As Congress returns, attention will soon fixate on the deliberate morass that is the defense budget process. The Air Force is preparing for its role in this sanctioned national clownery by focusing on a peculiar narrative, claiming that it needs to mothball a costly airplane of questionable utility in order to save money for an upgraded one. The truth is just the opposite. The Air Force wants to rid itself of a cost-effective and valuable airplane in order to spend money on a less capable one. We’re talking of course about the Air Force’s newly explicit plea that fielding the F-35 depends upon being permitted to retire the A-10.
While Sen. Kelly Ayotte is correct in labeling this a false choice, it’s worth accepting the premise just long enough to do what the Air Force won’t, and that’s to expose the risks of hastily fielding an unproven fighter at the expense of the service’s core attack capability.
The Air Force has no current or planned replacement for the A-10. It has unique capabilities that will be missing from the national airpower portfolio if it is retired. You won’t hear that fact acknowledged in the theatrical exercise that lies ahead. To steer clear of such a turbulent discussion, the Air Force is actively pulling at max g to avoid talking about capabilities, focusing instead on a sterile business case that offers economic conclusions as evidence and budgetary necessity as the sole consideration. This approach skips over over the part where things like combat risk and national interest get discussed. Why, one might marvel, would the service do this?
In such mysterious moments, institutional interest tends to be quite revealing. In this case, the Air Force’s interest is in procuring an enormous fleet of F-35s, which it sees as essential to an envisaged future characterized exclusively by high-intensity warfare and set-piece battles waged in denied access environments. The Air Force traditionally has little interest in waging low intensity conflict, and thus liquidates its ability to do so at every opportunity.
On the other hand, stealth — notwithstanding it functions less like a cloaking device and more like a dollop of raspberry jam on a radar scope — has become a most cherished talisman. To acquire it, Air Force leaders are willing to go “all in,” wagering their most capable Close Air Support (CAS) weapon and the only platform in the current or planned inventory able to reliably conduct combat search and rescue (CSAR) escort missions.
But beyond an interest in a certain kind of war, the Air Force sees itself as the service responsible for pushing technological boundaries. This is a mentality bone-bred into the service’s aviators from an early professional stage – especially in the fighter community from which its most senior officers are typically drawn. This mentality leads to a strong impulse for modernization as an end unto itself rather than a means to victory. It becomes an article of faith – an ideology leading to an almost cult-like devotion to cutting-edge technology.
After biding its time for a decade on the sidelines of a land war, the cult of modernization has radicalized of late, undertaking bold moves in its effort to field the latest in fighter technology. Most of these moves have demonstrated why it’s difficult to find an old, bold pilot.
Last budget round, Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh (alongside what seemed like a haplessly co-opted Secretary Deborah Lee James) meandered into the human buzzsaw known as Sen. John S. McCain when he recited and refused to disown a talking point equating CAS via B-1 with CAS via A-10 (relevant sequence at 4:30). These are two different combat effects, and McCain found it distasteful that he would be assumed dumb enough to overlook the difference. Having none of it, McCain delivered the rhetorical equivalent of “get off my lawn” before sending service leaders back to the Pentagon to adjust their scripts.
McCain’s objection catalyzed resistance to the Air Force’s plan by exposing a disingenuous argument that retiring the A-10 was the only answer to the service’s budget woes. Rather than truly squeeze the Air Force into a fulsome debate about its budget choices, Congress simply found a way to pay for the A-10. In the year since, an expectation formed that the Air Force would return with a better argument this cycle, or at least a more polished version of the old argument. Instead, the service did what only hidebound, plodding bureaucracies can do: it found a new way to fail.
Enter this year’s innovatively dumb argument for retiring the A-10: the Air Force claims it can’t pull together enough maintenance personnel to fly the F-35 unless it can cannibalize the A-10 maintenance force. This argument will fail, and will likely do so in new and more embarrassing ways than last year’s. And it should fail, because it’s even more at odds with the facts than the “CAS is CAS” chicanery that left the service wearing the dental impressions of several prominent legislators last time around.
Fact. The Air Force never planned to make the F-35 operational before retiring the A-10, and therefore never planned on using the A-10 maintenance force to prime the F-35 operation.
