Outgoing Air Force Combat Command Chief Slams Congress

By Valerie Insinna

The Air Force can maintain its dominance in the skies, but only if politicians allow military leaders to cut programs such as the A-10 Warthog and to close redundant bases, the head of Air Force Combat Command said.

“We have to be able to make some very hard decisions now and through the next several years,” said Gen. Mike Hostage in a Sept. 16 speech at the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference at National Harbor, Maryland. “The challenge we face is that politics are not likely to let us make these hard decisions.”

During his speech and final press conference before his retirement in November, Hostage said he tried throughout his tenure to provide the best military advice possible to civilian leaders. Whether they take that guidance is up to them.

The problem is that it doesn’t look like Congress is going to take that advice, which will force the Air Force to make sacrifices to readiness, he said.

“My job is not to complain about whether I have enough resources,” he said. “My job is to produce as much combat power as possible with whatever resources the nation will provide me.”

The best way for the service to dramatically shrink its budget is to eliminate entire weapons systems and the training and logistics costs associated with them, he said. This means that legacy systems like the A-10 and U-2 spy plane must be cut to preserve long-term capabilities such as the F-35 and long range strike bomber.

“I don’t want to cut the A-10 or the U-2, and I don’t have direct replacements for those systems,” he said. “I have the need for both the capacity and the capability those systems deliver. However, I just don’t have the resources to retain them and still have a ready and capable force.”

While individual lawmakers accept that logic, others are loathe to eliminate aircraft fleets that may affect their constituency’s industrial base and employment numbers, he said.

One of the reasons the Air Force must cut the U-2 is because Congress has not allowed the service to terminate the expensive Global Hawk Block 30 unmanned aircraft program, he said. At one point, the service needed the Global Hawks because of increased combatant commander demands for intelligence.

Now that those requirements have been reduced, the Air Force cannot afford to keep a mixed fleet, he said. Congress, for its part, has mandated that the service retain its Global Hawks, even though there aren’t enough of them to get the same coverage as the U-2 provides.

“The problem is that the Global Hawk will take eight years before it can meet 90 percent of the current capability of the U-2, so the combatant commanders are going to suffer for eight years and the best they're going to get is 90 percent,” he said. "We'll make the Global Hawk work ... but it's not the optimum military solution.”

Hostage said he understands troops’ affection for the A-10 and its unique qualities. The aging aircraft, more commonly known as the Warthog, is built for one purpose: protecting ground forces with its heavy 30 mm cannon.

“I hesitate to use the word elegant in the same sentence as the A-10 [but] nothing does 30 mm [close-air support] as elegantly as an A-10. There’s no one out there with a 30 mm cannon,” he said.

“And there’s something very reassuring about the roar of that cannon when you’re under fire.”

But there are numerous weapons — precision bombs or Hellfire missiles — that can disperse enemies and provide support to land forces, he said. “In the end, that’s what the ground force cares about. In fact, 70 percent of close-air support missions in Afghanistan were flown by platforms other than the A-10, including B-1s, F-15s and F-16s.

Furthermore, the A-10 would not be able to survive combat against an adversary with modern integrated air defenses. “The idea of doing an opposed [close-air support] in an environment where an A-10 could survive, that’s an anachronism of the past,” he said.

Congress has also forced the military to retain infrastructure, blocking any attempts to restart the base closure and realignment process.

“Right now I could close one in three bases across Air Combat Command and still have sufficient infrastructure to support myself. But politically, closing a base is just not going to happen,” Hostage said.

The worst-case budgetary scenario is if the Air Force is not allowed to cut any force structure, nor is given any additional funding to keep it, he said. That would force him to cut either readiness or future investments. “Neither of those is a good choice,” but he would sacrifice readiness and accept the added risk.

“I’ve got some ideas on how to distribute that risk to have the least damage to our ability to produce combat power, but we’ll wait and see how the budget actually comes out.”

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Tactical Aircraft, Defense Department, DOD Budget

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