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Running for Cover: A Sham Air Force Summit Can’t Fix the Close Air Support Gap Created by Dumping the A-10

Source: U.S. Air Force

“I can’t wait to be relieved of the burdens of close air support,” Major General James Post, the vice commander of Air Combat Command (ACC), allegedly told a collection of officers at a training session in August 2014. As with his now notorious warning that service members would be committing treason if they communicated with Congress about the successes of the A-10, Major General Post seems to speak for the id of Air Force headquarters’ true hostility towards the close air support (CAS) mission. Air Force four-stars are working hard to deny this hostility to the public and Congress, but their abhorrence of the mission has been demonstrated through 70 years of Air Force headquarters’ budget decisions and combat actions that have consistently short-changed close air support.

For the third year in a row (many have already forgotten the attempt to retire 102 jets in the Air Force’s FY 2013 proposal), the Air Force has proposed retiring some or all of the A-10s, ostensibly to save money in order to pay for “modernization.” After failing to convince Congress to implement their plan last year (except for a last minute partial capitulation by retiring Senate and House Armed Services Committee chairmen Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) and Representative Buck McKeon (R-CA)) and encountering uncompromising pushback this year, Air Force headquarters has renewed its campaign with more dirty tricks.

I can’t wait to be relieved of the burdens of close air support. ~Major General James Post, vice commander of Air Combat Command

First, Air Force headquarters tried to fight back against congressional skepticism by releasing cherry-picked data purporting to show that the A-10 kills more friendlies and civilians than any other U.S. Air Force plane, even though it actually has one of the lowest fratricide and civilian casualty rates. With those cooked statistics debunked and rejected by Senate Armed Services Chairman Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Air Force headquarters hastily assembled a joint CAS “Summit” to try to justify dumping the A-10. Notes and documents from the Summit meetings, now widely available throughout the Air Force and shared with the Project On Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information (CDI), reveal that the recommendations of the Summit working groups were altered by senior Air Force leaders to quash any joint service or congressional concerns about the coming gaps in CAS capabilities. Air Force headquarters needed this whitewash to pursue, yet again, its anti-A-10 crusade without congressional or internal-Pentagon opposition.

The current A-10 divestment campaign, led by Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh, is only one in a long chain of Air Force headquarters’ attempts by bomber-minded Air Force generals to get rid of the A-10 and the CAS mission. The efforts goes as far back as when the A-10 concept was being designed in the Pentagon, following the unfortunate, bloody lessons learned from the Vietnam War. For example, there was a failed attempt in late-1980s to kill off the A-10 by proposing to replace it with a supposedly CAS-capable version of the F-16 (the A-16). Air Force headquarters tried to keep the A-10s out of the first Gulf War in 1990, except for contingencies. A token number was eventually brought in at the insistence of the theater commander, and the A-10 so vastly outperformed the A-16s that the entire A-16 effort was dismantled. As a reward for these A-10 combat successes, Air Force headquarters tried to starve the program by refusing to give the A-10 any funds for major modifications or programmed depot maintenance during the 1990s. After additional combat successes in the Iraq War, the Air Force then attempted to unload the A-10 fleet in 2004.

To ground troops and the pilots who perform the mission, the A-10 and the CAS mission are essential and crucial components of American airpower. The A-10 saves so many troop lives because it is the only platform with the unique capabilities necessary for effective CAS: highly maneuverable at low speeds, unmatched survivability under ground fire, a longer loiter time, able to fly more sorties per day that last longer, and more lethal cannon passes than any other fighter. These capabilities make the A-10 particularly superior in getting in close enough to support our troops fighting in narrow valleys, under bad weather, toe-to-toe with close-in enemies, and/or facing fast-moving targets. For these reasons, Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno has called the A-10 “the best close air support aircraft.” Other Air Force platforms can perform parts of the mission, though not as well; and none can do all of it. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) echoed the troops’ combat experience in a recent Senate Armed Services committee hearing: “It's ugly, it's loud, but when it comes in…it just makes a difference.”

In 2014, Congress was well on the way to roundly rejecting the Air Force headquarters’ efforts to retire the entire fleet of 350 A-10s. It was a strong, bipartisan demonstration of support for the CAS platform in all four of Congress’s annual defense bills. But in the final days of the 113th Congress, a “compromise” heavily pushed by the Air Force was tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2015. The “compromise” allowed the Air Force to move A-10s into virtually retired “backup status” as long as the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office in DoD certified that the measure was the only option available to protect readiness. CAPE, now led by former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Financial Management and Comptroller Jamie Morin, duly issued that assessment—though in classified form, thus making it unavailable to the public. In one of his final acts as Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel then approved moving 18 A-10s to backup status.

