Slippery rhetoric is a timeless disease. It breeds a form of dishonesty so subtle and insidious that it multiplies beneath the surface, rotting the foundations of once great institutions until they collapse under the weight of inescapable truths.
The United States Air Force (USAF) wants out of the mission of providing full-service Close Air Support (CAS) to ground forces. It has come to see the mission, as currently conceived, to be inconsistent with its warfighting vision. That is to say, it believes there are things it should be doing in future wars, and by definition things it should not be doing. It places CAS in the latter category.
Some say this desire is a recurring one, and the historical record supports that claim moderately well. But proving propensity isn’t necessary to demonstrate what’s happening now and over the last few years. For that, we need only look at the service’s own actions, starting with the slippery rhetoric embraced by senior officials.
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12 years ago, the nation launched into a war we didn’t need to fight. Tens of thousands of people are now dead who didn’t need to be. Families are broken and scarred. Our military services are strained to the breaking point. Our foreign policy is in tatters, our trust and credibility severely undermined. The international system is weakening. We’re back in Iraq mopping up the mess we left behind, an inevitability of setting alight a powder keg of unrest and civil tension that had been suppressed for decades.
We got into this unnecessary war because we allowed elected officials to hypnotize us with slippery rhetoric.
Rhetoric-reality gaps are rampant in modern America, especially in any endeavor that touches politics. But generally, the problem is everywhere, because we humans have become infected with the idea that embracing or avoiding symbolism (and sometimes avoiding legal liability) is more important than relaying the honest substance of things.
“Troubled Asset Relief Program” really means “bank bailout.”
“Authorization for Use of Military Force” really means “go wage undeclared war.”
And of course, we know “gentleman’s club” … denotes basically just the opposite.
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The Air Force has become particularly gripped with this malady. Examples:
“Force Management” really means “mass layoffs.”
“Force shaped” means “fired.”
“Nuclear enterprise” means … well … no one really knows.
And of course, “fitness assessments” don’t assess fitness so much as they “force shape.”
Traditionally, the USAF’s operational units and operational ideas have been immune to the disease of doublespeak, not-so-affectionately known by old timers as “the staff infection.” Airmen responsible for war and those representing them in Washington have been wise over the decades to draw a thick red line between truth and bullshit on matters of warfighting effectiveness. Operations, it has been traditionally held, is too important a business to be discussed using the political lexicon.
But in recent years, the tendency of politically proximate staffs to micromanage operations has blurred the distinction between those who fight and those who arrange resources and money for the fighting. Traditionally the former were no-nonsense warriors and the latter were all-nonsense politicians. As the CAS debate of the past few years shows, the nonsense waterline has now equalized, and everyone is drowning in it.
The follies would be entertaining if it weren’t for the potential cost in lives, battles, and national defense. What we’re left with is an unfortunate but vivid lesson in the dangers of slippery rhetoric, and why those who enjoy chewing on it should never be allowed to graze freely in the same pasture where warfighters roam.
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Let us revisit a moment of whimsy in April, 2014. Fresh from having her nomination stalled until the Air Force fessed up about its then opaque plans to retire the A-10, Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) Deborah Lee James found herself testifying in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she squared off against none other than veteran pilot and noted hardass Sen. John McCain.
The testimony was a bloodbath. McCain bruised and battered James and her counterpart, Chief of Staff (CSAF) General Mark Welsh, sending them back to the Pentagon to lick their wounds after essentially ordering them to get off his lawn.
To the casual eye, it looked like nothing more than an old fashioned oversight beating. But a careful watch reveals two remarkable moments.
The first (2:20) occurs when McCain interrupts James to challenge her contention that B-1s will help fill in the CAS gap created by the proposed retirement of the A-10. As she musters an answer that manages no more depth than the puddle of preparation she stepped in on her way to the hearing, James turns to look at Welsh, nonverbally begging for him to provide some air support.
There’s a lot in this sideward glance. She sees that McCain is incredulous at her claim, and is terrified that she doesn’t understand CAS well enough to refute his barrage of challenges.
This is a revealing sequence because it shows that SECAF is on the Hill arguing budget priorities on the downslope of a 13-year period of intensive CAS operations, but has been given only a generic education of what the CAS mission is all about. We see her ill equipped to be challenged as to what CAS is and isn’t, despite her nomination having been held up over this very issue. CSAF let her down here, and so did her prep team.
The second remarkable moment (3:24) is when Welsh tries to slap a tourniquet on James’ B-1 answer — which McCain termed remarkable and spent most of the next minute ridiculing – by doubling down on it. This draws immediate withering fire from McCain, who castigates CSAF for insulting his intelligence.
What makes this second part noteworthy is that in making the claim in the way he did and from his position as CSAF, Welsh attempted to redefine “CAS” without explicitly saying so. He advanced the idea that dropping bombs on a set of coordinates with a semblance of ground force coordination is enough to meet the definition of CAS, and implied that without the A-10 on hand, the B-1 and other aircraft would simply slide into the A-10’s spot and do its share of CAS missions.
