If you’ve never witnessed an honest-to-goodness, woodshed quality Congressional beat-down, your wait is over. Grab your popcorn and marvel at the sheer spectacle of what can only be accurately described as a public gelding.
If you’re having trouble calling to mind another example of such a brutal public flogging of a member of the joint chiefs of staff, it’s because this doesn’t happen very often. John McCain basically told Mark Welsh to shut up at one point. While hearings such as this are partly (if not mostly) theatrical, this is extreme stuff. It’s a chronicle of lost confidence and mutual distrust.
Lest anyone believe McCain was behaving arbitrarily, or that he was assailed by a fit of uncontainable rage … it should be noted that there was nothing whimsical or mysterious about this confrontation — if something so lopsided can be granted that label. This was a predictable and eminently avoidable beating that could be seen coming a mile away. So why didn’t Gen. Welsh avoid it? More on that in a few … but suffice to say it was a conscious choice to fly into the teeth of a known threat.
There is an immutable truth at the core of this dispute. In fact, the “debate” about the A-10 has, over the last three budget cycles, been less about retiring it per se, and more about the Air Force’s refusal to stipulate plainly and transparently to this immutable truth.
Here it is:
The Air Force has no intention of replacing the A-10.
That’s it. Lost in all the sound and fury is the fact that the Air Force wants out of not just the A-10 business, but the part of the Close Air Support business that takes place in the segment of the warfighting spectrum occupied by the A-10. The F-35 will never occupy this segment of the mission, as Welsh conceded in the hearing. This means to the extent there is a mismatch, the Air Force is knowingly selling itself out of part of its warfighting role without explicitly advertising the risk to the joint force of doing so.
McCain knows this is the case, and he wants the Air Force to explain openly what it’s doing, absorb the attendant political costs, and accept whatever Congressional re-direct might follow. He’s agitated because the Air Force is attempting to pursue a novel warfighting vision — one carrying risk to the joint force of the future — not by annunciating it, but by systematically eliminating the capabilities necessary to pursue the chief competing vision.
It’s a disingenuous approach, which McCain has repeatedly highlighted since 2013. At this point, he clearly doesn’t trust Gen. Welsh. This is arguably reason alone for Welsh to move his retirement forward and get out of the way. A broken relationship between these two officials … and the antagonism it generates … just ends up hurting the rank and file and subtly undermining national defense.
The A-10 specializes in low/slow, long-loiter, tightly coordinated, fluid, under-the-weather, danger close, 30mm cannon-centric air support. It can absorb small arms fire and shoulder-fired missiles and keep on chugging, making it an ideal companion for ground formations on the move.
The Air Force’s future vision excludes this kind of air support — not so much because it will cease to exist, but because the service just doesn’t want to do it anymore. Accordingly, it’s engaging in a slow-motion redefinition of the entire mission set — or attempting to do so while getting slapped silly by McCain, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, and others. It sees the future of Close Air Support (or says it does) existing exclusively in an advanced radar threat environment requiring stealthy air operations. An environment where munitions are delivered from arms length and through the weather. No more of this getting down in the dirt and hanging around gun battles. Instead, following Drumpf-esque “logic” perfectly appropriate to the times, the F-35 will somehow “just make it happen.” Or so the joint force tepidly hopes.
McCain is having none of this. Hence his absolute man-handling of Gen. Welsh on the subject.
Both men are visibly tired of this recurring routine. Welsh is exhausted at the entire prospect of trying to explain why, time after time, he chooses to push the A-10 into the boneyard rather than seeking to shelve some other weapon system. He can’t admit in open court that it’s tied to service’s desire to free itself of traditional Close Air Support, which it views as a costly luxury falling outside the core of what it does (or wants to be doing) for the nation’s defense. When times get tight, it’s the first thing to go. Before staff cars, personal servants, bands, show choirs, bloated VIP fleets, and new headquarters buildings … it’s the first thing the Air Force wants to kill. Every. Time.
McCain, for his part, is tired of being deceived. He calls Welsh on it, and he’s not wrong. The A-10 is still in high demand … and yet it’s the weapon the service chooses to retire without a replacement on-hand. Welsh’s oft-galloping and internally conflicted rationales have now found the hinge of insufficient manpower, and this too is disingenuous. The Air Force kicked out more than 11,000 people two years ago. It did this in one year instead of using the five years Congress authorized. This was a regrettable and damaging error. To now suggest that manpower is the reason for the A-10 being singled out, despite its continuing value … is to admit to a self-inflicted mistake of gargantuan magnitude at best, and to brazenly lie at worst.
Manpower isn’t the reason for the A-10 retirement proposal: it’s the strategy. Cut so many people that you can only progress along one narrow path – standing down the A-10 to make room for the F-35 – and then rely on the self-created absence of choice to get what you wanted all along. It’s all a game and a dark joke at the expense of those who take the Air Force at its increasingly frail word.
This all makes transparent why the Air Force kicked out maintainers in 2014 (despite the fact the career field was widely known to be undermanned) … and then rapidly changed its story to exclaim breathlessly that it needed more maintainers in 2015. It was, perhaps, a gambit to coerce Congress into killing the A-10, which is important to the Welsh Air Force not just because it makes room for the F-35, but because it accommodates a favored vision of the role of blue airpower in the joint force. That vision does not include traditional Close Air Support.
Welsh’s overall performance was somewhere between defeatist and curmudgeonly. It’s not clear how the Air Force will get the help it needs when the manpower crisis is portrayed in muted tones … when the Chief of Staff declines to tell the Senate that he needs tens of thousands more people to sustainably do the job the Administration is ordering him to do … and when he can’t stop alienating the committee chairman to save his life. Welsh lost his bearing several times and projected a demeanor of open disdain. It raises a huge question: if he can’t get along with the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, should he remain the Chief of Staff?
I’ve had many people tell me privately in the last few months that Welsh wasn’t going to go back to Congress this year with any suggestion of retiring the A-10. He had concluded it was a non-starter legislatively and wasn’t going to take another unproductive beating.
He should have stuck to his original impulse.
We’ll have more on the details of the hearing — and the shady campaign underway to shelve the A-10 — in future installments.
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