Gen. Welsh Makes Subtle Digs at A-10 Supporters, F-35 Critics
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh has heard one too many times that his service doesn't care about close-air support missions.
"Really? I'm kind of tired of hearing that," he said Sept. 15 at the Air Force Association conference.
The Air Force has averaged about 20,000 CAS sorties per year for the last seven years. "At what point do we get a little bit of acknowledgement for that?" Noting that airmen who require protection serve on the ground, as well as his own son who is a Marine Corps infantry officer, Welsh characterized the notion that the Air Force puts a low priority on close-air support as "silly."
He has answered those who have told him to his face that the Air Force doesn't care about CAS by taking out his phone and showing them a picture of his son.
His comments come during a public debate over the retirement of the A-10 Warthog, a Cold War era aircraft that the service wants to retire to make way for the F-35 joint striker fighter. Congress so far is not allowing that to happen. While he did not wade into the specifics of the arguments, he ran a short video of a former A-10 pilot who is now putting the F-35 through close-air support test and evaluation.
Welsh said: "CAS is our mission. And we will continue to excel at it and we will continue to provide it wherever and whenever it is needed and with whatever we have available to us."
Another statement he disputed is "the F16 is better than the F-35."
"Really? Does someone want to debate this with facts?" He followed that up with another video of an F-35 pilot attesting to the new capabilities of the aircraft. "We have to make sure we don't get distracted by silly discussions here. This airplane is going to be a great airplane," he added, noting that it is not fully operational yet and is not expected to be until 2021.
Welsh only mentioned in passing the Air Force's top three acquisition priorities -- the F-35, the long-range strike bomber and the KC-46 tanker -- and instead highlighted some of the lesser known aircraft that he said must be modernized.
The first mentioned was the combat rescue helicopter, which he said is "tied to the fabric of our force. If we are going to send airmen across the line into harm's way, we have people, great people, who are willing to go get them if something goes wrong. And they need to be equipped in a way that allows them to get home, or maximizes their chances to get home. We have got to keep this program on track."
The next is the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, which has been a workhorse, he said. The Air Force can't meet combatant commanders' needs for the aircraft because they are old, and it takes a lot of money to operate. "It has been a phenomenal aircraft for us, but it is time to recapitalize this airplane."
The JSTARS recapitalization program is in the budget this year and "we are going to push hard to keep it on track and get this thing done," he said.
The EC-130 Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft, like JSTARS, has been a "silent hero" over the years, he said. It has been a workhorse in the counterterrorism mission, "but we need the capabilities it carries on a different platform, or on several different platforms. And we have to figure out how to do that," he said. If they have to be grounded for age reasons, "we're out of luck. That can't be the choice."
Also on his list is the E-3 Sentry AWACS. "We have to start thinking about recapitalizing this airplane as well. Airborne command and control is is a requirement that is not going anywhere." The Air
Force is going to start work on a plan to replace it or recapitalize it this year, he said. The question will be where it fits into the funding flow, he added. "This is not a 'this year' problem but it is coming sooner than you think."
The last aircraft on his modernization list is the T-X training aircraft. "All these things need crews to fly them. We're not going to a 100 percent unmanned force anytime soon."
The T-X is in the budget and "we're going to push hard" for a 2024 initial operational capability, he said.
The overarching problem is funding. The demand for Air Force capabilities is going up, but the budget is not, he said. "And the flexibility we need to make the very hard decisions required is getting harder to come by. Holding onto the things that made us great in the past is not the best way to make us great in the future," he added, making another subtle dig at the A-10 supporters.
"For years we have enjoyed a capability advantage over every other air force on the planet. That capability gap is closing and it's closing fast. I'm not crying wolf. I'm just telling you the truth," Welsh said.