Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain does not think much of the raw data the Air Force recently released on the A-10 attack jet, which the service is trying to shelve and which he wants to keep.
Air Force tallies show the so-called “Warthog” has killed more “friendly” troops and Afghan civilians since 2010 than any other U.S. aircraft, USA Today reported.
Mr. McCain, who argues there is yet no replacement for a legendary plane that specializes in protecting ground troops, has questions.
“The incomplete and out of context data in the USA Today report erroneously imply the A-10 is more dangerous to friendly troops and civilians,” Dustin Walker, the senator’s committee’s spokesman, told The Washington Times. “The loss of innocent life is a tragedy, but what these data truly demonstrate is the comparably minuscule record of friendly fire incidents and civilians casualties for all Air Force combat aircraft, including the A-10.”
Other congressional aides say the figures lack background, such as the number of close-air support missions flown by the Warthog compared with other jets. Also, the Air Force tallies do not tell how many missions involved crowded fire fights, as the low-flying A-10 is frequently called on to perform, during which a ground controller was needed to verify targets.
Lt. Col. Christopher Karns, Air Force chief of media operations, agrees that more information is needed in comparing aircraft.
“Raw numbers do not provide a complete story or the necessary context,” he told The Times. “To provide greater context, it requires a look at incident rates, why an incident occurred, and even then, circumstances surrounding each event and other factors should be considered. With numbers, no matter how you state them, someone can take another angle and create an argument.”
Col. Karns said the service released civilian death tallies beginning in 2010, instead of from the war on terrorism’s start in 2001, because it marked the beginning of Defense Department guidance on how to track such casualties.
Among four Air Force strike planes, in missions where bombs were dropped, the F-15E Strike Eagle had the best incident-free rate of civilian casualties. The A-10 Thunderbolt ranked second.
Col. Karns said that, of 140,000 war missions by all services, there have been 45 incidents in which friendly troops were fired on by U.S. aircraft.
“Each platform is capable and in the hands of talented airmen are performing extraordinarily well,” he said.
The argument against ‘folly’
Ten U.S. service members have died in A-10 airstrikes since 2001.
A B-1B strike killed five Army soldiers last year in Afghanistan. An investigation showed the crew did not realize the bomber’s sensor pod could not detect infrared strobes worn by the soldiers. When they saw no strobes, they concluded the group of soldiers was the enemy and dropped two bombs on them.
In May 2009, a B-1B raid in Afghanistan killed 26 civilians, according to a U.S. Central Command investigation. Afghans said the death toll was much higher, at more than 100. This incident was not calculated in raw Air Force numbers because its casualty figures were for 2010 to the present.
Urged on by a ground commander, the B-1B struck two buildings thought to hold Taliban in a long, intense fire fight.
Last week, Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, kept up his attack on the Air Force plans to shelve the A-10, calling them a “folly.”
He joined Rep. Martha McSally, Arizona Republican, in a press release lauding the Pentagon’s decision to dispatch 12 A-10s from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, to Europe.
Recently elected to the House, Ms. McSally is a new A-10 ally who knows the plane’s capabilities up close: The retired Air Force colonel chalked up hundreds of flying hours in the A-10. She holds the distinction of being the first American woman pilot to fly a fighter in combat and the Air Force’s first woman squadron commander.
The McCain-McSally statement said, in part:
“In a time of great tension in Europe, the fact that the Air Force is deploying this contingent of A-10 Thunderbolts and the airmen who support them reflects once again the A-10’s continued role as the finest close air-support platform in the U.S. inventory. It is also a vivid reminder of the great folly of this Administration’s attempts to retire the A-10 fleet without fielding a suitable replacement — efforts we will do everything in our power to oppose.”
Still doing its job
Mr. McCain has scoffed at the Air Force’s position that the high-flying B-1B Lancer is a suitable replacement for the A-10.
The fight to save the A-10 has a number of historical precedents, most of which the Pentagon has won. The Crusader artillery piece and F-22 Raptor are two examples of systems the Pentagon wanted stopped and some in Congress unsuccessfully tried to save.
But the A-10’s survival so far has bucked those precedents. A bipartisan group of lawmakers have inserted language in the last two defense budgets that prevent retiring any more A-10s.
And now that Mr. McCain, one of the plane’s fiercest backers, has risen to Armed Services chairman, the plane’s odds for remaining in service for a while have increased.
In one sense, the Obama administration has made a case for keeping the fighter jet by sending it to the Persian Gulf, where it has conducted more than 500 strikes against the Islamic State’s terrorist army, and to Europe in a standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Air Force argues that, in a tight budget regime, it can save $4.2 billion by deactivating all 300 or so of its A-10s, creating more money for the emerging F-35 Lightning stealth fighter.
“While the Air Force plans to use the A-10 while it remains in the Air Force inventory, divesting the A-10 fleet will give the Air Force the additional resources necessary to further support combatant command priorities while still providing close air support using multi-role aircraft,” Col. Karns said.