On June 10, the House Appropriations Committee made clear the way many on Capitol Hill view national defense. By a raised-hands vote of 13 to 23, the Committee rejected an amendment from Congressman Jack Kingston—a Georgia Republican—to redirect $339 million from operation and maintenance funds, deemed excess, to retain 234 A-10 close air support aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory.
Even though the committee found $1.6 billion to increase the Obama Administration’s budget to buy hardware, it could not find a penny to retain one of the most extraordinarily effective weapons in the U.S. arsenal—and one of the cheapest to operate.
Retiring the A-10 will put the lives of American troops at more risk wherever we fight in the next decade. But at least 23 members of the House Appropriations Committee have a different priority.
And, most of them do not want you to know who they are. Except for Congressmen Rodney Frelinghuysen—a New Jersey Republican—and Indiana Democrat Peter Visclosky, no one spoke in opposition to the Kingston amendment. The conscious expedient of “voting” by simply raising hands meant that who voted how was not recorded.
Perhaps worse, 15 members of the committee—four more than needed for Kingston to prevail—did not bother to vote. Nor can we know who they are.
That the A-10’s support of our soldiers and Marines in combat has been extraordinarily effective is beyond debate. No one claims it is ineffective or too expensive to operate. No one disagrees with Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, who testified to Congress the A-10 is the best we have for this vital mission.
The opponents say the A-10 has to go to save money. But the committee found plenty of money to add for big hardware items and the corporations that make them. The aircraft carrier George Washington got $789 million more than the Navy formally sought for its nuclear refueling and overhaul.
EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft—of which the Navy formally requested zero—got $975 million. Patriot missiles got an extra $200 million, unsought by the Army in its budget request.
And perhaps most offensive of all, the committee added $479 million for four unrequested F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, in order to rush them even faster into unjustified production. This is an aircraft that even many supporters concede has doubled in price and has under-flown its all-too-modest performance requirements.
The long list of these and other additions, both large and small, demonstrates a shortage of money was not a difficult problem to solve in this bill.
The committee’s vote also revealed indifference to what strengthens or weakens us in war. On the very morning of the Appropriations Committee meeting, The Washington Post and Fox News were describing a horrific event in Afghanistan. Five American soldiers had been killed in a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan.
In the worst such incident in 12 years of war there, a B-1B bomber dropped weapons on our own troops. A horrible mistake, devastating also to the aircrew involved, the event made painfully noticeable the Air Force’s main rationale for dropping the A-10.
Even if the A-10 was designed for and uniquely effective in the close air support mission, Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James argued that other aircraft, such as the B-1B, could perform the mission well enough. Republican senator John McCain from Arizona took considerable offense at their assessment, calling it “remarkable.” Still, some bloviators in the defense trade press ran to the support the Air Force’s claim.
Everyone abhors what happened with the B-1B and our forces in Afghanistan—and certainly the A-10 has been involved in past friendly fire tragedies. But what appeared to particularly outrage McCain about the Air Forces pleading for the B-1B was that the A-10 was specifically designed to be extraordinarily effective against close-in enemies, to be better at distinguishing them from friendlies and to hit them, not our troops, even when the fighting is as close as 20 yards.
Meanwhile un-maneuverable, high-altitude, high-speed planes like the B-1B are incapable of reliably and safely distinguishing friend from foe and making other all-essential distinctions on chaotic, mobile battlefields as the A-10 is specifically designed to do. Nor can the B-1B pilot infrastructure provide the intensive air-ground training, and ground combat orientation, necessary for the split second combat decisions that can prevent fratricide disasters.
The House Appropriations Committee debate on the A-10 did not utter a single word about the B-1B tragedy in Afghanistan, despite the morning headlines. That was very strange. How could that not be directly relevant? Did they not read the morning papers, or just not care?
Less strange were the points made by the two opponents to the Kingston amendment. Their comments, including that other aircraft could do the close air support mission well enough, came straight from the Air Force’s debating points. Indeed, those widely disseminated Air Force myths are many, and their refutation is simple.
The Air Force claims it must get rid of the A-10 to save money. In fact, the A-10 is less expensive to operate than any other combat aircraft in the Air Force inventory. The B-1B is three times more expensive to operate per hour.
The Air Force claims the A-10 can only do one mission, close air support. In fact, in the four wars since 1990, the A-10 has been effective in combat search and rescue, interdiction, air-defense suppression, armed reconnaissance, forward air control and air-to-air against helicopters—a larger spread of combat operations in these wars than several of the so-called multi-role platforms.
The Air Force claims the A-10 only does 20 percent of close air support in Afghanistan. To contrive such a number, the Air Force had to count missions flown by other aircraft that attacked nothing—and it counted up to 15 strikes on separate targets on one A-10 sortie as no different from one-strike missions by other aircraft.
The Air Force claims the A-10 is too old, but the service just spent $2.85 billion to extend airframe life by 15 years and to modernize it with the most advanced close support avionics and countermeasures in the force.
The Air Force claims the A-10 cannot survive over modern battlefields, but the A-10 is built to survive gun- and missile-hits far better than any previous or current aircraft in the Air Force. The Government Accountability Office found it to be at least as survivable, statistically and otherwise, as the F-117 stealth fighter in the first Iraq War. The A-10 suffered fewer casualties than the F-117 in the Kosovo air war in 1999.
In the same mythological spirit, Air Force Times launched an attack on the A-10 the day before the House Appropriations Committee meeting. In a column entitled “The A-10 Needs to Go,” the paper argued that the AC-130 gunship—an aircraft with lesser guns of reduced effectiveness against armor and dug-in troops, with almost no protection against even light machine guns and with aircrew far less trained in close support—should be the future of close air support for the U.S., not the A-10.
Touting a converted C-130 logistics aircraft to replace the A-10 is so far removed from combat reality as to render debate useless.
There is, however, reason to pursue the debate with the House Appropriations Committee. The committee’s indifference to the lives of troops, obliviousness to effective combat power, disregard for achieving effectiveness at affordable costs and demonstrated preference for big ticket programs that pump up budget levels—all the while claiming that the A-10 must go because it won’t fit in the budget—reveal what is wrong with the way life-and-death defense issues are addressed on Capitol Hill.
Fortunately, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committee have voted to retain the A-10. The broken thinking of the House Appropriations Committee is not universal. Unfortunately, the Armed Services Committee bills do not control the money. The appropriators do.
The decision of the House Appropriations Committee should not stand. Through opaque voting procedures, members have hidden their accountability for undoing our defenses and increasing the risks our troops will face on the battlefield. Congress can still reverse the damage they’ve done. If not, the voters should fix the problem in November.