The USAF's leadership wants the A-10 Warthog retired seemingly at all costs. Now it appears that USAF went far beyond broken logic and used-car salesmanship to make their anti-Warthog case, cooking the books and apparently putting an informal gag order on officers that may otherwise tell the truth about the jet's indispensable performance to Congress.
Retiring the venerable Warthog may have been considered a very shortsighted move in 2013, but in 2015 the same anti-Warthog narrative is totally erroneous, out of touch and defies the realities of battle against ISIS and the bolstering of NATO forces in Europe. Yet this has not deterred the Air Force from trying desperately to justify killing the A-10 program as a whole.
It turns out that the 'boys in blue' may have gone as far as doctoring key data regarding the A-10's performance in combat in order to provide some fleeting backing for sending the jets to the bone yard in an attempt to save less than 1% of the force's entire yearly budget. Project On Government Oversight, or POGO, the well trusted independent research arm that watches for corruption in Washington, has flatly come out saying that the USAF cherry picked and doctored the data in regards to the A-10's friendly fire and collateral damage susceptibility. The watchdog group even went as far as saying directly that Air Force 'cooked the books' when it came to the A-10.
Talking to The Hill, POGO's director of the Straus Military Reform Project, Mandy Smithberger, stated outright:
"The Air Force cherry picked and doctored the data that it released in an attempt to build a false narrative against the A-10... The Air Force is resorting to dirty tricks because it can't make a valid argument against the A-10, proven to be reliable, effective, and a favorite of troops on the ground."
According the POGO, previously classified data on the A-10's mission safety was selectively declassified for USAToday for a piece grimly titled: A-10 Tops List For Friendly Fire Deaths. The reality is that the data, when looked at carefully and objectively, tells a completely different story. You can read POGO's detailed report on how the information was very selectively cherry picked to disparage the A-10 here. It makes clear that the USAF 'cooked the books' in three primary ways to water down the A-10's record:
So how did Air Force headquarters cook the numbers? For one, the numbers were cooked by time frame. The chart comparing civilian casualties starts in 2010, conveniently excluding the 2009 Granai Massacre in which a B-1 killed between 26 and 147 civilians and wounded many more. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission estimated 97 civilians killed, which the Department of Defense has not disputed. Including 2009 would have made the B-1 bomber the worst killer in theater by far.
For the fratricide data, on the other hand, the Air Force incongruously extended the time-frame back to 2001. If they had used the same time-frame, the B-1 bomber's killing of five American troops in 2014 would have made it top the list for fratricide.
Second, the Air Force's data doctoring went so far as to exclude all wounded U.S. troops, all killed or wounded allied troops, and all wounded civilians over the same time period. Including these statistics would have collapsed their case against the A-10. If the Air Force included all friendly killed and wounded, three aircraft would have caused substantially greater total fratricide losses than the A-10. This was also an obvious conclusion from the released data sheets, but not mentioned in the press reports.
Finally and most importantly, to make sure no one could compare aircraft using the crucially important friendly casualty rate per 100 sorties, the Air Force withheld as classified the number of firing sorties each plane flew during the fratricide data period (2001 to 2014)—notably the same data they declassified for their civilian casualty chart from 2010 to 2014.
Using these declassified 2010 to 2014 sortie totals and corresponding civilian casualty totals for each plane, simple long division yields the following table of casualty rates for each plane:
The table makes it clear that the A-10 is the safest airplane in Afghan combat, except for the AC-130. In fact, the A-10 produces nearly five times fewer civilian casualties per firing sortie than the B-1 bomber, even in the artificially truncated 2010 to 2014 time period. But when you consider that the A-10 makes at least two to three times as many firing passes per kinetic sortie as the B-1 bomber, the comparison becomes even more lopsided, with the A-10 causing at least 9 to 13 times fewer civilian casualties per effective firing attack than the B-1 bomber.
As for friendly troop losses, when and if the Air Force is forced to release this still-classified data on sortie totals for the fratricide data period, it is almost certain that the A-10 results will be similarly lopsided.
On a separate note, the basic metric that denotes the A-10's far higher number of missions where it actually engaged enemy forces with weaponry, almost 2,700 over the last four years, compared to other USAF platforms (610 for B-1, 1616 for the numerous F-16) is telling in itself. But when all the relevant data is factored in, without tailored date ranges and key metrics omitted, the USAF's data shows just how disproportionately useful and safe the A-10 is at close air support, not the other way around. This extreme effectiveness is a product of the aircraft's low-altitude operating environment, intensely focused crew training and the jet's scalpel like cannon that can be employed against enemy forces in closer proximity to friendly ones than any other weapon in the USAF's arsenal.
Beyond cherry picked numbers and peculiarly hollow reasoning, one key USAF general was supposedly caught threatening his own troops if they tell what they believe is the truth about the A-10 to Congress, calling doing so 'treason.' Allegedly, he even went as far as telling them that he would deny he made the statement if anyone asks.