The Air Force intends to replace the A-10 with the F-35. But despite spending nearly $100 billion and 14 years in development, the plane is still a minimum of six years away from being certified ready for any real—but still extremely limited—form of CAS combat. The A-10, on the other hand, is continuing to perform daily with striking effectiveness in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—at the insistence of the CENTCOM commander and despite previous false claims from the Air Force that A-10s can’t be sent to Syria. A-10s have also recently been sent to Europe to be available for contingencies in Ukraine—at the insistence of the EUCOM Commander. These demands from active theaters are embarrassing and compelling counterarguments to the Air Force’s plea that the Warthog is no longer relevant or capable and needs to be unloaded to help pay for the new, expensive, more high-tech planes that Air Force headquarters vastly prefers even though the planes are underperforming.

This is not just another fight over a Department of Defense weapons program; this is about what kind of help we will provide our ground troops when they are pinned down by enemy fire and call for help. ~Sen. Kelly Ayotte's letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter

So far, Congress has not been any more sympathetic to this year’s continuation of General Welsh’s campaign to retire the A-10. Chairman McCain rejected the Air Force’s contention that the F-35 was ready enough to be a real replacement for the A-10 and vowed to reverse the A-10 retirement process already underway. Senator Ayotte led a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter with Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Richard Burr (R-NC) rebuking Hagel’s decision to place 18 A-10s in backup inventory. Specifically, the Senators called the decision a “back-door” divestment approved by a “disappointing rubber stamp” that guts “the readiness of our nation’s best close air support aircraft.” In the House, Representative Martha McSally (R-AZ) wrote to Secretary Carter stating that she knew from her own experience as a former A-10 pilot and 354th Fighter Squadron commander that the A-10 is uniquely capable for combat search and rescue missions, in addition to CAS, and that the retirement of the A-10 through a classified assessment violated the intent of Congress’s compromise with the Air Force:

The classification of the explanation for cutting the most effective Close Air Support platform flies against the open nature of our government. The public has a right to review the analytic methods used, the alternatives assessed, and any competing recommendations. Otherwise, it is reasonable to conclude the ‘rubber stamp’ nature of the classified report is simply a backdoor attempt at divestment.

Some in the press have been similarly skeptical of the Air Force’s intentions, saying that the plan “doesn’t add up,” and more colorfully, calling it “total bullshit and both the American taxpayer and those who bravely fight our wars on the ground should be furious.” Those reports similarly cite the Air Force’s longstanding antagonism to the CAS mission as the chief motive for the A-10’s retirement.

A-10 pair
Image from U.S. Air Force

A Summit to Convince Congress

By announcing that pilots who spoke to Congress about the A-10 were “committing treason,” ACC Vice Commander Major General James Post sparked an Inspector General investigation and calls for his resignation from POGO and other whistleblower and taxpayer groups. That public relations debacle made it clear that the Air Force needed a new campaign strategy to support its faltering A-10 divestment campaign. On the orders of Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle—the head of Air Combat Command—promptly announced a joint CAS Summit, allegedly to determine the future of CAS.

It was not the first CAS Summit to be held (the most recent previous Summit was held in 2009), but it was the first to receive so much fanfare. As advertised, the purpose of the Summit was to determine and then mitigate any upcoming risks and gaps in CAS mission capabilities. But notes, documents, and annotated briefing slides reviewed by CDI reveal that what the Air Force publicly released from the Summit is nothing more than a white-washed assessment of the true and substantial operational risks of retiring the A-10.

Divestment would “cause significant CAS capability and capacity gaps for 10 to 12 years.”

Just prior to the Summit, a working group of approximately 40 people, including CAS-experienced Air Force service members, met for three days at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to identify potential risks and shortfalls in CAS capabilities. But Air Force headquarters gave them two highly restrictive ground rules: first, assume the A-10s are completely divested, with no partial divestments to be considered; and second, assume the F-35 is fully CAS capable by 2021 (an ambitious assumption at best). The working groups included A-10 pilots, F-16 pilots, and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), all with combat-based knowledge of the CAS platforms and their shortfalls and risks. They summarized their findings with slides stating that the divestment would “cause significant CAS capability and capacity gaps for 10 to 12 years,” create training shortfalls, increase costs per flying hour, and sideline over 200 CAS-experienced pilots due to lack of cockpits for them. Additionally, they found that after the retirement of the A-10 there would be “very limited” CAS capability at low altitudes and in poor weather, “very limited” armor killing capability, and “very limited” ability to operate in the GPS-denied environment that most experts expect when fighting technically competent enemies with jamming technology, an environment that deprives the non-A-10 platforms of their most important CAS-guided munition. They also concluded that even the best mitigation plans they were recommending would not be sufficient to overcome these problems and that significant life-threatening shortfalls would remain.

