A-10 vs. fighters and bombers

U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Raymond Geoffroy

An A-10 Thunderbolt II takes off at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Sept. 25, 2012. The A-10’s capabilities allow it to conduct operations in locations in and out of front line combat.

Article Highlights

  • The jig is up for Congress' cut-off-the-nose-to-spite-the-face answers

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  • By not letting the Air Force retire the A-10, Congress is going to force the retirement of F-16 fighters and B-1 bombers

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  • America's declining military superiority is no longer an imminent threat, but a "here now" problem

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It's a time-honored tradition inside the Beltway to "kick the can" on really hard decisions while making sure immediate "solutions" to defer pain only cost more and create bigger problems later. Congress is set to do it again.

But the jig is up for these cut-off-the-nose-to-spite-the-face answers. Thanks to the defense drawdown underway, the military can no longer avoid political pain for the politicians in charge.

One high profile example of this is the Pentagon proposal to retire the fleet of A-10 Warthog aircraft. Members of Congress are set to pat themselves on the proverbial back for rejecting the president's proposal once the defense bills are finalized. But the cost of saving the A-10 fleet will be much larger numbers of fighters and bombers that will be on the chopping block instead. If the outcry was loud from the A-10 proposal, just wait until next year's budget lands with a thud on Capitol Hill.

The Air Force is offering the A-10 retirement reluctantly and in response to the president and Congress's implementation of modified Budget Control Act spending caps. Capitol Hill has codirected topline cuts to the defense budget but does not want to actually approve individual consequences as a result of these choices. (To be fair, neither does the White House on many proposals from the services, ranging from an aircraft carrier and its air wing to the number of active-duty Marines to the new bomber.)

By not letting the Air Force retire the A-10 aircraft, however, Congress is going to instead force the retirement of bigger fleets of F-16 fighter and B-1 bomber aircraft.

Considering program or line-item decisions in isolation worked when budgets were flush, but can no longer be an acceptable way of doing business. Few agree the A-10 should go so soon. But the solution to keeping it is to reverse sequestration; not pit aircraft against aircraft.

It is more harmful to save one program by forcing bigger cuts elsewhere to other more urgently needed capabilities that are closely tied to current war plans. This only compounds the challenge commanders say they are confronting under tight budgets and looming sequestration in 2016: If needed, it may take the joint team longer to get to and win the next fight.

Congress is trying to push the proverbial deck chairs closer together, but the bottom line remains that the pie is shrinking and items are getting pushed overboard. The question is whether Capitol Hill will continue to instinctively reject any disruption to the status quo of legacy fleet sizes.

While there is no direct link between funding trade-offs of old at the expense of new, the trends are clear. The consequences of maintaining increasingly aging equipment is literally squeezing what can be bought for tomorrow's combat forces.

Preference for today's increasingly at-risk fleets of combat equipment and avoiding pain is why Washington loves kick-the-can "solutions" over real action now. Even if those same solutions guarantee the simmering problems will only get bigger and more expensive to fix later.

This inertia means the U.S. military is at risk of losing its generational edge over potential adversaries and our ability to deter others will diminish, too.

The real problem with this outcome is that the future is here. America's declining military superiority is no longer an imminent threat, but a "here now" problem in the words of one Pentagon official.

The A-10 will ultimately be approved for retirement absent any significant changes to budget caps. Not this year, but in the coming two years at some point. It is not a question of "if," but "when," because the alternatives immediately go from bad to worse. Also, there are many members without an obvious or parochial interest in this debate who have started to weigh in, supporting the Air Force.

Regardless, this fight is really about lack of money and ability to meet the war plans. The Joint Chiefs signed up to the defense strategic guidance, but the president owns it. He has issued clear guidance that the U.S. will not be engaged in major counterinsurgency or nation-building or long-term stabilization operations, period. So long as this remains the official doctrine from on high, then expect the Air Force to stand by the plan to retire the A-10. Eventually Congress will, too.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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