Wednesday, December 18, 2013



By Ronald Fox

In a previous post, I focused on the case of the air force’s new super-airplane, the F-35, as yet one more example of our military’s persistent tendency to understate cost and overstate performance of major weapons systems. Specifically I questioned the veracity of F-35 Program Manager, Lt. General Christopher Bognan’s boast that the unit cost of the F-35 will settle in at about $85 million per plane. Well, with the cost per plane now over $160 million and climbing, that prediction appears pure fantasy, if not outright duplicity. But that’s not the worst of it. It appears that to free up funds to purchase the overpriced F-35’s, the Air Force will phase out the A-10 Warthog, the best airplane ever made for the task of close air support (CAS) for combat troops on the ground. In the end, the costly F-35 will degrade our CAS capability, making our soldiers more vulnerable on the battlefield. This is yet another example of the military addiction to high technology trumping good old common sense.

The Air Force has kept its plan to abolish the A-10 fleet close to the vest so as to not arouse protest from military personnel and members of Congress who value the weapon. Now, with the plan leaked to the public, it appears the cancellation decision may be a fait accompli. A-10 pilot training classes are being phased out and training hours for current pilots have already been cut back. Three A-10 units have been, or are in the process of being, deactivated. This downsizing will increase the unit cost of the A-10, making it too expensive to keep, which is probably the argument that will be made if the decision to cancel the aircraft is challenged.

This is very unfortunate. There is no other aircraft in the Air Force arsenal capable of doing what the A-10 does. Stories of its success in saving combat troop lives on the ground are legendary. It can loiter for two hours over a battlefield and has a capacity for up to 20 trigger pulls. It can maneuver at low altitude, absorb small arms fire because it is heavily armored, and fly in low visibility. But the Air Force now prefers the F-35, which, because of its high cost and vulnerability to ground fire, must stand off at high altitude and fire missiles or drop bombs. It has a capacity of three combat trigger pulls. You do the math; what this all means is a degraded CAS capability—and, sadly, likely more combat soldier lives lost.

The final decision on the A-10 rests with General Mark Welsh III, the new Air Force Chief of Staff, who can still save the aircraft and preserve the CAS mission. Should he go along with the existing plan to phase out the A-10 by the end of 2015, he will, as the Center for Defense Information put it, “have broken faith with the young men and women on the ground in faraway places.” Most importantly, he will have violated his doctrinal obligation to protect American troops on the ground.

Which way will he go on the A-10? If past history is a guide, he will go along with Air Force brass and opt for the F-35 as our weapon of choice for providing close air support. Once again, American taxpayers will be getting less combat results for our money. The Air Force will have an expensive, gold-plated, super aircraft. All it needs is a mission.

“Support the troops” is a popular refrain in America. I can think of no better way to support them than to speak out to our Congressmen and anyone else who will listen that in the interest of the lives of our troops in battle we need to keep the A-10 and its CAS mission. Protecting a young soldier’s life is the strongest support one can offer.

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