Back in April, I wrote about a specious legislative gambit undertaken by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), which I characterized as an attempt to gut the A-10 fleet for no good reason while portraying it as a political compromise.
Moulton, a veteran Marine and Bronze Star recipient whose arrival in Washington was heralded by many – including me – as a hopeful sign that servicemembers and veterans might soon see their issues better represented in the House, failed in his attempt to eviscerate the A-10 fleet. Of course, it’s not clear just how invested Moulton was in the effort, which looked less like a genuine attempt to bolster the nation’s defense and more like a thinly-veiled patronage bid to lessen the impact of a rousing political victory by Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), whose tenacious defense of the A-10 raised her stock through the roof in her home district while giving her national profile some well-deserved altitude.
Given the near certainty that the A-10 will be preserved in this year’s defense budget, its capability freshly elucidated by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that caught the Air Force speeding in attempts to retire it, Moulton’s misstep might have been forgotten to history. But in a recent interview with Politico’s Jeremy Herb, the first-term Congressman said some things that make his position on the A-10 worth revisiting.
When asked by Herb to articulate his views on the 19-hour marathon markup session culminating the House defense budget proposal that ultimately funded the A-10, Moulton offered the following:
“…I think my most frustrating day in Congress so far was when we had the debate on the A-10, and many people told me that I won the debate but just lost the vote on the politics, and a party-line Republican vote against it. They had been apparently instructed, no matter what happens in the debate, to vote against it. And that’s obviously frustrating.”
These aren’t the remarks of a humbled contestant who attempted an ill-designed political ploy, lost, and spent the next few months absorbing and reflecting on how to improve next time around. There’s a ring of petulance in these words, as though his Republican counterparts, including McSally, surrendered their agency at the door and voted against the interests of national defense just to thwart his obviously superior idea.
Not that such occurrences are uncommon in Washington, or that such petulance is an unusual response. But what’s interesting about these remarks, beyond their contrast with Moulton’s carefully cultivated image as a cooperative figure hoping to change the tone in the House, is how his denouncement of partisan tactics serves as an effective diversion from his own shrewdly tactical conduct.
Moulton waited until 14 hours into the markup to introduce his amendment after standing silent as an oak throughout months of oversight hearings that included robust debate about the future of the A-10. In other words, he tried to ambush his counterparts rather than cooperating with them, and is now annoyed that they also behaved adversarially.
Moulton’s eleventh-hour opportunism seemed like a point-scoring attempt and little more. As I wrote at the time, it’s likely he was employed as a pawn to deny McSally a victory so total that it could put her district out of reach for Democrats in the next election cycle and turn her into a formidable Republican bulwark on defense and veteran issues. It goes without saying that McSally’s pedigree scares the hell out of Democrats. If the pioneering female combat pilot, former commanding officer, and notably approachable Congresswoman gets on a roll, she won’t be easily contained. She provided a fearsome glimpse of the possible in humiliating hapless Air Force senior officials who brought her a half-baked argument for retiring the A-10.
But lest I step into the same trap that ensnared Moulton by assuming him a mindlessly obedient pawn, it’s important to consider the alternative: that he actually believes his alternative was best for the country.
This, ironically, would be a much more damning assessment.
As an alternative to keeping America’s core Close Air Support weapon flying, Moulton nominated a handful of other projects for funding, none of which had been included in the Defense Department’s budget request and none of which had been so much as whispered by Moulton prior to the markup session. His most ardent push was for the purchase of technology to counter Improved Explosive Devices (IEDs), which Moulton accurately portrayed as the chief cause of combat casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there’s an important logical problem with this idea. It assumes we’ll be reckless enough to employ our fighting men and women in a strategy that can’t win.
To make large investments in countering IEDs now would be to concede that we failed to learn one of the chief lessons of the last fourteen years: that we should never again get ourselves bogged down in a conflict in which our success relies on the ability to sustain ourselves by moving along insecure roads. That this was allowed to happen represents a foreseeable and avoidable error with a staggering human toll. To intellectually resign ourselves to a repeat of that error, and to invest scarce defense dollars in an a capability that only becomes relevant if we’re strategically reckless, would be misguided in the extreme. Moulton should be in the business of foreclosing on recklessness in war rather than enabling it.
