A large association of battlefield target spotters has written to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to oppose the planned retirement of A-10 Warthog strike jets — a debate that now encompasses the “friendly fire” deaths of five American soldiers in Afghanistan.
The A-10 endorsement from the Tactical Air Control Party Association is significant because, outside of the Warthog’s pilots themselves, perhaps no other warriors know its ability to protect ground troops under fire better than the ground controllers who guide it to enemy targets.
Some lawmakers are fighting the Air Force’s plan to scrap nearly 300 A-10s to save a projected $4.2 billion for other projects. The plane’s immediate future is in the hands of House-Senate negotiators working on a fiscal 2015 defense budget. The Senate has approved language to prevent the A-10’s retirement for another year.
The five fatalities occurred on June 9, when a B-1B strategic bomber — a planned replacement for the A-10 — dropped a 500-pound bomb squarely onto U.S. soldiers protecting a helicopter landing zone.
An investigation showed the flight crew lacked basic knowledge about the bomber’s sensors, which did not have the capability to detect friendly infrared strobes worn by soldiers that night. Not knowing the sensors’ limitations and not seeing any strobes, the crew unleashed the deadly bomb.
Because the B-1B is billed by Air Force top brass as one of the replacements for the war-tested and infantry-loved Warthog, those trying to save it increasingly are citing the tragedy.
Unlike B-1 pilots, A-10 aviators live and breathe their close air support role, they say. Warthog jockeys wear night-vision goggles at a low enough altitude to see an American’s infrared strobe.
“The Air Force is trying to take the most effective close air support weapon from the inventory with no replacement,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
At a November press briefing, Mr. McCain, a Navy combat pilot in Vietnam, then pointed to the June 9 tragedy.
“Look back at the unfortunate but completely preventable fratricide incident in June that killed five U.S. soldiers and one Afghan soldier,” he said. “If that had been an A-10 providing close air support that day, we might have avoided that tragic friendly fire incident.”
Piloting the pro-A-10 coalition is Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican and a McCain colleague on the Armed Services Committee.
“In an effort to justify its dangerous and premature proposed divestment of the A-10, the Air Force has argued that other aircraft like the B-1 are equally capable close air support platforms, but any objective assessment of the events on June 9 definitively demonstrates that this is simply not the case,” she told The Washington Times.
Ms. Ayotte and Mr. McCain spoke in November at an event meant to build momentum for the A-10 legislation.
An ally is the 1,300-member Tactical Air Control Party Association, which sent a letter to Mr. Hagel.
“We believe that F-15s, F-16s, and B-1s cannot replicate the CAS capabilities of the A-10, and we know from combat experience that the elimination of the A-10 before a viable replacement achieves full operational capability will cost American lives,” they said in the letter.
The letter talks of the unique challenges of close air support, which does not consist of simply dropping precision-guided ordnance on a pre-selected target. Close air support involves a pilot circling overhead and a joint terminal attack controller on the ground, who collaborate to find the enemy in a fast-changing, crowded battlefield.
“When under enemy fire and about to be overrun, JTACs look over their shoulders and pray an A-10 is there — knowing that nothing reassures and protects friendly forces and scatters and destroys enemy forces like an A-10,” the letter said.
It was signed by the Tactical Air Control Party Association’s president, former Air Force JTAC Charlie Keebaugh, who came to Washington to defend the A-10 Warthog.
“As a JTAC if you cut me I bleed green,” said another member, retired Air Force Master Sgt. Tim Stamey. “I may be retired Air Force but as JTACs we go from Army post to Army post. We go to every Army combat unit. That A-10 can get down in the dirt. He can strafe those trench lines. People say you can use a B-1 with [satellite-guided bombs]. I tell you what, you tell me how many guys can give you accurate coordinates when they’re just trying to stay alive and there are bullets flying over.”
In the June 9 tragedy on a ridge line in Afghanistan, the Air Force JTAC provided the wrong coordinates to the B-1, in part based on the bomber crew’s detection of no infrared strobe signals at that location. A-10 supporters say a lower-flying Warthog pilot would have seen the strobes through night-vision goggles.
The Air Force is sticking by its guns, portraying the Warthog as a limited aircraft.
“While the A-10 performs well in the mission it was designed for, the A-10 cannot be used in high-end conflicts,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Karns, an Air Force spokesman. “They simply cannot survive in these environments. While the A-10 provides effective close air support, it is not the only aircraft that performs this mission. Other assets can perform the [close air support] mission.”
In a tight budget era and with the next-generation F-35 fighter jet slated to provide close air support at some point, the Air Force touts an inventory of F-16s, AC-130 gunships, the F-15E strike jet and the B-1 as a collection of tools from which air commanders can draw depending on the type of close air support needed.
A-10 supporters say the Air Force was so in love with the Warthog that it planned to install new wings and keep it flying for decades.
Mr. Hagel said at the Reagan National Defense Forum last month that “the ability to make programmatic adjustments like retiring aging aircraft” and other cuts are needed or the Pentagon will face a $30 billion shortfall from 2016 to 2020.
The Air Force retired 61 A-10s in 2013 and now operates 283.