McCain knew better. He immediately jumped all over Welsh’s redefinition by arguing that very few of the B-1 missions Welsh claimed to be CAS could actually be defined as such. The two spent the balance of the segment talking past one another, working from disparate definitions and understandings of what qualifies as CAS.
Here’s why this matters. While a popularized Air Force talking point holds that “CAS is a mission, not an aircraft,” the truth is CAS is not a mission, but a category of missions. It’s a segment of the warfighting spectrum, comprised of sub-segments. Some of these segments can be performed by any aircraft, while some others require a specific aircraft. What McCain was trying to say was that while some sub-segments of the CAS category can be done by B-1s and others, there are some CAS missions that require the A-10. What he was further implying, and what Welsh should have explicitly admitted, is that retiring the A-10 would leave some CAS missions beyond the reach of remaining aircraft.
He’s right, and it’s an important and telling point. There’s “bomb, meet target” CAS, and there’s “whites of the enemy’s eyes” CAS. One is about responding quickly and hitting a point of impact with high explosives. The other is about not only delivering discriminate and deadly firepower, but orchestrating a battle (or a combat rescue) together with a ground commander and other air and ground assets. This requires slow speed, long loiter, and the ability to absorb small arms fire without falling out of the sky. Above all, it requires a peerless level of situational awareness and combat skill, honed to a fine edge through years of relentless training, interoperation, and devotion to craft. The A-10 alone brings this combination of capabilities to the CAS mission. Both McCain and Welsh knew that, but one couldn’t quite articulate it while the other refused to disclaim it.
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With nearly a year to recover from the verbal shanking he got from McCain, Welsh returned to Capitol Hill this past week, once again armed with plan to litigate for the mothballing of the A-10. This time around, Welsh’s words would provide a fleeting but revelatory glimpse into the service’s strategic calculus regarding the CAS issue.
House Republican Martha McSally, a retired USAF Colonel and A-10 pilot, pushed Welsh and James on the subject of CAS with grit and cleverness. Her performance on the floor followed on the heels of a well-worded letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in which she called on him to rein in the service’s back-door divestment of the A-10 in open defiance of Congressional intent.
To open things (0:30), she got Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno on the record agreeing with his previous statements supporting the superiority of the A-10 in the CAS mission. This was designed to do a number of things. First, it helped McSally set the tone and frame the exchange by putting customer requirements front and center. Second, it gave her what trial lawyers call a “control device” to impeach any contrary statements. This is a way of establishing the high ground and placing the witness on the psychological defensive. Third, it made the Army’s working definition of CAS the operative one in the conversation. When soldiers think about CAS, they’re generally thinking about something more than just a bomb on a set of coordinates. This conception is the one McSally wanted filling the room as the Air Force answered her questions. She spent just a handful of seconds with Odierno, but those seconds did a lot of work.
McSally then posed narrowly targeted questions to James and Welsh, limiting their ability to weave a careful narrative or counter the picture she’d already painted. Time and again, Welsh and James fought off her queries by claiming that retiring the A-10 was purely a budget issue, but that other aircraft would fill the gap, including the troubled F-35.
But eventually, her tactics paid off (4:30) when Welsh, improvising a response to a well-crafted line of questioning, conceded that “there are circumstances were you would prefer to have an A-10 … but we have priced ourselves out of that game.” This is Welsh basically admitting that the B-1 and other aircraft cannot simply slide into the gap created by mothballing the A-10. This is an acknowledgement that not every CAS mission is built alike.
He didn’t mean to do it, but Welsh gave us a peek behind the curtain. The Air Force is well aware it is creating a mission gap. If its rhetoric matched this reality, there would be no mystery about which to muse. The rhetoric-reality mismatch — pretending no loss of capability while knowing there will be one — exposes a deeper truth: the Air Force has calculated that the political cost of inexplicitly redefining CAS — although it is dishonest and creates uncounted strategic risk — is justified by the benefits it will accrue by ridding itself of the duty to service the A-10 sub-segment of CAS. When you strip away all of the layered pretense and second/third order argumentation, this is the heart of the unfolding debate. The USAF is rhetorically shifting the definition of CAS to throw off the yoke.
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Redefining CAS is a way to claim we’re still doing it while getting out of doing it all the way. Retiring the A-10 is about budget, but only to the extent that budget pressure is providing the Air Force with an opportunity to narrow its CAS duty. Sequestration is levying unbelievable pain on the Air Staff, with action officers chewing motrin like candy and drinking single malt with dinner as their hairs turn silver quicker than their crow’s feet can tap dance along rapidly deepening frown lines. But all that pain is hiding a secret joy – or at least what began as a happy thought – the idea of finally, at long last, getting out of the business of responsive, ground-tethered CAS.
The A-10 stands alone in its penchant for tight integration with ground forces. And that’s the problem. This places the platform in high demand. It addicts ground forces to the kind of capability it provides. It engenders an expectation of concierge-level CAS. Such an expectation interferes with the Air Force’s airpower vision of centralized execution, theater-wide efficiency, and force presentation via an Air Operations Center (AOC). These ideas are about as exciting as the study of pond water to ordinary folks, but to USAF doctrinarians and airpower zealots, they are powerful and seductive tenets, forcefully socialized into the minds of practitioners until they become as comforting as an ejection handle is to single-engine fighter pilots.