The seemingly tyrannical Maj. Gen. James Post, a well decorated and long-time F-16 pilot who is now the vice commander of Air Combat Command, is under investigation for his supposed statements.
Intimidating pilots to not share critical information with Congress about a key weapon system that takes and saves lives on the battlefield is wildly closer to treasonous than the opposite. Additionally, such intimidation is just another symptom of how sickly self righteous some of the USAF's key leadership have become. Leadership at the top of the USAF seems more and more to be all about glamorous fast jets, piling on the tech for tech's sake, ensuring the fighter pilot culture and putting your name on big dollar banner defense program, not about getting the job done.
If the investigation shows that the event in question did in fact happen, and coercion, intimidation and the possibility of reprisal was part of the Air Combat Command's A-10 killing strategy, those involved should be held severally accountable. POGO has issued a formal letter to the Secretary of the Air Force to do just that. The fact of the matter is that not doing so could result in the loss of American lives on the battlefield.
These revelations are extremely troubling. Not only do they further erode any sane person's confidence in the USAF's leadership, but they also prove that there are clearly other motives at play when it comes to the A-10's fate than just metrics and force structure choices. This is nothing new as the USAF has tried to put the close air support jet out to pasture throughout its illustrious career, but the phenomenon seems to have taken a darker turn as the F-35 continues to be mired in cost overruns and controversy.
What is even more confounding is that the same poor arguments are being made in regards to the 2016 budget and retiring the A-10, after it was temporarily saved last year, as they were two years ago. This is despite the fact that the aircraft is now performing close air support and strike mission against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and it is doing so at lower altitudes and with greater ferocity than any of its fragile fighter jet or bomber counterparts that are by and large relegated to bombing only from medium altitudes and above.
Considering the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria could last many years by the DoD's and the Obama Administration's own account, throwing away the weapon system that is perfectly suited for that role to save $1B a year and to supposedly bolster a stealth fighter jet program that is still years from being operational is unfathomably nearsighted and foolish.
Fighting ISIS is not the A-10's only current crisis assignment, just this week it was announced that the Warthog would be deployed back to Europe, a continent it was removed from just a couple of years prior after having a decades long presence there. Twelve of the jets from Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona will be deployed to familiar ground at Spangdahlem AB in Germany, as part of a NATO reinforcement package in response to the events in Ukraine. Called Operation Atlantic Resolve, the military buildup is aimed at deterring and being able to rapidly respond to potential Russian aggression, while also putting pressure on Moscow to end its violent shadow war in Eastern Ukraine amicably.
Under the USAF's new budget plan, the A-10 will be phased out over four years, with the last of hundreds of the upgraded jets flying off to the bone yard in 2019. The Republican Congress is still vehemently against retiring the A-10 without a suitable replacement (which there isn't one) and the incoming Secretary of Defense, Pentagon insider Ashton Carter, could make the difference in putting the A-10 question to bed for the near term. At the very least he seems open to listening to the truth from those on the ground who are experts when it comes to coordinating close air support from a whole slew of platforms (see video below).
The stakes are extremely high when it comes to shutting down permanently what many would argue is the most effective air combat platform of the last 25 years. The troops on the ground and those in the jet's titanium armored cockpit know full well that it works differently and more effectively than any other aircraft in USAF inventory, especially when close air support becomes a 'danger close' affair. Considering how deeply in denial, or even worse, how straight up corrupt many at the top of the DoD's command structure appear to be in regards to this fact, it puts into question all of their other decisions, and quite honestly, their track record when it comes to force structure choices and procurement is abysmal.
The truth is that the A-10's greatest flaw is that it is comparatively slow and ugly, and that it was so cheap to build, upgrade and sustain over the years. No major defense contractor made made windfall profits on it time and time again and we do not need to buy more of them, we simply need to maintain and upgrade the force we have already paid for. In other words, the Warthog is not a jobs program or a cutting edge technology for generals to hang their career on and they won't make any really good friends in the defense industrial complex wanting to pay them a big six figure salary once they hang up your uniform for defending it. It is not a sexy machine, it has no flames coming out of its tail and it is not meant to heroically shoot down other aircraft under high g-forces. What it is is an inexpensive, already owned and brutally effective tool at keeping our guys on the ground alive while making sure the other guy's troops end up dead.
All this leads to the question: at what point does the USAF's bureaucratic total war against this proven national asset become not just foolhardy but subversive? The USAF has a track record lasting decades of thankfully failed attempts at killing the A-10. But this time, with the jet being called to hot spots around the world once again, the USAF's case for its retirement is even harder to make than it was two years ago. And now, with unofficial gag orders and doctored data coming into focus, along with the same old slew of hollow reasons and half-truthful arguments that attempt to validate their decision to retire the A-10, where does the realm of illogical decision making by the USAF end and one of outright sabotage begin? Have we already crossed that line?
Sadly, I think so.
Photos via USAF and author
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com