Monday, October 13, 2014


By Ronald T. Fox

The A-10 Attacks

Much has been written about the ability of the Pentagon to get the Congress to do its bidding. Working in tandem with the individual military services, weapons manufacturers and other contractors that desire a piece of the procurement action, and members of the Senate and House who drool over bringing big contracts home to their state or district, the Pentagon can field a formidable machine extremely adept at moving favored legislation.

clip_image004It also has a formidable propaganda machine capable of shaping public opinion, as Senator J. William Fulbright wrote about decades ago. To build support for a new weapon, the Pentagon and the individual services frequently resort to embellishing the weapon’s capabilities, playing down its costs, and puffing up similar weapons possessed by our enemies. If it meets organized resistance, which is rare, it pulls no punches in fudging facts and discrediting critics. With such tools, it rarely loses a political fight, especially since it can count on pro-military members on Congress who prioritize defense spending over real defense.
The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Made

An excellent case to observe the Pentagon machine at work is its current fight to retire the Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt (affectionately also known as the Warthog) and replace its close air support (CAS) mission with a combination of aircraft: the speedier B-1B bomber, F-15E, and the F-16.

Until recently the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was also offered as an effective alternative, but with its cost souring (it’s reputed to be the most expensive weapon ever made) it has become too expensive to risk close to the ground where airplanes are vulnerable (see previous post: F-35 Cost Explodes: Business as Usual at the Pentagon). It seems the Air Force is operating under the assumption that future wars will be high tech affairs against heavily-armed foes sporting sophisticated air defenses, wars that don’t favor the slow-moving A-10. This seems strange given the current saber-rattling over going to war against ISIS, which would present precisely the kind of challenge that favors the A-10.

In two previous essays, I sang praise of the A-10’s virtues in supporting troops on the ground and lamented that it had lost favor with the Air Force and would likely soon be retired (see: Say Goodbye To the A-10 Warthog: Shame on the Air Force and The 2015 Defense Budget: A Final Nail in the A-10 Coffin?). It appears now that I may have been premature in my prediction.

A wide-ranging group of A-10 advocates has joined the fight to save the Warthog. The group includes former pilots, combat veterans, military reformers, war planners who question the effectiveness of proposed alternatives to the A-10, a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen—some who have A-10 production, supply and training facilities in their districts, others who simply value the airplane—and citizens from impacted communities. The fight on the hill is being led by Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican whose husband was an A-10 pilot. This formidable opposition is posing a rare strong challenge to the Air Force. So far they appear to be winning.

The final decision on the A-10 will not be made until sometime in November when the final version of Congress’s defense budget is written, but so far supporters of the Warthog have won every major political fight.

Proponents of the A-10 have swarmed Capitol Hill extolling the Warthog’s indisputable virtues as the best, and most cost-effective, airplane ever made for the CAS mission. The two main anti-A-10 arguments being advanced, that the plane’s retirement will save money and the Warthog’s mission can be easily replicated by other aircraft, have not resonated well in the Congress. Saving money on defense is not a prime mover for most Members. And, claims that the B-1B can pick up much of the A-10 slack has astonished many Members who recall it was a B-1B that dropped bombs on our troops in Afghanistan. The A-10 was specifically designed for close-ground encounters, making it a far superior weapon for distinguishing between friend and foe.

Close Air Support
Still the Pentagon continues to disseminate half truths and falsehoods about why we should retire the A-10. These myths don’t fool knowledgeable people who think strategically about real defense needs, but they can resonate with the uninformed and politicians who believe the more we spend on big ticket, high tech weapons, such as the B-1B and the F-35, the stronger our defense. Such people tend to value technological sophistication in weaponry over less complex, cheaper weapons that can effectively carry out their assigned missions, a disposition Mary Kaldor wrote about years ago in The Baroque Arsenal. These technologically-addicted defense neophytes have been regurgitating Pentagon talking points on the A-10 as if they were gospel.

Winslow Wheeler and Pierre Sprey, writing in The Defense Monitor, have refuted four of the main claims being disseminated by the Air Force to justify cancellation of the A-10:
  1. Retiring the A-10 Will Save Money: In fact, the Warthog is our least expensive combat aircraft to operate, three times less expensive as the B-1B.
  2. The A-10 is Only Good for Close Air Support: In fact, in four post-1990 wars the Warthog has used effectively for air defense suppression, interdiction, search and rescue, armed reconnaissance, forward air control, and air-to-air combat against helicopters. This is a far greater range of combat missions than other multi-role airplanes used in these wars, such as the F-18.
  3. The A-10 is too Old: An odd claim since the Air Force recently spent $2.85 billion to increase airframe life by more than 15 years and to modernize it with the most advanced avionics and countermeasures. Other upgrades could further extend the A-10’s life if the Air Force so desired, but they’ve opted to block upgrade funds, hoping the aging issue would facilitate the case for retirement.
  4. The Air-10 Can’t Survive Over Modern Battlefields: The Warthog was built with heavy armor to withstand gun- and missile-hits, which it has demonstrated in recent wars far better than any previous or current Air Force airplane. If, as is extremely likely, future wars will be low-intensity affairs, the Warthog’s ability to survive ground fire will be critical to the safety of our troops as well as our pilots. No other airplane can match this feature.
As a clear sign these Air Force falsehoods aren’t taking hold, both the Senate and House Armed Services Committee have voted to retain the A-10, and the full House voted 300-114 to overturn an Appropriations Committee recommendation to retire the airplane. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to reserve money in the 2015 defense budget to retain the A-10. Different versions of the House and Senate bills must now be reconciled in conferences later this fall.

These actions don’t mean that the Air Force and the Pentagon will throw in the towel; on the contrary, they are redoubling their efforts to beat back the pro-A-10 forces. There’s much at stake, given their preference for speedier, state-of-the-art aircraft, including the overpriced F-35, which is currently in production. The A-10 confounds their rationale to spend money on fancy alternatives.

We can expect the Pentagon and the pro-F-35 lobby to not only press forth with their myths about the A-10, but also embellish the capabilities of alternative aircraft, like was done in a February 60 Minutes report on the F-35, which seemed more like an infomercial than an investigation of the airplane’s cost overruns.
The Defense Money Game
The A-10 fight is an interesting case study to follow. It gives us a glimpse of a legislative fight pitting a powerful, well-healed assembly of military, corporate (e.g., Lockheed Martin, builder of the competing F-35), and political interests used to getting their way, against a coalition of smaller fry opponents who make up for their disadvantage in the money and influence-peddling game with grass-roots support, fierce determination, and basic logic on their side.

It also pits advocates of cheap and effective vs. big spenders. The fight will tell us much about which members of Congress prioritize real defense and which favor simply throwing money the Pentagon’s way. Usually in such fights, the Pentagon gets what it wants. This time, however, we just might witness an upset.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ron,

    I agree with your general premise and thought the 60 Minutes piece on the F-35 was basically an informercial.
    That said, I suspect the Pentagon intends to largely replace the A10 with drones, not F-35's. I am sure there idea is to keep pilots mostly out of close air support entirely. Whether this will be cost effective or not is debatable, but I am sure that is their direction.


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