“If you cut the A-10 without plugging the hole it will leave in close air support capability, we will pay for it in blood.”
On March 18, 2014, legendary A-10 pilot, Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert H. “Muck” Brown, 56, of Waynesville, North Carolina, passed away. “Muck” Brown was an A-10 pilot and instructor for years before retiring days prior to 9/11. Upon retirement, he flew around the world for UPS.
One night, after checking into a hotel room in a city along his route, he watched a devastating news report about Operation Anaconda in 2002. His stepson, a rifleman in the 10th Mountain Division, was in that battle. As an A-10 pilot, his commitment to supporting ground troops had always been strong, but there could be nothing stronger than the commitment of one parent to one particular set of boots on the ground.
He was overwrought until he was overwhelmed with relief when he received a phone call from his son. His son reported that his squad suddenly began taking effective fire from higher up on the mountain and was pinned down, describing the tracers going between him and his buddy. He added, “And then some A-10s arrived overhead and saved us!”
The pilots of those A-10s were some of the very A-10 pilots Muck had trained and worked with. From that moment on, after all those years of working on the A-10, he finally understood, first hand and personally, the impact of the A-10 on the battlefield.
Muck, who got his nickname from fellow rookie pilots after falling into the Louisiana muck as a young Second Lieutenant, flew A-10s for almost 20 years. He instructed and commanded A-10s at the Air Force Weapons School, and worked A-10 and close air support issues twice as a member of the staff of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia – the Command that owns Davis-Monthan AFB and is responsible for organizing, training, and equipping A-10s for employment around the world.
In an interview with Tucson radio host James T. Harris, Muck laid out the truth about the Air Force’s plans to mothball the Warthog. To hear that interview click here.
In an article dated September 3, 2013, entitled Congress urged to ask Air Force A-10 questions, Muck, as a tireless advocate for the A-10, shared his thoughts and concerns:
“I am very concerned. I have seen the Air Force go down this path several times before,” said Muck. “The song remains the same: ‘The A-10 is too slow, it can’t survive, it’s not multi-role, we love’em but we can’t afford them and still modernize, it’s great, but we won’t fight that kind of war again.’ The list goes on. The newest version is, ‘It’s been great in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we’ve now got to get ready to fight a war in the Pacific, and the A-10’s just not that well suited.’ Lastly, ‘We’d love to keep’em around, but we just can’t afford to if we’re going to pay our bills and get the F-35 fielded.’”
Muck says that the A-10 “brings a synergistic capability to the battlefield where the whole is way greater than the sum of its parts. Until we field a replacement capability, here’s what we lose if the A-10 is retired 15 years prematurely. An aircraft that can carry a very heavy, varied weapons load, from state-of-the-art precision guided weapons to old-school weapons such as the awesome 30MM gun and rockets that are cheap, and more importantly, that are ‘point-shoot.’ In other words, the pilot doesn’t have to achieve very specific delivery parameters or possess extremely precise latitude and longitude target coordinates to employ them. Think Indiana Jones pulling the six-shooter on the guy with the big sword.”
Further, these weapons are optimized against small targets and/or moving targets. In close-in ground fighting, targets generally move a lot and like to get very close to our ground personnel. While the A-10 can employ large, GPS-guided bombs against big targets, it also carries weapons such as the gun and rockets, with the flexibility and small enough scale explosives that can be used very close to friendly troops without accidentally killing them instead of the enemy.
The cost of the A-10 is lower on many levels. Bullets are orders of magnitude cheaper than most expensive precision-guided weapons. Where the A-10 carries 1,174 rounds, the smaller F-35 gun will only carry just over 180 — that’s 2 trigger pulls with a smaller, less powerful, less accurate gun, rather than 15-20 trigger pulls with a gun that’s very accurate from very far away.
The A-10 was also intentionally designed to be slow and very maneuverable so it can get down in very tight terrain, operate under very low cloud ceilings and in poor visibility — very important in close air support, where the fighting often ends up being very close with the targets very small (troops, not bridges), and moving or concealed (troops, trucks, tanks). Its slow speed also allows the A-10 to escort rescue and special ops helicopters, and even vehicle convoys on the ground.
With the assumption that this kind of close-in, visual fighting would require the A-10 to get close to its work and thus become a target, the airplane was intentionally designed to be very rugged and battle-hardened with many redundant systems that protect not just the airplane, but also the pilot. That means it can fight and survive during the daytime as well as at night. A lot of close air support “experts” said we’d never need or have to fight like that again in the era of all the new through-the-weather, high-tech weapons. But Afghanistan and Iraq both have proved the experts wrong once again. The close air support that’s been going on in the last 12 years looks a lot more like something from wars past than the high tech, long distance wars many thought new precision weapons advances would bring.
One aspect of the A-10 that is generally ignored is one of its original purposes. The A-10 was intentionally designed back in the day to be able to operate from forward, unimproved airfields such as roads, dry lakebeds, or old airfields — like Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan, and some still classified operating locations from the war in Iraq. For months and months after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the A-10 was the only fighter/attack type aircraft that could even use the crumbling, sub-standard runways at these old Soviet-era airfields. Other jets need longer, cleaner runways. Their engines act like vacuum cleaners, where ingesting even the smallest pebbles could critically damage the engine.
