by presenting himself in inconvenient form and in unexpected places.

On the Air Force’s desired trajectory, it may find itself flush with cutting-edge aircraft but lacking the training or professionalism to fly them, having left its values, people, and too many dollars at the Fifth Generation altar. It may also find that a cutting edge is useless where blunt force, delivered squarely to the nose of an enemy, is required for national defense.

* * * * *

General Welsh says this is “not about not liking or not wanting the A-10,” It’s about “tough decisions.” With this statement, he positions himself — rightly — as the responsible agent for the future of American airpower. But this begs the question: if this is not about what the Air Force wants, but what it believes is right for the future, shouldn’t the truth be enough? And in that question lurks an insightful corollary: if the service can’t make an argument relying on the facts alone, and instead feels the need to warp and distort them, those facts must not be very strong.

General Mark Welsh says his service is all about "Integrity First." But, as John Adams famously argued, facts are stubborn things." Fact is, the Air Force is not leveling with itself, Congress, or the public on the subject of the A-10.
General Mark Welsh says his service is all about “Integrity First.” But, as John Adams famously argued, facts are stubborn things.” Fact is, the Air Force is not leveling with itself, Congress, or the public on the subject of the A-10.

Whatever the reason, Welsh’s Air Force is not demonstrating integrity. It’s not demonstrating transparency. Whoever gave USA Today the data used to craft this story would have (or at least should have) flunked out of the Air Force Academy on an honor code violation. As the service sets about punishing missile operators for cheating on proficiency exams, it’s fair to question whether the ultimate culpability for that cheating culture is traceable to a habit of departmental duplicity masquerading as “strategic communications.” Example, after all, is the larger part of leadership.

The A-10 debate has been a dark chapter for the Air Force — a diving board for a continuing string of public belly flops. In just three years, it has devolved from a genuine debate about the future to a gutless budget discussion to a seedy showcase of intellectual cowardice, serial doublespeak, and a political loyalty culture bordering on fascism. Welsh and his team need to lift the tenor of this debate rather than jumping into the gutter and tarnishing the honor of the entire service for the sake of winning a political contest. Feeding pre-manufactured data to journalists that it knows (or should reasonably foresee) will result in the deprecation of an entire community of warfighters who deserve a more accurate rendition of what they’ve done for their country is a moral violation.

Obfuscating an airpower debate important to the country’s future is also an ethical failure. The Air Force is uniquely situated, having sole access to the relevant data by which Congress and the public can make informed decisions about the allocation of scarce resources. General Welsh claimed last year (in another Tom Vanden Brook article in USA Today) that the service was entitled to top ethics marks despite a string of scandals. Making reporters into carriers for misinformation upends this claim and denies the opportunity for proper debate

The Air Force cannot thrive unless it reflects the values and aspirations of the society it defends. Cheating in the A-10 debate by spiriting half-baked nonsense into the media is just the latest example of a service setting its moral and ethical bar too low, and still managing to come up short. The hateful irony in all of this is that the nation’s foremost enemies are actually hoping the Air Force wins this debate. They’d like nothing more than to have the A-10 off the battlefield.

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