Questionable Logic: Unacknowledged Risks Riddle Air Force Push to Retire A-10

Gas and go

The A-10 spends its time willingly seeking out and placing itself into the middle of the fiercest gun battles on the planet.  It is therefore only fitting that the Air Force’s decision to retire its only dedicated attack aircraft has erupted into a political, rhetorical, and budgetary firefight.  On one side of this clash is a formation of Warthog champions arguing with a tenacity faithful to the combat traditions of the world’s most dominant close air support (CAS) weapon.  On the other side is arrayed a phalanx of spreadsheet-wielding budgeteers, led from the front by General Mark Welsh, a former A-10 pilot himself now acting in the role of reluctant executioner.  Like most national defense disputes arising from budgetary imperatives rather than strategic ones, this one makes continually less sense the longer it continues.

Welsh’s most recent public discussion of the subject may have been designed to allay concerns and lay the dispute to rest, but the effect has been just the reverse.  His words have raised new concerns about the process used by the Air Force to arrive at the decision, and seem to gesture toward a deliberative method too constrained to produce quality outcomes for national defense.

The process Welsh describes is one of systematically sweeping entire mission areas off the table in the budget process, leaving the A-10 as the only “logical” target for needed savings.  Reconnaissance can’t be cut because combatant commanders already demand more of it than the service can supply. The bomber and air superiority fleets must be preserved as hedges against large-scale conflict in the short term.  These are 30,000-foot arguments, but they make basic strategic sense.  Some of Welsh’s other claims don’t seem quite so intuitive or persuasive.

CAOCFor example, Welsh says the Air Force can’t cut theater command-and-control (C2) because it is a special capability and unique to the Air Force.  Whether or not that notion is correct (and I can think of a few soldiers and sailors who might argue otherwise), it doesn’t answer the question of quantity.  In supporting nine combatant commands, the Air Force runs a dozen Air Operations Centers (AOCs), each designed to place theater-wide command of all air and space forces at the fingertips of a single commander, who exercises authority through a sizable staff equipped with cutting-edge computer, data, and communications technologies.  This prospect is expensive, and it hauls in-trail a raft of subsidiary constituencies within the service and the defense industry, adding considerably to its total price tag.  While the claim that the Air Force needs to support every combatant commander with theater C2 support seems to rest on firm ground, providing that kind of support would still mean the Air Force has three excess AOCs.  While the savings likely to result from standing down a quarter of AOCs is not clear (roughly $60M over 5 years), the insistence on retaining them deserves more than a hand-wave.

C5M Tank LoadingAnd then there’s the question of air mobility.  Just a few years ago, the service was being forced by Congress to buy more C-17s than it requested and to maintain and modernize a C-5 fleet many thought should be downsized or mothballed.  Yet now, as the long season of persistent conflict spools down and lift requirements recede, the service insists it can’t make do with less lift capacity.  The reason given by Welsh — refusal by the Army Chief of Staff to consent to a reduction in the size of the airlift fleet — is either distressing or laughable, depending on whether it truly explains the decision.  Would the Army consult the Air Force on a similar question?  If it did, would it honor the Air Force’s recommendation without further debate?  This feels like another hand-wave.  The notion of cutting airlift — even and perhaps especially Air Mobility Command’s bloated executive transport service — is rife with political thorns, making it comparatively less feasible on Capitol Hill than pushing the A-10 into the boneyard.  If the decision is more about political constraints than deliberate choices, this is a truth that deserves to be told, so voters can judge for themselves whether Congress is properly exercising its oversight and budget authority or simply using the military services as a pork-fueled ballot machine.

A-10 #2The common rejoinder from Welsh’s staff when challenged on the A-10 is a numbers-driven one.  They insist that the only way to cope with the current budget pressure is to make one large cut of an entire fleet rather than finding a way to aggregate cuts across the force.  This, they say, is the only way to achieve the numbers required to meet spending constraints.  Welsh essentially corroborates this when he says “[y]ou just don’t make big savings unless you cut fleets.”  Taking a step back, what this seems to indicate is actually quite alarming.  Taken at its word, the Air Force seems to be acting purely out of necessity rather than strategic deliberation, or at least believes this is the case.  Laying the A-10 to rest is not a result of envisioning future threats, determining the best capabilities to meet those threats, and making a conscious decision to shape the service portfolio accordingly.  It’s an expedient measure that feels, in the moment, like the most neatly-drawn answer to the call of necessity.  We might worry that national defense decisions made on a strict evaluation of short-term economic necessity may or may not create the kind of long-term security margin Americans believe they’re entitled to expect.  Falling short of those expectations would be especially perverse given a staggering national defense price tag of $550B annually.

