Tuesday, October 14, 2014


By Ronald Fox
I predicted in a previous post (Say Goodbye to the A-10 Warthog: Shame on the Air Force) that it was likely the Air Force’s A-10 “Warthog” close air support (CAS) airplane would be phased out. The Pentagon’s recently leaked preview of its 2015 budget confirmed the suspicion of many who have followed the issue: the fleet of 350 A-10 attack planes is scheduled to be permanently retired. Should the elimination be finalized, it will be a sad day for combat troops who have grown to love the highly effective CAS aircraft. It will also disappoint military reformers who have long been critical of the Air Force’s “deep strike” strategic bombing mindset, which they argue has been responsible for excessive costs, ineffective air power, and, arguably, longer wars. These reformers would like to see the Pentagon purchase weapons where mission cost effectiveness is the overriding procurement criteria. It is clear, however, that the Pentagon remains fixated on expensive high tech weapons of unproven effectiveness.

The A-10’s elimination, which will save $3.7 billion, is being justified as a necessary cost-saving move given budget and sequestration constraints. The main reason, however, is that the Air Force, which has never been a fan of the CAS mission, wants to free up funds for the $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

The A-10’s elimination from the Secretary Hegel’s proposed budget, however, is not yet a done deal. There will be opposition from military reformers, A-10 pilots, pro-military hawks, liberals who oppose the costly F-35, members of Congress with large military bases or contractors in their states and districts, particularly those having A-10 production, supply and training facilities, impacted companies and communities, and unions seeking to protect jobs. Expect strong opposition to also come from combat veterans.  Soldiers with combat experience know from first-hand experience that quick response, accurate and persistent air support and reconnaissance under even the most extreme battlefield conditions, save soldier lives and are critical factors  in winning land battles. This is the kind of air power they value.

To be sure, this is a formidable pro-A-10 constituency. They must, however, do battle against a powerful and determined Pentagon, Air Force and Navy brass who believe the F-35 and other newer and speedier warplanes, such as the F-15E, F-16, and B-1B, can maintain the service’s ability to support troops on the ground, Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s manufacturer, and other contractors who expect to get a piece of the plane’s action, and members of the Senate and Congress who have a political stake in the F-35 program.

Do not underestimate the Pentagon’s influence. It has a vast propaganda network that, as Senator J. William Fulbright documented back in 1971 (in The Pentagon Propaganda Machine), is powerfully adept at moving public opinion and getting what it wants. Nowadays it has a vastly expanded array of communication avenues to work its magic.

It also has many media friends. On February 16, 60 Minutes aired a segment on the F-35 that while purporting to present an inside look at the most expensive weapon system in history, appeared more like an infomercial for the new fighter. While production delays were mentioned as the main source of cost overruns, the reasons for the delays were not probed, nor was the fact that the airplane has only been minimally performance tested, certainly not enough to warrant the glowing reviews presented in the program. A glitter of top Air Force, Navy and Marine officers were interviewed to reassure viewers that production bugs had been fixed, unit costs were coming down (they understated the current cost) and the F-35 was on track to become the greatest joint strike fighter ever made.
Sixty Minutes Journalist, David Martin, did bring in a critic of the F-35 program toward the end of the segment, but he confined his questions to the airplane’s high cost, neglecting the more important question about its mission and whether CAS will be degraded. Martin let stand unchallenged his military cheerleaders claims that the F-35 would be able to perform ground attacks, reconnaissance and air defense with a high level of effectiveness. The A-10 was not mentioned. Proof of this bold claim was anyone’s guess. It appeared Martin either didn’t know enough to ask key questions, or he purposely pulled punches. In the end, discerning viewers were left to guess what we would be getting for our money. The casual observer, however, watching the F-35 glorification probably thought about shouting out USA, USA!

The segment also included the very familiar Pentagon technique of insinuating that another country (or countries) has a better weapon. In this case the Russians and Chinese are said to be developing 5th generation “state of the art,” fighters on a par, or even better than the F-22 Raptor and the forthcoming F-35 Lightning II. Russia features the T-50 PAK-FA and the Sukhoi Su-35, which dazzled onlookers at the recent Paris Air Show. China is developing a fighter, the J-20, with external characteristics that allow it 5th Generation attribution. The message is clear: the U.S. needs to keep pace with other 5th generation fighters. We need the F-35.

I’ve seen this script before. It seems every time the Pentagon feels a need to justify increasing the defense budget to fund a costly new weapon, it embellishes an opponent’s capability. This time, however, there appears to be merit to the Pentagon's acknowledgement of Russian and Chinese technological achievements in fighter airplanes, even at the risk of casting doubt about just how good is the F-35. (No worry, this sets the F-35 up for future upgrades.)

What will be the consequence of cancellation of the A-10 and elevation of the F-35’s mission? Simple: increased peril for our troops. Replacement of the A-10 mission with the F-35 and other programmed aircraft will not only substitute aircraft that unlike the A-10 cannot fly low enough to distinguish real targets from civilians and friendly troops, stay aloft for an extended period of time, survive heavy enemy fire in “danger close” environments, make up to a dozen firing passes, be quickly repaired and maintained, and purchased in large numbers at an affordable price, but will also disperse the group of highly trained specialized CAS air and ground personnel who have worked so well together in past wars, as the record shows. The interpersonal connections they developed, so vital to mission success, will be lost. CAS will be compromised.

What would I like to see our government do? Rather than cancel the A-10, doesn’t it make more sense to keep the time-honored and proven Warthog, and instead of building a costly fleet of F-35s upgrade the F-22 and retrofit the current inventory of F-15s, F-16s and F-18s with all aspect stealth, improved agility, internal weapons, integrated avionics, and other 5th generation technologies? This way we could improve the capabilities of our multi-purpose fighters at a fraction of the F-35 cost while retaining the vital CAS role of the A-10.

Seems like common sense to me. Unfortunately I see scant chance this solution will appeal to the Air Force. They are enjoined for a fight for their latest high tech gadget. It won’t be an even fight. The Pentagon propaganda machine is vast, with a reach into mass media, electoral campaigns, politician offices, state and local governments, labor unions, and even popular culture, and their allies are well-funded and skilled at playing political hardball. Despite a spirited fight by A-10 advocates, I suspect, in the end, the Pentagon will prevail, as it nearly always does. As I said before, say goodbye to the Warthog.

1 comment:

  1. U.S.. Security agencies have a long history of exaggerating external threats. Perhaps the most notorious in my lifetime was the Gulf of Tonkin "incident," which was orchestrated to justify our military involvement in Vietnam. More recently there was the false claim about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which I'm convinced the Bush administration used to ramp up support for their disastrous war. Do you recall any examples of exaggerating the capabilities of an enemy fighter airplane?


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