Fact. The F-35 has been consistently among the Air Force’s top three procurement goals, making it incredible that the service would rely upon the unplanned sundowning of another platform in its logistical support plan.
Fact. A-10 maintainers have one of the least translatable experiential bases of any community when it comes to seeding an F-35 maintenance outfit. The A-10 is all about titanium, legacy instrumentation, and analog technology. The F-35 is all about digital avionics and cutting-edge composite materials with special requirements. While not impossible, cross-feeding A-10 maintainers into the fledgling F-35 community as a primary contingent is questionable.
Fact. The Air Force just this year voluntarily separated more than 4,000 airmen, including scores of maintainers. This makes Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan’s recent statement that the F-35 could be delayed for lack of maintenance manpower laughable on its face.
Indeed, Bogdan’s reasoning raises a host of questions: wasn’t the need to fix and generate these aircraft part of planning? If you’re now saying you need to retire the A-10 to get the resources for the F-35, why is this only now being mentioned? Shouldn’t this have also been the argument last year?
The service should be embarrassed that what would ordinarily constitute a minor internal management problem is being so prominently discussed. The maintenance community is certainly having a good laugh about it, darkly embracing the knuckle-buster’s ethos that everything not maintenance’s fault will be considered maintenance’s fault anyway.
Given these facts, inferences, and inconsistences, it’s clear this is not a matter of resources. It’s just a naked political ploy, and a lame one at that. Turns out the most formidable air force in the world somehow lacks the courage to make an argument on the warfighting merits. Instead, the gambit is to shape congressional perceptions with an information campaign that construes the A-10 as the one thing standing in the way of fielding the fattest cash cow in the history of military procurement. The Air Force is gambling that lobbyists and industry leaders will succeed in convincing Congress to ditch the A-10, something the service has concluded it can’t do itself because its arguments are too weak. It’s a deeply cynical move, but one with a bit of traction.
But for the F-35’s advocates, there’s a huge problem lurking beneath the initially promising veneer of this approach. By tying the fates of these two aircraft together so explicitly, the Air Force has set a trap for itself that will spring when A-10 advocates remind Congress and the public that for all its promise, the F-35 will never replace the A-10. Nothing currently fielded or planned can do that.
The experts know best. In a recent email, retired Chief Master Sergeant Russ Carpenter, a 30-year veteran of the tactical air control mission, told PBS that currently serving terminal attack controllers believe:
“[T]he idea of retiring the A-10 is f—ed up. I have had dozens of them tell me … that retiring the A-10 is going to cost the lives of our Army brothers and sisters.”
Carpenter is voicing a broadly held expert opinion that the Air Force has actively suppressed, but it appears airmen are less prepared this time to stand fast as their mission is manipulated by special interests and senior bureaucrats with no skin in the combat game. Their concern is genuine, and seems to be gathering a political following.
The F-35 is not and will never be a CAS platform. Upon reaching initial operating capability, the F-35 will have internal weapons carriage only, limited to just two air-to-ground hardpoints capable of carrying only two discrete types of munitions. Current CAS platforms, principally the A-10, F-16, and F-15E, have significantly more weapons flexibility and far greater payloads. A typical F-16 load includes four munitions, while an F-15E hauls between six and nine, with both jets capable of selecting from a broad array of bomb types. Both F-16 and F-15E have the ability to engage ground targets with a 20mm gun, while the A-10 brings the legendary 30mm GAU-8 to the fight. F-35s will not be fielded with a cannon until at least the year 2020, and even then, the planned 25mm gun will hold just 180 rounds — enough for a single tactical burst. This lack of firepower is matched by absence of the basic sensor, guidance, and targeting capabilities essential in modern attack aircraft.
As it stands, the F-35 will, by 2020, have zero capability to stop an armored vehicle, zero capability to illuminate or mark a target and a very modest ability to engage a moving target. It’ll also have only a razor thin ability to strafe targets close to friendly forces. Upon making its vaunted debut, the F-35 won’t even have the CAS weapon and sensor capability legacy fighters had by the middle of the last decade. That’s right — we’re breaking the bank to pay for something that will have less capability.
Given all this, it’s easy to envision just how degraded the CAS mission will be as the F-35 progressively replaces currently fielded aircraft, which is the service’s master plan. Battles will turn and lives will be preserved or lost based on these tactical differences the Air Force refuses to acknowledge. Hence, the anxieties of those who rightly question the Air Force’s plan as “f—ed up.”
