Monday, October 3, 2016

SOLDIER LIVES DON’T MATTER: THE AIR FORCE STILL DETERMINED TO SCRAP THE A-10


By Ronald T. Fox

A-10 Attacking
An A-10 On Mission

Give the Air Force credit for persistence. Undeterred by a Congressional prohibition on retiring the highly effective A-10 Warthog, the AF is continuing its campaign to scrap it. Its latest scheme is to reduce the number of Warthogs that are combat ready. Manipulating Congress is nothing new to the AF; what is different this time is that the lives of many soldiers hinges on what the Congress ultimately decides to do about the A-10.
 
As I’ve written previously (see links below), the A-10 is a highly effective aircraft that has proven its value in all wars the U.S. has been involved in since 1990.  Designed primarily to support troops on the ground, which remains its main mission, it has also been used effectively for air defense suppression, interdiction, search and rescue, armed reconnaissance, forward air control, and air-to-air combat against helicopters.  Troops on the ground swear by it, its pilots and former pilots taut its virtues, and Congressional supporters on both sides of the aisle, aware that there is no viable alternative (it is far superior to the Army's Apache helicopter), continue to support its deployment. Despite these accolades, and its proven track record in combat, the AF wants to retire it, replacing it primarily with the problem-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the most expensive weapons system in history. 

Close air support for troops on the ground has never been a high AF priority. Much more interested in deep strike bombers and fighter planes, it has been reluctant to fully commit to the highly specialized close air support mission. The AF only agreed to provide support for ground troops when, in a post-World War II compromise with the Army, it was given control of all fixed-wing aircraft (the Johnson-McConnell agreement).
 
Despite its promise to the Army, AF leaders had little interest in allocating the budgets, people and suitable planes needed to deliver adequate support for troops on the ground. This reluctance continued through the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and probably would have remained indefinitely were it not for AF Colonel Avery Kay who believed that effective ground support required an aircraft devoted solely to that purpose. Kay’s challenge was to convince the AF to devote limited resources to developing an appropriate airplane.
 
Appealing to AF vanity by warning that it could lose an important mission to the Army, which was pushing for a heavily armed helicopter—the Cheyenne--Kay proposed an AF plane that would be more lethal, survivable, and affordable than the Cheyenne.
 
The result of Kay’s efforts was construction of an airplane designed to be extremely maneuverable at slow speeds, able to loiter over a battlefield, and deliver lethal strikes with its massive cannon; thus was born the A-10. Heavily armored, it could take hits and keep flying close to the ground. Eventually 715 A-10s were built, unfortunately, however, not until after the Vietnam War. Judging by its successful deployment in our wars in the Greater Middle East, one can only wonder how many troop lives it could have helped save in Vietnam. 
 
Frustrated by a congressional prohibition against retiring the A-10 “until an equally capable close air support aircraft achieves full operational capability,” the AF has engaged in a protracted campaign to degrade the Warthog’s effectiveness. Recently it launched a three-part strategy to undermine the airplane’s readiness to deploy. The strategy includes cutting funding for depot maintenance and transferring the top 30 A-10 maintainers to the F-16, hence reducing the number of deployable airplanes. The AF also plans to shift 18 A-10s from “backup active status,” which requires that they be flown periodically to maintain their combat readiness, to non-flying “XJ” status (only one step from being mothballed).  By reducing by over 50% the number of operational test flights necessary to keep the A-10’s electronics and weapons current and effective for ongoing combat deployments, the AF will further reduce the Warthog’s combat readiness and effectiveness. These actions are undercutting the ability of our combat commanders to carry out vital missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
 
F-35
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
While the AF campaign against the A-10 reflects the low priority it has historically attached to the air support mission, it also once again reveals its insatiable lust for newer, sleeker, state-of-the-art, high tech airplanes. This time it’s the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which the AF is arguing will be fully capable of providing support for troops on the ground.  There is good reason to doubt this assurance, however, given the floundering F-35 JSF program.
 
Plagued by enormous cost overruns (it is already costing more than twice as much as its original cost estimate) and numerous failed tests, the F-35 is far from being ready to deploy. The Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) released a scathing assessment in 2016 of the F-35 program. It tells a familiar story of mismanagement, mind-numbing delays, failing computers and logistics capabilities, numerous safety issues, and training and maintenance shortfalls--problems crippling half the fleet at any given time.
 
