A week ago, my wife Deb and I were driving down Highway 85 in Arizona, toward the southern town of Ajo (which we'll soon be writing about) through the military's very active Barry Goldwater Range. Right above our car, A-10 "Warthogs" swooped back and forth over the highway in training drills. I mentioned last month that to fly a non-military plane along this route, as I had once contemplated, you have to fly right over the highway, stay within 500 feet of the road's surface level, and maintain radio contact with a military controller called Snake Eye. I didn't try it last month and am glad I didn't now, because on their mock strafing runs the Warthogs came impressively/alarmingly low. The picture above, from the Air Force, is a clearer version of what we saw as we drove.
But of course I'm glad to see the A-10s in action and their pilots maintaining proficiency, for reasons I laid out in my article "The Tragedy of the American Military." Let's consider the evolving fates of the A-10 and its ill-starred sibling, the F-35, for what they show about the modern military.
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In my article I argued that the importance of the A-10/F-35 story had relatively little to do with the comparative virtues of either airplane—one relatively cheap but battle-proven and very effective, the other increasingly expensive and also fragile and increasingly difficult to keep out of the repair shop. Rather the real significance was what their stories showed about the cultural and even moral characteristics of the way we think and act on national defense.
Moral? Yes, moral. In public we generally talk about defense as if it were mainly a matter of bombs, machines, and the dollars that buy them. Of course those matter. But from Napoleon ("in warfare the moral is to the physical as three is to one") to Air Force strategist John Boyd (what counts in combat is "people, ideas, and hardware — in that order!"), students of conflict have emphasized the crucial role of character and integrity.
Character and integrity are involved in this battle-of-the-warplanes in the following way (as sketched out in my story): The A-10, which is flown by the Air Force, has always had a strange stepchild status there. It is truly beloved by the Army, whose ground troops the A-10 has saved or protected in so many engagements. To the Air Force, in contrast, this mission of "close air support" has never been a budgetary or cultural priority—as opposed to bombing, aerial combat, "air superiority" in general, and even transport.
In a rationally organized defense system, the A-10 would belong to the Army, which needs and loves it. The Army could include it in its budgets, keep as many flying as possible, make it the center of its close-air-support arsenal. But for bureaucratic reasons known in shorthand as the "Key West agreement," the Army directly controls armed helicopters but not many fixed-wing aircraft. Thus through the decades we've seen a long push-pull struggle between the Air Force, chronically eager to dump the A-10 and make way for other models, including now the troubled F-35, and the Army, which wants the A-10 but has no direct way to keep it in the budget.
Several weeks ago I mentioned the truly alarming news that a three-star Air Force general had warned his officers against speaking up about the A-10's (very strong) combat record. As the Arizona Daily Independent reported, Air Force Maj. Gen. James Post told officers that if word of his views ever got out he would deny it, but he wanted them to know that passing information to Congress about the A-10's effectiveness constituted "treason." When that news leaked, the Air Force didn't even deny Post's comments; a spokesperson just called them "hyperbole."
Since then, news continues to emerge of the institutional military—some people in uniform, others in the contractor diaspora—trying to make the A-10 look worse than it really is, and the F-35 look better. For what these episodes show about military-industrial-political culture, here is a reading list:
"Lying to Win: Air Force Misrepresents Combat Records In Campaign to Retire A-10." This is a report last month from a retired Air Force officer named Tony Carr at his John Q. Public blog.
"The Little 'Fighter' That Couldn’t: Moral Hazard and the F-35," a John Q. Public update by Carr yesterday on the mounting bad news about the F-35 and military efforts to contain it.
"Now the U.S. Air Force Wants You to Believe the A-10 Is Too Old to Fight," by Joseph Trevithick this week for the War Is Boring site on Medium. From the headlines alone you may be getting the drift of these news reports.
"The F-35 Is Still FUBAR," by A.J. Vicens yesterday in Mother Jones.
"Operation Destroy CAS Update," by the Arizona Daily Independent, which has been all over the A-10 story. CAS is, again, close air support, the mission at which the A-10 has been unexcelled, and the story details Air Force efforts to blunt the fact of the A-10's success.
"U.S. Rep. McSally Urges Halt to 'Disproportionate' A-10 Cuts." Martha McSally, a first-term Republican Representative from Arizona who is herself a former A-10 pilot (and was the first woman in U.S. history to fly combat missions), writes to the new Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, to complain about the anti-Warthog effort.
The Monthly Newsletter, by Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group. My friend Richard Aboulafia is an always-quoted expert on aircraft issues both civilian and military. He devotes his latest newsletter to putting the A-10 debate in strategic perspective.
As I say, it's a debate that matters in the short- and medium- term for the aircraft the military uses, and in the long term for the way the country thinks about its defense. More links after the jump