But even more misguided would be to divest an aircraft designed and fielded to kill tanks just as Russia, which has easily the largest armored force in the world, demonstrates the will and capability to destabilize and potentially threaten our allies. Even sillier than that would be to time the divestiture to coincide with pronouncements by top US military leaders that Russia is their top security concern. This would send allies and potential adversaries mixed signals, confusing the former, emboldening the latter, and raising insecurities for all.
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This is pretty basic stuff. If we’re strategically lucid, we don’t get into IED wars on purpose, we don’t plan to repeat our worst mistakes, and we don’t park our best tank killer as Russia makes and threatens aggressive moves in Eastern Europe. It stretches belief that someone with Moulton’s defense expertise could push a proposal that seems to fly in the face of such fundamentals.
So if Moulton is not strategically enfeebled and he’s not a partisan lemming, what explains his peculiar opposition to the A-10? In all likelihood, the dependably mundane yet perpetually frustrating realities of electoral politics.
While Moulton assured supporters that he would not become a “typical congressman,” there are certain electoral realities he can’t swerve. To get re-elected, he needs votes. To get votes, he construes the need to posture. It’s locally rational, even if it produces global absurdity.
While Moulton did not receive large donations from the defense industry in the 2013-14 cycle, the rubric of his immaculately conceived amendment to funding the A-10 tells an interesting tale.
His proposal called for investments in KC-135 infrared countermeasures systems as well as counter-IED technology manufactured by Northrup Grumman. AOA Xinetics, a subsidiary of Northrop, manufactures electro-optical components in Devens, Massachusetts, which straddles the edge of Moulton’s Sixth Congressional District. Many of his constituents are undoubtedly employed or otherwise affiliated with AOA.
Raytheon and Honeywell, manufacturers of anti-tank missiles and avionics upgrades also suggested by Moulton, have multiple facilities in the Boston Metro area, employing members of his district and supplying it with considerable economic vitality.
The point is that there are strong incentives – independent of what’s best for national defense – for Moulton to embrace the particular options he pushed in lieu of the A-10. They’re the same incentives that explain how the F-35 continues to earn a level of investment grossly out of joint with its demonstrable value. It’s a jobs program.
If such electoral incentives, and not what’s best for the country, are animating Moulton, he has taken a step back from his commitment to help lead a new and less politicized conversation on defense issues.
Perhaps the clearest signal of that step backward is his failure to consult with impacted parties and build support for his alternatives. There’s no evidence he ever sat down with A-10 proponents to understand their arguments. This drew the ire of advocates who insist, for reasons of life and death on the battlefield, that the Warthog stay in the inventory until a suitable replacement is fielded.
In a May 13th letter to Moulton, Mr. Charlie Keebaugh, President of the 3,300-strong Tactical Air Control Party Association, wrote the following:
“The amendment you offered to the 2016 NDAA markup to reduce the A-10 fleet would endanger American service members and place numerous combat aircrews into supporting roles that their aircraft were not designed to support. Americans will die on the battlefield unnecessarily if your plan is executed.”
Keebaugh went on to suggest to Moulton that his amendment had been “more about politics than properly equipping troops on the ground” … adding, sardonically, “this is wrong.”
Wrong indeed. Wrong idea, and wrong approach … reinforcing the age-old combat adage that you can either fight as a team or perish alone. Had Moulton at least workshopped his amendment before the markup, he might have earned the respect of opponents even if they disagreed. Failing to do so is inconsistent with his professed political ethos, and hopefully not a signal of what we can expect from a likely rising star in American politics.
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Seth Moulton is a potentially important figure in many national discussions. His voice is critical, because his background and experience as a veteran give him basic credibility. To maintain and grow from that baseline, and to be empowered to win future fights for veterans within and beyond his district, he must be seen as having the strategic insight Americans expect from an aspiring defense leader. He must also be willing to act on that insight by placing principle before politics. Many more unforced errors like those he made in the A-10 markup debate could injure his stock with the attuned veteran demographic whose support he needs.
Those veterans see his A-10 theatrics for what they were: a half-baked ploy to take the sting off a political defeat for his party while pursuing his own narrow electoral objectives … and maybe a chance for House Democrats to see how he would perform in an unwinnable trench fight. For the House leadership who suggested he play this role, it was basically a cross between a Hail Mary and a nothing-to-lose field test.
But for Moulton, there was something to lose. If he’s listening carefully to the veterans he expected would hold him accountable as he took office, he’ll re-think his position on the A-10 and adjust fire. The country needs genuine leadership on defense issues, and this is not what leadership looks like.