The AF response to the problems associated with the F-35 should sound familiar to anyone who has followed large weapons projects in the past: tough questions are dodged, facts challenged, problems downplayed, and quick and easy fix-ins promised. Flight tests are routinely delayed and often manipulated. Bad news is finessed by skilled spin doctors, like F-35 program officer Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, who, after previously calling the aircraft’s Automatic Logistics Information System (ALIS) the brains and blood of operating its weapons, now claims the ALIS is not really critical after all. Bogdan is now insisting the F-35 can fly without it for 30 days. His boast, however, didn’t impress the Government Accounting Office, which released a report in April 2016 confirming that flaws in ALIS can ground the entire fleet.
 
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The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Made
You might think excessive cost overruns and numerous failed tests would force the Pentagon to consider cancelling an over-priced weapon, or at least be more seriously cost-conscious, but this almost never happens. When costs far exceed original projections, and Congress threatens to cut off further funding, the Pentagon's response is always to promise that savings will materialize when the weapon enters full production. When this doesn’t happen, as is usually the case, and Congress holds tight on funding, no problem, the Department of Defense (DoD) can always find more money by simply shifting funds from other “accounts, ” such as from the operations budget, or by raiding its “war budget” slush fund. This fills shortfalls while allowing true weapons costs to be hidden.
 
While this may be good news for the Pentagon, individual services, defense contractors, and military hawks and fellow travelers, it is often bad news for the troops because money used to pay for expensive—often unneeded and under-performing-- big-ticket weapons often comes at the expense of money needed to train military personnel and keep their equipment running. This reduces combat readiness and effectiveness. Excessive cost also reduces the number of weapons we can afford to purchase. These trade-offs have been exacerbated by 2013 budget sequestration rules.
 
Conflicting statements from the AF has further complicated the challenge of assessing whether the F-35 will be an adequate replacement for the A-10. The F-35 program office’s website clearly states the plane is to replace the A-10, but AF Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh said in March that “the mission capability of the A-10 will not be replaced by the F-35.” General Bogdan offered little to clear up the confusion when he told a Senate committee that “we will replace A-10s with F-35s,” but do it “very differently than the A-10.”
 
The initial F-35 Operational Test and Evaluation is supposed to include a comparative test pitting the F-35 against the A-10. The AF doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to conduct such a comparison.  F-35 contractor Lockheed Martin wants Congress to approve a block buy of over 460 planes over three years, which it claims will save taxpayers over $2 billion. The GAO disagrees, estimating that it will cost $1.7 billion alone to incorporate new designs for airplanes currently under development.
 
While buying in bulk makes sense to Lockheed Martin in terms of economies of scale, it is unlikely to save taxpayers money. In contrast to multiyear procurement, which mandates that for a program to be eligible it must be determined that it will promote national security, save taxpayer dollars, guarantee planned numbers, and have a stable design, bloc-buy contracts are not governed by any precautionary statutory requirements. Such contracts are thus far less likely to yield cost savings.
 
Austerity may be the overriding ethos governing our government’s approach to political economy, but defense spending hardly conforms to its precepts. Big-ticket weapons projects routinely have expansive ceilings. Cost growth—often exorbitant-- is inevitable; it is built into the system. After a large sum of money has been spent—the so-called “sunk costs”—the weapon project will go forward to full production, even if it repeatedly fails to meet performance goals. With a multitude of advocates protecting it, the weapon becomes untouchable. Such is the case with the F-35 multipurpose fighter.
 
I don’t know if the Air Force will ultimately succeed in retiring the A-10. What I do know is that fewer deployed A-10s in the Greater Middle East will translate into more casualties to our, and friendly, forces on the ground. This is what happens when parochial interests trump reason. The A-10 is destined to be recognized as one of the greatest combat aircraft in American military history, at least by soldiers who fought on the ground and parents whose sons came home. You would think the AF would understand this; on second thought, maybe it does.

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The A-10: A Life Saver

 And the F-35? It’s a safe bet that the JSF will not perform any of its designated combat missions very well-- predictably less capably than the various aircraft it was designed to replace. In the end, the JSF will join the long list of “state-of-the-art” weapons that cost too much, took too long to produce, required numerous retrofits and redesigns, spent far too many hours in the repair and maintenance shop, and under-performed in combat situations. It’s an old story.
 
(For my previous posts on the A-10/F-35 controversy, see: F-35 Costs Explode: Business As Usual At The Pentagon; Say Goodbye to the A-10 Warthog: Shame on the Air Force; It Ain't Over Till' It's Over: the A-10 Warthog Is Still Breathing; and, The 2015 Defense Budget: A Final Nail in the A-10 Coffin? )

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