Tactical Differences, Strategic Consequences: Expanding the A-10 Debate


I speculated in yesterday’s column that in the coming defense budget debate, the Air Force would advance the narrative that the B-1 can fulfill the role played by the A-10.  While I intended “B-1” as a placeholder implying that the Air Force would try to equate the A-10 with other weapon systems, my failure to clearly state that brought B-1 advocates out in droves — most making fair claims but a few notably lugging figurative and unwarranted crosses on their backs.  But the emotion got people talking, which is good.  It also gave rise to a charge of sensationalism.  Since this charge was leveled both publicly and privately, and by a few people whose opinions I respect, I’m choosing to respond.  I’m doing so because it’s a chance to expand on a key facet of the debate and hopefully enlarge the learning value of this discussion.

The response is simple.  The charge is baseless.  The speculation is fair.  The Air Force equated A-10 and B-1 capabilities in the last budget round and has not publicly adjusted those claims.  This makes it fair to speculate the same method will be employed again.

Last April’s Senate hearing is the most direct example. When pressed by Senator John McCain to list those aircraft that would pick up the missions flown by the A-10 if it were retired, the Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) listed the F-16, F-15E, and B-1.  Incredulous, McCain pushed her on the B-1 claim specifically. She doubled down.

Now, I get that some of this disconnect is definitional. Close Air Support (CAS) has a broad doctrinal definition.  The words comprising the definition don’t do fair justice to the fact that it’s a broad mission set with multiple subsets. CAS can be many things, from a blazing GAU-8 in a box canyon to a sudden JDAM from 20,000 feet.  So, to say that a B-1 or F-16 or A-10 or Piper Arrow can “do CAS” is not the same as saying it can create the same tactical effect as another CAS-capable aircraft. The definitional generalizing employed by SECAF here is the heart of the issue, because saying the Air Force will be able to do the same amount of CAS without the A-10 is not the same as saying it will be able to provide the same CAS.  What stands to be lost in the event of an A-10 (or B-1) divestiture  is a matter of fair debate.  But it can only be debated if genuinely advertised.

Later in that same hearing, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) had an opportunity to reconcile the misunderstanding by acknowledging that CAS via B-1 does not qualitatively equal CAS via A-10 (and vice versa), but he didn’t take that opportunity. He tripled down on the B-1 claim by citing statistics that were per se accurate but not granular enough to address the Senator’s questions and concerns. In other words, he stuck to the business case instead of acknowledging McCain’s motion to engage in a capabilities discussion. This agitated McCain into claiming an insult to his intelligence. It also emboldened others to jump into the debate, claiming the vague doctrinal definition as purported high ground and shouting from upon it that CAS is a platform-neutral mission. Jordan Thomas is a non-resident fellow of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute. He may not be speaking for the Air Force, but he certainly picked up on the theme of equating the B-1 and A-10, penning an entire piece that proudly does so without ever openly acknowledging that a GAU-8 in a box canyon is not the same as a PGM from standoff.

Of course, I’m not the only one (other than McCain) to note the rhetorical sleight of hand. Dr. Janine Davidson also wrote about the inadvisability of equating the A-10 with other weapon systems.  She invited the Air Force to make a more convincing case and even provided some great ideas for future arguments.  So far, they seem to have been ignored by the institution.  Two unfortunate effects have grown from the Air Force’s refusal to take her advice (exacerbated by recent articles — mine and others — anticipating another budgetary circus).

First, framing the CAS mission as a zero-sum game with some platforms winning and others losing has turned communities against one another in ways that are neither constructive nor respectful of the larger point of the debate. When respective clans are proud of their contributions and seek zealously to preserve their roles, this is a good thing. When they do so by denigrating other clans as a way to create a perceptual contrast advantage, this is not good. In all fairness, preventing this is a tough balance for leaders. As executives, they have to advance a narrative in Congress that they believe will secure the proper resources to fulfill the mission. But as leaders, they have to be careful to avoid devaluing dedicated airmen whose past and ongoing contributions deserve better.

My critique of this part of the Air Force’s approach to this debate has nothing to do with the relative merits of the B-1 or A-10 in the CAS mission. It’s a critique of the way the service has approached the issue. It’s a slap at the annual game of make-believe we play with the budget, where we pretend that divesting capabilities will not create real consequences, or that we can somehow mask or delay the onset of those consequences. We can’t, and shouldn’t predicate our future on trying.

Tactical differences have strategically determinant consequences. This is the entire point of precision warfare and all of its progeny. To pretend there are not tactical differences between weapon systems is to ignore the potential differences in strategic outcomes, or to believe those differences can be masked by shifting resources.  This thinking is flawed at best and disingenuous at worst.

The Air Force wants Congress to believe there’s no appreciable difference between the A-10 and B-1 when it comes to CAS, or that in the alternative, it can mask any difference by adapting the B-1’s capability. It asks for discretion in making sure it covers the mission and doesn’t want to explain thorny details. Is that a fair amount of faith and discretion to request, given the potential consequences for national defense? I’m not convinced it is, though my view admittedly isn’t worth much, and is only worth anything at all to the extent it gives voice to the overlapping views of others. But then again, this might just be a case of senior leaders trying to cultivate confidence in the Air Force as they navigate the budget process.

If so, this is where having a “can-do attitude” gets us in trouble, because it causes us to conceal important gaps in performance. Down there at the tactical nub where close support to ground engagements gets done, retirement of the A-10 will create a gap. It should be openly advertised as such. Beyond the dictates of integrity, there are strategic reasons: making sure Congress understands the military it is creating with its funding decisions, and establishing a record for downstream accountability when those decisions don’t pan out. Forcing the Air Force to publish a capability gap is a way of removing any budgetary incentive it might have for concealing a gap. This ensures the risks of future warfighting are correctly allocated to Congress rather than hapless warfighters who find themselves without the necessary capabilities to cover the entire defense spectrum.

The second unfortunate outgrowth of this distracting clan war is that it pulls attention away from the substantive discussion of budget choices and priorities. There are actually some decent arguments out there for retiring the A-10 and some even better ideas concerning how to preserve it. Why we’re not seeing those arguments cultivated by the Air Force is mind numbing. Most players in this discussion (who don’t live in Washington) are agnostic when it comes to weapon systems. They’re interested in the broader problem of defense priorities and how to balance near-term and long-term investments without letting deliberate risks mushroom into new vulnerabilities. Fresh ideas from the Air Force would likely grow swift legs and end up the hands of the right staffers and decision makers where they could be seriously considered.

By contrast, it’s clear what won’t work, and that’s continuing on the dishonest pretense that the A-10 can be replaced by the B-1 (or any other weapon system) just because someone built a business case around the idea. Best move for the Air Force: acknowledge the gap retiring the A-10 will create. This will refocus discussion, bolster credibility, and offer at least the hope of decisions based on accurate risk assessments.

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