General Carlisle was briefed at Davis-Monthan on these incurable risks and gaps that A-10 divestment would cause. Workshop attendees noted that he understood gaps in capability created by retiring the A-10 could not be solved with the options currently in place. General Carlisle was also briefed on the results of the second task to develop a list of requirements and capabilities for a new A-X CAS aircraft that could succeed the A-10. “These requirements look a lot like the A-10, what are we doing here?” he asked. The slides describing the new A-X requirements disappeared from subsequent Pentagon Summit presentations and were never mentioned in any of the press releases describing the summit.

Notably, the Summit Slide presentation for general officers the next day stripped away any mention of A-10 divestment creating significant capability gaps.

At the four-day Pentagon Summit the next week, the Commander of the 355th Fighter Wing, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Col. James P. Meger, briefed lower level joint representatives from the Army and the Marine Corps about the risks identified by the group at Davis-Monthan. Included in the briefing was the prediction that divestment of the A-10 would result in “significant capability and capacity gaps for the next ten to twelve years” that would require maintaining legacy aircraft until the F-35A was fully operational. After the presentation, an Army civilian representative became concerned. The slides, he told Col. Meger, suggested that the operational dangers of divestment of the A-10 were much greater than had been previously portrayed by the Air Force. Col. Meger attempted to reassure the civilian that the mitigation plan would eliminate the risks. Following the briefing, Col. Meger met with Lt. Gen. Tod D. Wolters, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for Air Force Headquarters. Notably, the Summit Slide presentation for general officers the next day stripped away any mention of A-10 divestment creating significant capability gaps. Any mention of the need to maintain legacy aircraft, including the A-10, until the F-35A reached full operating capability (FOC) was also removed from the presentation.

The next day, Col. Meger delivered the new, sanitized presentation to the Air Force Chief of Staff. There was only muted mention of the risks presented by divestment. There was no mention of the 10- to 12-year estimated capability gap, nor was there any mention whatsoever of the need to maintain legacy aircraft—such as the A-10 or less capable alternatives like the F-16 or F-15E—until the F-35A reached FOC.

Other important areas of concern to working group members, but impossible to adequately address within the three days at Davis-Monthan, were the additional costs to convert squadrons from the A-10 to another platform, inevitable training shortfalls that would be created, and how the deployment tempos of ongoing operations would further exacerbate near-term gaps in CAS capability. To our knowledge, none of these concerns surfaced during any part of the Pentagon summit.

Actions for Congress

Inevitably, the Air Force generals leading the ongoing CAS Summit media blitz will point congressional Armed Services and Appropriations committees to the whitewashed results of their sham summit. When they do, Senators and Representatives who care about the lives of American troops in combat need to ask the generals the following questions:

  • Why wasn’t this summit held before the Air Force decided to get rid of A-10s?
  • Why doesn’t the Air Force’s joint CAS summit include any statement of needs from soldiers or Marines who have actually required close air support in combat?
  • What is the Air Force’s contingency plan for minimizing casualties among our troops in combat in the years after 2019, if the F-35 is several years late in achieving its full CAS capabilities?
  • When and how does the Air Force propose to test whether the F-35 can deliver close support at least as combat-effective as the A-10’s present capability? How can that test take place without A-10s?

Congress cannot and should not endorse Air Force leadership’s Summit by divesting the A-10s. Instead, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees need to hold hearings that consider the real and looming problems of inadequate close support, the very problems that Air Force headquarters prevented their Summit from addressing. These hearings need to include a close analysis of CAPE’s assessment and whether the decision to classify its report was necessary and appropriate. Most importantly, those hearings must include combat-experienced receivers and providers of close support who have seen the best and worst of that support, not witnesses cherry-picked by Air Force leadership—and the witnesses invited must be free to tell it the way they saw it.

If Congress is persuaded by the significant CAS capability risks and gaps originally identified by the Summit’s working groups, they should write and enforce legislation to constrain the Air Force from further eroding the nation’s close air support forces. Finally, if Congress believes that officers have purposely misled them about the true nature of these risks, or attempted to constrain service members’ communications with Congress about those risks, they should hold the officers accountable and remove them from positions of leadership.

Congress owes nothing less to the troops they send to fight our wars.