The “whites of the enemy’s eyes” sub-segment of CAS requires messy, labor-intensive integration with ground forces. It means innovating beyond standing AOC processes (which approach Old Testament scripture in their exactitude) and adapting command and control to the circumstances of a fluid fight where the enemy votes. That’s not how airpower prefers things. It wants to see the enemy as a static, high-end nation-state that can be planned against and systematically dismantled or paralyzed with precision and simultaneity.
These airpower propositions date to the interwar years before the Air Force formally existed. They have been powerfully baked into the airpower psyche with the searing heat of ideology, which peaks hotter than intellect. These ideas are the reason the campaign to ditch the A-10 continues despite the dictates of common sense and political advisability.
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How do we know this is opportunism and not just a garbled narrative? Because the USAF is not broke. It is resource-strapped in the sense that the nation is asking more of it than is appropriately funded. But the USAF’s own behavior is not that of a “broke” organization.
It still maintains a traveling show choir. It still has hundreds of people assigned to play music for a living. It still funds lavish travel schedules aboard private jets for itinerant senior officials who gallivant to the field to propagandize and micromanage. It still deploys airmen to combat zones who could do what they do from computer terminals in the states. It still funds a camouflage uniform that can’t be worn in combat, buying duplicative gear for those who deploy. It still forces officers to change bases every 2-3 years. It still maintains training requirements that have no predicate in reality, simply for the sake of representing itself to be more underfunded. The list goes on and on. If the Air Force were truly broke, generals wouldn’t be living a rolling party catered by overgrown staffs working tirelessly to insulate their principals from the street-level reality they so desperately need to grasp.
Another clear giveaway is the F-35 maintenance debacle. Last year, the Air Force claimed it needed to boneyard A-10s to free up maintenance personnel for the F-35. But it fired 19,000 people last year.
If the service was short on manpower, billets could have been protected from the drawdown – which the service chose to carry out in a single year instead of the five years it was given — rather than forcibly ripped out of the A-10 community. Claiming the A-10 was the only viable source of maintenance manpower for the F-35 is absurd. If it’s true, the Air Force made the patient sick so it could declare the need for emergency treatment.
The USAF chose fire people directly contributing to the mission while preserving the jobs of more than 600 musicians assigned to regional bands. Those billets were ideal excess to feed the F-35 program, and those ceremonial units would be shut down if the USAF were truly out of money and desperate for manpower.
All of this shows that the USAF doesn’t truly see itself in a crisis mode. It is committed to powering through a momentary crunch point without losing the frills and trappings of service prestige that it sees as symbolically important.
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Some will insist the Air Force deserves the benefit of the doubt – that we should blindly trust the honesty and expertise of senior officials. They’re mistaken. The service has actively misrepresented the A-10’s capabilities, downplayed its successes, and embargoed coverage of its achievements. Air Staff public affairs personnel were directed to stop running photos of the A-10. Welsh took time to promote a service dog to major, but did not meaningfully mark the awarding of a second Silver Star to one of his enlisted CAS practitioners. He was similarly absent from the awarding of Distinguished Flying Crosses to two A-10 pilots whose actions saved the lives of Marines in a 2008 firefight, prompting the official USMC facebook page to label the pilots “badasses.”
Welsh has also done nothing visible to discipline, sideline, or even genuinely address the conduct of the Vice Commander of Air Combat Command, who reportedly accused airmen who talked to Congress about the A-10 of committing treason. The general enjoys a reputation of superb, decisive leadership. Two months of stonewalling on the treason issue combined with failing to consult his own CAS experts on the A-10 issue make it increasingly fair to question that reputation.
In isolation, Welsh’s rhetorical cross-stitching might seem like harmless error or nothing at all. But in context of these other facts, it feels more like a reframing attempt with an inexplicit objective. Failure to dig out and litigate that true purpose will result in a decision made on rationale that isn’t understood, and the assumption of risks that are obscured. Welsh does a disservice by failing to openly and fulsomely account for what it means to lose the A-10, so that stakeholders can do the calculus independently and either validate or contend with his chosen position in good faith.
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With all that said, here’s an attempt to draw a bright red line between truth and bullshit on the A-10 issue.
A-10s and non A-10s don’t do CAS the same way. By definition, this means there are different sorts of CAS missions that call for different capabilities. Getting rid of the A-10 means there will be CAS missions the USAF cannot do. Unless the entire joint force clearly understands this idea, it further means there will come a moment that ground forces expect a certain level of service and don’t get it, with lives and battles likely lost as a result.
Suggesting A-10s and B-1s are interchangeable is absurd. It generates skepticism. It injures credibility. It discounts the uniqueness of both communities. Most of all, it consciously muddles discussion of the CAS mission to obscure what the USAF really wants out of this contentious series of transactions.
Is orchestrated political theater by military officials justified if they believe it is in the service’s best interests? We’ll continue to examine that question in Part 2.