But even looking at it through the cold lens of the comptroller, does retirement of the A-10 make sense in financial terms?  Welsh points out that it’ll trim $4.2B from the Air Force’s budget over the next five years (a number that has crept upward 20% from initial estimates just a few months ago).  What Welsh doesn’t say is that modestly reducing the Air Force’s planned acquisition of the F-35, which is slated to assume the CAS duties currently handled by the A-10, would address the budgetary shortfall and allow the A-10 to stay in service until the F-35 becomes operationally capable.  This would allow joint force commanders to make certain the F-35 is able to answer the mail before divesting itself of a proven weapon.  In other words, it would mitigate operational risk.

Risk is an important but largely unacknowledged part of this.  When Welsh and his budget staff discuss the gains possible by divesting the A-10 fleet, they’re only talking about the reward side of the scale.  On the other side, the risk incurred by willingly retiring significant warfighting capability is too significant to remain at the margins of the discussion.  The A-10 is a distinctively capable weapon.  The things it does can’t necessarily be done by any other platform, and this could matter in the short term.

While many of the Air Force’s aircraft can fulfill the doctrinal function of providing kinetic air support to ground forces, there’s little argument that only the A-10 is truly capable of putting the “close” in “close air support.”  It can fly low and slow enough to independently find targets, distinguish adversaries from friendlies, and fluidly tailor its support to the ebb and flow of a firefight.  Unlike other platforms, it can do this even when the weather disfavors CAS, and this is significant because enemies will often time attacks to occur during low ceilings on the theory that friendly forces will be starved of air cover.  With a hefty payload and a three-hour fuel tank, the Warthog stands alone in its ability to provide a persistent, lethal aerial presence over a firefight, and being able to operate out of austere runways helps it position closer to the action, extending loiter time even more.

Getting down in the weeds is what this jet was built for, and it is ruggedly survivable.  It is armored.  It is equipped with triple redundant flight controls.  It can absorb enemy ground fire and continue to operate. These aren’t theoretical capabilities — they’ve been demonstrated in combat.  Proponents of retiring the ‘Hawg rest their case heavily on the implication that it can’t play in the world’s most advanced battlespace.  But the A-10 has disproven this argument before, having flown against integrated air defenses in 1991 and 1999 with a better survival rate than aircraft supposedly better equipped to operate in such environments.

A-10 StrafeThe A-10 doesn’t just provide CAS in the form of a few bombs from the heavens.  It’s a firefight game-changer with staying power.  The Air Force might save a few billion dollars by mothballing it, but the real winner might be enemy ground troops, who will be saved a whole lot of suffering.  They know when the A-10 arrives on-scene that they are about to be taken to the woodshed, and they know it’s not going to be over anytime soon.  If they want to prevail, they’ll have to endure a dozen strafing passes, and it won’t matter how close they position themselves to opposing forces.  Even at a distance of a few yards, the A-10 will effectively sort them and bring molten metal to their firing positions.  When the gun is empty, the real fun gets underway with precision munitions.  In other words, the psychological impact of this weapon is a powerful and often decisive quality, something to which ground commanders have attested time and again.

In other words, there are things this jet does that others can’t. Things that the F-35 will never be able to do.  Retiring this capability wholesale means incurring the risk that it will be necessary but unavailable in effectuating the nation’s defense.  That risk should be openly embraced and vetted.  It could be that other risks seem more palatable in the light of transparent comparison, such as the risk of a smaller F-35 acquisition or the risk of reduced strategic airlift capacity.  While the nation should trust that the Air Force has appropriately managed risk with the decision to retire the A-10, the Air Force should engender and reinforce that trust by advertising the risk clearly, allowing interested parties to verify the decision by debating it.

What’s been happening so far is a mostly one-way argument (though resistance has been increasing recently, with more politicians beginning to express misgivings).  One-way arguments are fine for moving things along expeditiously, but debates are a better way to distill key truths.  Debates produce vastly superior decisions.  Sometimes, debates unearth key tactical and operational facts that inform and shape strategic choices.

