Apr 10 2014
Real Clear Defense
By Senators Kelly Ayotte, John McCain and Saxby Chambliss
When we send our troops into harm’s way, we have a solemn obligation to ensure they have the very best support possible so they can accomplish their missions and return home safely.
This is certainly true when it comes to close air support (CAS) aircraft, which provide ground troops with the decisive firepower they need when they are engaged in close contact with the enemy.
Ask any soldier which aircraft provides the best CAS, and they’ll tell you it’s the combat-proven A-10.
Last week, the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Ray Odierno, reiterated his belief that the A-10 is “the best close air support aircraft” and confirmed that the Army did not recommend that the Air Force retire the A-10. He said, “our soldiers are very confident in the system.”
The Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, General John Campbell, calls the A-10 a “game changer.”
The A-10 was certainly a game changer last July in Afghanistan when enemy forces ambushed a convoy. Enemy forces had injured three soldiers and the rest were pinned down behind vehicles as they received a large amount of fire from nearby trees and surrounding terrain.
At one point during the two hour fire fight, enemy forces were close enough to engage the soldiers with grenades and helicopters could not be called in to evacuate the injured. When the A-10 arrived on the scene, it flew 75 feet above the enemy position, conducted 15 gun passes within 50 meters of friendly ground forces, and used its famous 30 millimeter nose cannon to fire 2,300 rounds.
The performance of the A-10 that day saved the lives of 60 Americans.
There is no doubt that the Air Force confronts difficult budget decisions. But cutting the Air Force’s most combat-effective and cost-efficient CAS aircraft is an odd way to save money.
The A-10 is the most cost efficient CAS aircraft in the Air Force inventory. According to the Air Force, the operational cost per flying hour for the A-10—which takes into account sustainment costs—is well below the F-15E, F-16, B-1, AC-130, or the B-52.
The Air Force’s response is that it can’t afford to maintain the single mission aircraft.
While the A-10 has other primary missions, it is true that the A-10 and its pilots focus on the CAS mission and this mission may not be as glamorous to some as the air superiority mission. But, as the 60 soldiers from the engagement in Afghanistan last summer undoubtedly would attest, CAS is a particularly important mission.
The Air Force responds that other aircraft (such as the F-15, F-16, or B-1) can cover the CAS mission for the A-10—emphasizing that these aircraft conduct the majority of CAS missions.
There is no doubt that other aircraft have a role to play.
But as most soldiers will tell you, there are different kinds of CAS. Dropping a precision munition from thousands of feet in the air on a stationary target looking at a video display is not the same as conducting strafing runs at 75 feet in bad weather or rough terrain against a moving target that is within a few dozen meters of friendly troops.
The ability to operate low within eyesight of the ground engagement is part of the reason the A-10 has a faster re-attack time compared to other aircraft. It is also part of the reason why the A-10 is especially good at avoiding fratricide and civilian casualties.
If policymakers confuse these two types of CAS missions, we do so at the peril of our ground troops in future conflicts.
It is important to recognize that the proposal to retire the A-10 fleet is, like the plan to dramatically decrease Army end strength, based upon broader assumptions regarding the types of conflicts the nation may face in the future – namely, that we will no longer be engaged in protracted land wars.
While we certainly hope that assumption is accurate, as former Defense Secretary Gates warned, “In the 40 years since Vietnam, we have a perfect record in predicting where we will use military force next: We’ve never once gotten it right. If you think about it, from Grenada to Haiti to Somalia to Panama to Iraq twice to Afghanistan to Libya twice, the Balkans and so on – in not one of those cases did we have any hint six months ahead of the start of hostilities that we were going to have military forces in those places.”
In a world that is more unstable and less predictable, the proposal to eliminate the A-10 before an adequate replacement achieves full operational capability is dangerously short-sighted.
Students of history understand that. Perhaps that is one reason why General Odierno has said “Obviously we prefer the A-10” and that multi-role aircraft are “not quite the same as the A-10 with…ground forces.”
We have a responsibility to ensure our ground troops in the next conflict receive the best possible CAS so they can accomplish their missions and return home to their families.
When we fail to fulfill that responsibility, the cost is measured in the lives of our troops.
That is why we will continue to oppose the Air Force’s proposed premature divestment of the A-10 until an equally effective replacement reaches full operational capability.
With the lives of our brave soldiers on the line, we owe them nothing less.
Senators Ayotte, McCain, and Chambliss serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee.