It’s springtime in the beltway, which means it is time for the FY2017 DoD budget debates. The services are lining up to defend their pet platforms and none more avidly so than the Air Force. Not surprisingly, the FY17 budget proposal requests funds for the F-35 and the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) and also details Air Force plans to transition out the A-10 over the next two years. It has been the party line of the Air Force that in order to keep the budget under the requirements of the sequester, and to build a future Air Force capable of defeating a near-peer, the A-10 has to go. But just as consistent in this fight is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services, Sen. John McCain. His dogged support of the A-10 has frustrated the Air Force’s efforts to retire the close air support (CAS) platform.
This antipathy between the Air Force, led by Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, and Sen. McCain recently came to a head on March 3 at a Senate Armed Service Committee Hearing. In the hearing, Gen. Welsh reiterated that, with its hands tied by sequestration, the Air Force had no choice but to retire the A-10 in the near future. Sen. McCain, not to be deterred, accused Gen. Welsh of being “disingenuous” in retiring a platform with no foreseeable replacement. McCain asserted that “the A-10s are flying the most effective sorties in Iraq and Syria,” a statement he supported by citing conversations with those “who are doing the combat.” It was at this point that Welsh replied, “we all talk to them Chairman,” implying the view from the ground was not as decidedly in the A-10 camp as McCain would suggest. So what is the ground truth about platform preferences on the battlefield? Is the A-10 really the most beloved CAS platform or, as Welsh implied, are the F-16s and F-15s also valued as great CAS platforms by troops on the ground?
In 2014, we embarked on a study of air strike controller preferences for manned vs. unmanned aircraft (the results of which are forthcoming). We conducted approximately 500 surveys and interviews of Navy, Marine, Army, and Air Force joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) and joint fires observers (JFOs). JTACs are an elite group of individuals, trained and authorized to call in air strikes for the ground force commander. They are embedded on the front lines of combat and are experts both in ground maneuver and air capabilities, making them an ideal group of people to weigh in on the A-10 debate. In our research we traveled across the country — from Camp Pendleton to Nellis Air Force Base, Fort Stewart to Fort Bragg — talking to these special controllers. We contacted veterans groups and JTAC social media sites, talked with air-to-ground wing commanders, and surveyed members of the U.S. special operations community. While the study was originally intended and designed to understand preferences for manned vs. unmanned aircraft, we were surprised at how vociferous the desire was across all demographics to talk about the future of CAS.
The survey asked these CAS experts to choose between manned and unmanned aircraft in a series of experimental scenarios: risk to aircrew, risk to ground personnel, risk to mission, and risk to civilians. We included within the survey a space for respondents to write in any additional explanation they felt was required. In the survey we never specifically asked what platform the controllers preferred, nor did we provide a multiple-choice option for platforms. However, when we saw the results of the surveys, we were surprised to see that many controllers had written in specific platforms under the explanation column. Additionally, when we conducted interviews with a series of air-to-ground units, JTACs were eager to voice their preferences concerning current and future CAS platforms. This left us with a trove of data that may help replace the anecdotal evidence presented in the Welsh–McCain showdown.
First, we aggregated the write-in responses from all the surveys in order to see what platform the JTACs and JFOs were most likely to call out as preferred aircraft in a series of scenarios. Because we did not elicit these responses in the survey, and therefore did not provide a list of platforms from which the controllers would pick their favorite, all of these write-ins represent a strong preference for that particular aircraft. We found that, of the 100+ write-ins, 48 percent were for the A-10. The next closest platform, comprising 13 percent of responses, was another primary-CAS aircraft — the AC-130. This data suggests that, of the potential aircraft JTACs and JFOs could have identified as their favorites to support ground troops, their most preferred were primary-CAS aircraft.
That’s not to say that multi-mission aircraft were not also appreciated by the controllers (a finding that was supported in interviews). The inclusion of the F-16, F-15, and F-18 in some of the write-in responses demonstrates the trust that many of the JTACs and JFOs placed in these aircraft. However, in general, support for multi-mission aircraft was more limited than support for the A-10 or even the AC-130. The F-16 and F-15, which Gen. Welsh lauded in his recent testimony, received nine and one percent, respectively, of the write-in responses. So, while Gen. Welsh may have been right that those on the ground also support F-15s and F-16s, the controllers we talked to would generally prefer the A-10 over the F-15 and F-16. And, while Gen. Welsh didn’t speak specifically to the role of bombers in ground support, notably missing from this list of write-in preferences were some of the bombers increasingly being used as CAS replacements, to include the B-1, B-2, and B-52.
We disaggregated the data further to help us understand in what situations the controllers preferred different platforms. We separated the responses by experimental scenario: danger close scenarios, scenarios with enemy surface-to-air missiles, scenarios with high mission complexity and risk, and finally scenarios with high potential for civilian collateral damage. Once again we noted a large preference for the A-10, especially in danger close situations that inherently involve high risk to ground personnel. The bottom line is that when ground troops were told that their lives were in danger, they strongly preferred the A-10 — so much so that they felt it was necessary to write it into the survey.
What do these air strike controllers really want in a CAS platform? Is it A-10 or bust? Some of the sentiment about CAS platforms is about munitions and capabilities — time and time again the JTACs voiced their admiration for the A-10 gun over the smaller-caliber guns on the F-15, F-16, and ultimately the F-35. Additionally, JTACs were concerned that fast flyers like the F-15, 16, and 35 were not able to be as responsive or loiter for as long a time as the low, slow A-10.
But the vast majority of the conversations were not about the characteristics of the weapons. What the JTACs wanted was a “warm fuzzy.” They wanted to interact with a pilot that had skin in the game because they were flying close enough to the ground to put them in danger. They wanted someone whose primary purpose was to conduct CAS — not to shoot down stray enemy aircraft or act as a data-targeting “cloud” in the sky. As our surveys show, even though the A-10 was the preferred platform, many on the ground also support multi-mission platforms like the F-16 and the F-18. The real concern was not necessarily the aircraft, but the increasingly diverse set of missions these pilots were being called to conduct. Gen. Welsh warned in his congressional testimony that the Air Force was being ordered to conduct a diverse array of missions against many different types of adversaries, a phenomenon that was spreading overall Air Force capability thin. His proposed solution is to retire the single-mission A-10 in favor of multi-mission aircraft. But our findings indicate that this is not just a problem with replacing the A-10 with a platform ill-suited for CAS, it is also a problem of pilots that are perceived by some on the ground as not being sufficiently primed to conduct ground support missions.
The perception by JTACs is that outside the A-10, CAS is not consistently trained to or favored by multi-mission fighter aircraft. As one JTAC explained to us, I want the “A-10 guy that has the brains to support troops/trained just for CAS. The guy in the seat is more important than the platform.” Another JTAC complained that, “pilots don’t have enough time on the gun.” These JTACs wanted more pilots that were forward air controller–airborne qualified — a distinction that is increasingly difficult to achieve when squadrons are required to also maintain combat readiness on counter-air, suppression of enemy air defenses, strategic attack, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.
In the end, our results show that neither McCain nor Welsh has it completely right. The JTACs and JFOs that we spoke to and surveyed preferred the A-10 over the other platforms, but they caveated that they would also support F-15s, 16s or 18s with experienced CAS pilots. The bigger concern about the future of CAS is perhaps not whether the F-35 is as capable a platform as the A-10 (see, for example efforts to replace the A-10 with low-end CAS alternatives). Instead, it is whether the Air Force’s move towards multi-mission platforms in general is a deliberate shift away from supporting ground troops with an exclusive platform, meaning CAS as we know it could retire with the A-10.
Jacquelyn Schneider is a PhD candidate-in-residence at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University. Her work on national security, technology, and political psychology has appeared in Journal of Conflict Resolution, Strategic Studies Quarterly, International Relations and Security Network, and War on the Rocks, and was recently featured on Global Dispatches Podcast.
Julia Macdonald is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a PhD candidate at the George Washington University. Her work on coercive diplomacy, foreign policy decision-making, and U.S. military strategy and effectiveness has been published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Foreign Policy Analysis, Armed Forces and Society, and online at Foreign Affairs.
Photo credit: Senior Airman Natasha Standard, U.S. Air Force