But even if the F-35 program were adjusted to make it a more capable CAS weapon in the near term, there’s another important reason why the A-10 should not be shelved until the two systems have overlapped for a period of years: the human element.
The most crucial aspect of the A-10’s CAS capability is its crew force, which represents the only cadre of operators focused intently on weapons and tactics development in this “sacred mission,” as it’s been labeled by Sec. James. Members of this community must be deliberately and systematically transplanted to the F-35, bringing with them the necessary expertise to make the F-35 a viable attack weapon despite its considerable limitations.
This will take time, and until the transition culminates and the F-35 becomes viable in the CAS role, national defense demands the A-10 remain online. The risk of a low-intensity fight with CAS as a prominent feature is too great for the Air Force to accept a capability gap. Even as this struggle for a place at the budgetary trough unfolds, President Obama is seeking authorization for an airpower-centric campaign against ISIS, a fight in which CAS could be heavily featured.
But even if the Air Force can reassure Congress and its joint partners that it will not fail at the CAS mission if the A-10 is retired, there’s another problem. The A-10 stands alone in its ability to conduct CSAR and rescue escort operations. While not widely known or communicated outside the fighter community, the service has been in a full sprint to qualify the F-15E and F-16 in this mission area. The results have been unfavorable.
Turns out it takes years rather than months for A-10 CSAR experts to train their counterparts from other weapon systems. Key intricacies are ingrained through study and experience, and cannot be rushed. Nor can they be easily forced into the jam-packed craniums of multirole crews who are already jacks of many trades. Qualifying even a few aircrews in advance of a near-term A-10 retirement would be problematic, but spreading the capability across broader F-16 and F-15E communities would be impossible on the envisioned timeline.
There are also aircraft limitations that matter to this mission. The A-10 has the right combination of slow speed, low altitude, and sensor capability to search for survivors on the ground. Other platforms don’t. The A-10 can interrogate survival radios to pinpoint survivor location and effect rescue operations. Other platforms can’t. Reactive firepower is not an issue for the A-10, which can put together the world’s most effective strafing run in a matter of seconds. F-16 and F-15E take a minute or more to set up and perform this maneuver, and execute it with a smaller cannon. Fuel and loiter capability is absolutely critical in this mission set, and only the A-10 has the right combination to effect a rescue operation and escort a helicopter at a modest range without the need to break off and refuel. In roughly a dozen practice missions conducted at a test range in Nevada, rescue helicopters ended up conducting simulated pickups without an escort because their F-15E/F-16 wingmen had to peel off for lack of fuel.
These tactical differences mean something. They represent the difference between a rescue in hostile territory and a captured or killed teammate. Given the damage adversaries can inflict on our strategic objectives by thwarting a rescue attempt or capturing our fighting men and women, these tactical differences promise to carry strategic consequences for any war effort. It is incredibly reckless to pretend otherwise, but consistent with a cult mentality to look narrowly upon a problem in order to aver from its more troublesome aspects.
Hastily fielding the F-35 at the expense of the A-10 would create two mission shortfalls while rushing to spend an exorbitant sum of money on a weapon that has proven nothing beyond its capacity to block out the budgetary sun.
Here’s a better plan. Keep and modernize the A-10. Reduce the size of the F-35 purchase in order to free up the necessary resources. Field the F-35 when it’s mature and actually represents a gain in capability over legacy systems. Retain bona fide CAS and CSAR capability. Don’t find yourself watching from retirement while a successor explains how the USAF came up short by failing to think ahead. After all, the velocity of airpower means airmen must always think further ahead than anyone else, and senior officials shepherding the nation’s defense through air and space will never be excused for failing to anticipate the natural and foreseeable consequences of their decisions. Not even when the fog and friction of budget combat cloud the view.
However the Air Force decides to progress, it must rediscover honesty. Galloping rationales and transparent political ploys are beneath the dignity of the service, and a betrayal of its value system. Losing a few knots in the modernization plan is a recoverable setback, but not even the A-10 will be capable of rescuing the Air Force’s credibility if it continues its descent from the nobility of national defense into the moral paucity of Washington politics.