On Monday, the Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette reported that 300 airmen of the 122nd Fighter Wing, a National Guard unit based in Ft. Wayne, IN., would be deploying to the Middle East. Although the deployment has been in the works for a while, it only takes a short jump of logic to think these airmen will end up taking part in the ongoing operation to “decay and degrade” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS, sometimes referred to as ISIL).
Which is why eyebrows raised up around DC when the Gazette noted the airmen are bringing along some hardware in the shape of a dozen A-10 “Warthog” aircraft.
A quick recap: The Air Force wants to retire the A-10 as a cost-saving measure. It has run up against a brick wall in Congress, which has expressed reservations — strongly — that the A-10 is needed to run close-air support operations for troops on the ground.
Air Force officials, in turn, cite military analysis which shows that 80 percent of close-air support missions are being done by other systems like the B-1, F-15 or F-16. Those who support the plane argue those figures are skewed and that fast-jet systems, while able to use advanced strike weapons, lack the ability to get in close and protect troops when the enemy is advancing, a point given extra emphasis following a B-1 friendly-fire mishap in June. And round and round it goes, with neither side showing any sign of giving ground.
Whether this A-10 deployment will take part in combat operations in Iraq at this point is unclear, although using the A-10 to provide air cover for local ground troops would probably make sense strategically.
Intercepts covered the potential A-10 role in Iraq back in July. At the time, we wrote:
Many say the Warthog’s finest moment came during the first Gulf War when the plane efficiently ripped Saddam Hussein’s fleet of tanks to shreds. With groups of pickup trucks tearing across the desert and photos showing armored vehicles captured from fleeing Iraqi army forces, supporters of the plane are saying the situation is ideal for the A-10.
“You want to keep in mind [that] this is not exactly a purely military confrontation,” said Pierre Sprey, considered the father of the A-10. “If you want to stop an outfit like these ISIL guys with pickup trucks and machine guns, there’s no other airplane anywhere that’s really useful.”
Sprey raises concerns about potential civilian casualties if high-level fast jets come by and cannot distinguish between ISIL forces and innocent locals. In contrast, he argues, the A-10 can go low and slow to scope things out before engaging.
“You can’t tell the farmers’ pickup trucks form the ones with machine guns,” Sprey said. “There aren’t that many targets. You’re not dealing with huge forces, so you really need an airplane that can get down there and tell a watermelon truck from the machine gun truck.”
So would a grand showing by the A-10 in Iraq, perhaps protecting Iraqi ground troops or mowing through lines of IS ground vehicles with its 30mm cannon, lead to widespread support for the jet and force the service to withdraw its plans?
It doesn’t seem likely.
It’s easy to assume a successful operation conducted by the A-10 would turn heads on the Hill and raise support for the plane. In theory, it could give supporters of the plane the proof they need to push back at the Air Force’s attempts to retire the system.
But in reality, those minds are already made up. The Representatives and Senators who will be voting shortly to protect the jet from retirement — and all signs are that the A-10 will be saved for at least FY 2015, if not beyond — have already decided the Warthog is needed. And even if the A-10 becomes a star during the anti-IS operations, Air Force leadership is unlikely to move away from their stance that retiring the fleet is a tough but necessary choice.
Interviewed by Defense News in August, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh laid out the case for continuing to push to retire the A-10 and other systems, arguing that the military analysis is what it is, and it is his job to provide the best military advice to the Hill:
“If something is the right answer one year, it is probably the right answer the next year,” Welsh said. “If you try to change the right answer each year, all you do is run into a different group of resistance.
“The military view of this is pretty straightforward. The operational analysis is pretty clear and we have shared it with everybody, [and] we will continue to share it with everybody,” he added. “There is no question what the right military answer is. And, if we are not going to be allowed to do the right military answer, then tell us what the right answer is and we will move forward.”
The A-10 having a good showing won’t change that position. Maybe a few members of Congress will pay more attention, but on the whole, the minds that matter have already locked in their positions. Which means, right or wrong, the Air Force will continue to push to retire the jet, and those who want to protect the plane from cuts will continue to push back.
And round and round it goes.
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