A true debate about the A-10’s future might involve potentially disruptive facts, such as:

  • The A-10 is not a single-role CAS platform as the Air Force has recently suggested.  During the 100-day air war in Desert Storm, A-10s flew more than 8,000 missions, most of which were executed without any friendly ground forces in the fight.  The A-10 fleet destroyed 3,000 tanks, artillery pieces, and combat vehicles, and was routinely tasked through and sometimes against surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft sites.
  • The Air Force’s nascent claim that the A-10 has flown “just” 20% of CAS sorties in Afghanistan is misleading.  Because it delivers more payload on each sortie compared to other CAS platforms, the A-10 has employed more ordnance than other aircraft in spite of a lower sortie count.  In recent years, the A-10 has been responsible for an estimated half of all CAS weapon employment in Afghanistan.
  • High-angle strafe, especially when performed at night, is an extremely difficult tactic.  While other fighters can perform it, they typically don’t and can’t train to it the way the A-10 crew force does.  This specialization is something upon which the outcome of a battle can hinge.  Even when other fighters undertake this mission, the difference between their 20mm cannons (designed for use against other aircraft) and the A-10’s GAU-8 30mm Gatling gun (designed expressly for attack) is dramatic. Lives on the ground can be saved or lost based on this difference.
  • While it thrives in the low altitude environment, the A-10 is capable of altitudes that allow it to avoid the most common anti-aircraft and should-fired missile systems.  The idea that it is more vulnerable to common threats is much more complicated than the public discussion has thus far acknowledged.
  • The A-10 crew force is the most expert body of CAS specialists in the world.  They focus upon and train to the mission constantly, interacting with joint force partners and battlefield airmen to ensure they’re razor-sharp and ready for the next shooting war.  If the plug is pulled on the A-10 years before the F-35 becomes operational, that experience is likely to end up diffused across the Air Force in a way that will prohibit pulling it back together when the replacement platform arrives.  This could be a game-changer.  Whether the Air Force owes its ground force and special operations partners a dedicated CAS crew force is arguable, and it should be argued.

These facts may or may not tilt the scales, but they deserve to be weighed.  When all is said and done, what will matter most is the quality of the decision.  If we know how and why we made it, we’ll be ready to adapt to the shortcomings we know it created.  If we avoid registering those negatives, we’re hiding additional risk behind the veil of necessity.

Avoidance of difficult questions is a typical behavior in US government.  Legislatures avoid tough questions by leaving laws vague, which burdens courts with sorting out legal challenges.  Courts go to great lengths to avoid constitutional issues, choosing instead to interpret laws and rules in ways that defer to executive agencies.  For their part, agencies like to solve their problems with clear rules that make sense at the higher levels of generality but don’t make sense at street level.  Such is the case with the Air Force and the A-10.  At budgetary altitude, the decision makes sense. But down in the weeds of the CAS mission, it seems to fly in the face of what’s best for national defense. 

In the background lurks a longstanding Army-Air Force tension in the area of how best to coordinate and deliver CAS.  The Air Force’s institutional preferences turn on theater flexibility and efficiency, which explains repeated past attempts to push the A-10 out of service.  The Army sees value in tight coordination and surface tethering in this mission area, and has reacted to the Air Force’s approach to CAS by gradually building up its own capacity to execute CAS its own way.  What remains to be seen is whether divestiture of the A-10 will trigger new growth of the Army air mission, and whether such growth will undercut the Air Force’s ongoing fight to vindicate its institutional independence.

General Welsh says the decision to retire the A-10 was not emotional, but the product of logic and analysis.  Opponents of the decision question, not without merit, whether continuing the F-35 program in order to avoid the loss of sunk costs is not itself an emotion-driven decision rather than a rational one.  Perhaps emotion is a red herring, and this is really about the Air Force avoiding a confrontation with Congress over other, more sacred cows.  One thing is for certain: no matter which of these theories best explains the drawdown of the A-10, the decision won’t be a good one unless it is debated vigorously.

Given the combat record of the Warthog, the firefight should continue until a winner is self-evident, and no one should wish for the A-10 community to willingly lay down its passions and unemotionally surrender. Given the lives that have been saved by the weapon and those that hang in the future balance, an uncontested retirement would disservice not only the CAS mission, but any decision of this magnitude.

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