Air Force Launches New Campaign to Quell A-10 Firestorm
In an unprecedented move, top Air Force leaders last week convened a “Close Air Support Summit” at the Pentagon with senior officials from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, National Guard Bureau and Special Operations Command.
For the Air Force, one of the takeaway messages from the summit was that it needs to explain more clearly how it will support ground troops if the A-10 is taken out of service. Another is that it has to consider the possibility that it might need a new strike aircraft to fill the gap between the A-10 and its intended replacement, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
In a briefing with reporters March 6, on the final day of the summit, Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle said the central aim of the week-long gathering was to “assess the current state of close-air support and work with the Joint Staff, Special Operations Command and sister services to gain enhanced understanding of mission requirements against the backdrop of fiscal and operational challenges.”
Carlisle insisted that the summit was not about A-10 politics or damage control. He suggested there is big misunderstanding about the Air Force’s commitment to close-air support and about what it will take to operate in enemy airspace in future wars. “This week was about taking everything we've learned and continue to get better so we can operate in contested environments.”
The Air Force has been in a tough spot trying to defend the scrapping the A-10 Thunderbolt attack plane at a time when the aircraft has been in high demand in Afghanistan and in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. A group of powerful lawmakers last year, led by Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., blocked the proposed A-10 retirement. Critics have blasted Air Force leaders for discarding an aging but proven weapon system to save $3.7 billion over five years and shift funding to the more glamorous F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that will not be ready for combat for several years.
A-10 supporters argue that troops are best served with a close-support airplane armed with a weapon like the 30mm Gatling gun that can get up close with the enemy and loiter over the battlefield, whereas high-flying jets like the F-35 are too far from the action.
The problem with the 40-year-old A-10 — nicknamed the Warthog for its ungainly appearance — is not its performance today but its future inability to fly in defended airspace, Carlisle said. “In a permissive environment and some level of contested environment, the A-10 operates extremely well,” he said. In highly defended airspace, the A-10 is “going to have a challenge, so the F-35 is the next step.”
There is simply not enough money in the Pentagon’s budget to keep every fleet in the inventory, he added. The Air Force has had to downsize dramatically. It had 160 fighter squadrons in the 1990s and it is down to about 50. “If your capacity is down, you take out the platform that is going to have a harder time operating in the future,” said Carlisle, although he recognized that Congress will have the final word. “Congress knows, everyone knows, we will eventually phase out the A-10 because of the environments we'll operate in.”
The decision to host a CAS summit and bring in the Pentagon’s top brass speaks to the bruising political fight that Air Force leaders have waged since the retirement of the A-10 was first proposed two years ago. More recently, the service came under fire when it was reported that Air Force Maj. Gen. James Post told officers in a private meeting that “anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason.” The Project on Government Oversight and other watchdog groups also pounded on the Air Force for starting an alleged smear campaign against the A-10 by releasing data showing that the aircraft is responsible for more incidents of fratricide and civilian deaths than any U.S. military aircraft since 2001.
Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh conceived the summit as a forum to discuss “where we are with CAS, what we’ve learned and where we are headed in the future,” said Carlisle. “This is not necessarily in response to anything other than the changing world environment we're living in and the fiscal constraints” that have compelled the Air Force to make tough decisions about investments in new weapons. Carlisle also noted that friendly fire deaths are a concern. “We want precision, weapons where we can control the yield,” he said.
Carlisle unveiled a number of new Air Force initiatives that are aimed at bolstering the close-air support mission. “We need to maintain the culture,” he said. But the A-10 is not the only aircraft that can do this mission, he insisted. “As long as it's in the inventory I'm going to use it, it's a fantastic platform,” but so are other aircraft, he said. “Based on congressional guidance, over time we will divest our A-10 fleet. We will have predominantly CAS squadrons of F-16s and F-15s and eventually F-35s. We want the CAS expertise to keep that knowledge base and culture alive.”
A third of the first F-35 squadron at Nellis Air Force, Nevada, are A-10 pilots. The F-35, however, will not be ready for CAS mission until its Block 4 upgrade scheduled to happen in the next several years.
The Air Force intends to create a “CAS integration group” probably at Nellis, with representatives from all the military services and special operations forces, Carlisle said. “The idea is to continue to advance CAS understanding.” There is consideration of assigning 12 F-16s to the CAS integration group for pilot and ground-controller training. “We need resources to build up the organization, build exercises. It'll evolve over time.”
The Air Force’s fiscal year 2016 budget request seeks to retire all 164 A-10s by 2019. The Warthog is on its last legs, Carlisle said. The aircraft already have been modernized with new wings, engines and cockpits. “There's only so much you can get out of that airplane. We could keep it in the inventory for 10 years but they'll wear out. They've been worked very hard. It will eventually age out.” In the next decade, the F-35 will be the “primary CAS platform” although he did not rule out the possibility of seeking a lower cost airplane as an alternative to the F-35. “We'll continue to look at this. We're not going to start developing a new platform but we have to be open to what transition points we may face.” A commercially developed military plane like Textron’s Scorpion is not inconceivable in CAS missions, he said. “We have looked at other platforms to meet the low end CAS mission at lower cost.”
Air Force leaders know that the battle over the A-10 is far from over, said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula. Everyone was surprised by how emotional and contentious the issue became, Deptula told National Defense. Last week’s Close Air Support Summit is unlikely to have occurred were it not for the A-10 controversy. “Big summits on individual mission areas are unusual,” he said. “This clearly was driven by the attention.”
The Air Force is making the right decision on the A-10, he said. “What you read about the Air Force not caring about CAS is nonsense. I’m surprised there is this much backlash. The facts do not support the accusations.”
Some people attach too much importance to one aircraft, he said. “They forget that the A-10 was not designed for CAS.” The 30mm gun that fires uranium depleted rounds was intended to kill tanks in the Fulda Gap in Central Europe. “That’s direct attack of armor and interdiction and not CAS.”
The Air Force to some degree created its own problem because “we like to label things,” said Deptula. “We call B-52s strategic bombers, but we have used B-52s for CAS. I had A-10s doing road reconnaissance, airfield attacks, Scud hunting and interdiction.” Then there is the budget argument. “The Air Force has done a thorough analysis. What else does Congress want? Unfortunately this has taken up a lot of the leadership’s time and attention.”
Photo Credit: Air Force