When all these original A-10 design characteristics are combined with A-10 upgrades, including state-of-the-art targeting sensors, situational awareness-improving data links, greatly enhanced precision weapons capabilities that also make the gun and rockets far more accurate, as well as robust night capability, they provide a capability unmatched by any aircraft in the Department of Defense.
It’s a very little known fact that all these capabilities combined have also made the A-10 exceptionally well-suited to work with special operations forces. A-10s have served as crucial protectors and “force multipliers for these forces, and have participated in some very important missions that still remain classified — missions which, had they failed, would have meant strategic failure — not just failure at the local, tactical level.
“The last A-10 capability is the most critical – and subtle to the tone-deaf — of all: The A-10 community represents generations of uninterrupted close air support expertise that has been handed down since the Vietnam War. What do I mean?” asks Muck. “In much of the Air Force, close air support is just a job — units have multiple other missions to train to. In the A-10 community, close air support resides in no less than the genetic code. It is literally the ‘keeper of the flame’ for decades of tactics, techniques, and procedures for supporting troops on the ground, and the countless associated lessons learned in blood. If the A-10 fleet is retired this early — especially before the F-35 is fielded in great numbers to receive all that corporate knowledge — that flame will go out. Even after the F-35 comes on board in large numbers, because of the vast, disparate variety of missions to which those pilots will have to train, a lot of this corporate close air support knowledge will just wither and die.”
Muck recounted a very famous mission that graphically summarizes what the A-10 brings to the fight. It occurred in Afghanistan in 2009 and is just one of many that showcase the A-10’s unique capabilities. A Special Forces (Green Beret) team was pursuing a very dangerous, brutal Taliban enemy leader and conducted an attack on his compound. The team came under withering fire, and the Special Tactics Squadron Combat Controller (a highly trained Air Force Special Operator trained to call in airstrikes) with the Green Berets was severely wounded. Thinking he was mortally wounded, the Controller brought two A-10s overhead, who proceeded to do the impossible — the A-10 pilots strafed a mere 65 feet from the friendly position and ultimately broke the enemy attack, provided cover so the friendly troops could leave the kill zone and be evacuated back to base — with no losses. No other fighter/attack aircraft can strafe that close, that accurately, in broad daylight. The combined effects of the A-10 – its weapons, rugged design, maneuverability, survivability, and the intense habitual training relationship of its pilots – made this incredible story possible (See Air Force Magazine, Oct 2011 for the whole story.)
Sgt Robert Gutierrez, the Combat Controller, earned the Air Force Cross for this mission. The A-10 Flight lead was Capt Ethan Sabin.
It’s this simple: “We will pay in blood if the A-10 goes away without a suitable replacement,” says Muck.
For decades, the entire Defense Department has sought the “holy grail” of airpower–to develop a multi-role, multi-task airplane that could do it all. Muck says, “We’ve seen this movie before: remember McNamara and his “TFX”, which later became the F-111, and was supposed to do everything for the Navy and Air Force except read bedtime stories? The idea is that if we can just come up with a single airplane that meets everybody’s needs, we’ll save a lot of money, right? The problem is, just like you can’t have an opera singer who can also sing Billie Holiday, or a bassoon player who can play the snare drum, anytime well-intended folks try to come up with a ‘one size fits all,’ you get the proverbial ‘jack of all trades, master of none.'”
Because hope springs eternal, despite the fact that taxpayer dollars dry up, the Air Force, Navy, and Marines have committed all of their resources to the F-35 in an effort to do just that – field the Perfect Aircraft. Even as its significant cost has spun ever higher, and the delivery schedule has slipped way to the right due to some significant performance problems, the services have “doubled down” on their commitment to the F-35. They’re now in a very precarious place; painted into corner.
If the F-35 doesn’t work, we’re in big, big trouble.
That reality makes it easier to understand how the Air Force (and the Navy and Marines) got where they are. Combined with the current budget freefall and government dysfunction, it’s not difficult to see how senior military and defense leaders can find themselves leaving their common sense at the door and rationalizing away requirements out of pure frustration and expediency. It amounts to nothing less than the perfect storm — severe funding shortfalls combined with a new technology, which promises pots of capability at the end of the rainbow.
Lt. Col. Brown compares the current situation with the A-10 to the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “If you got to imagine what the world would look like if the A-10 had not participated in our recent battles, just as George got to imagine how the world would look if he hadn’t been born, the true impact of the A-10 would prove profound. The A-10 has saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of friendly troops, not to mention civilians. Missions would have failed without the A-10, and others would have only succeeded through increased shedding of American blood. It’s that simple.”
Air Force insiders say that the A-10’s demise is fairly imminent. However, the Air Force continues to be “less than forthright about its specific intentions” according to Muck and others. Recently, one officer was told that he would be the last commander for an A-10 squadron.
“Severe money issues force people to see what they want to see,” sighs Muck. “There is a concern that despite the fact that the A-10 has been so dramatically successful, senior military leaders’ recent statements and actions reflect a strong preoccupation with saving the newest new weapons systems. They can worry about saving a weapons system, but this is ultimately about saving 19-year-olds and preventing mission failure.”
The F-35 has never been adequately vetted with respect to its hypothetical close air support capabilities. Muck and others believe it would be no less than reckless to retire a single additional A-10 until the F-35 is fully vetted to determine, via objective testing, study, and cost comparison whether premature A-10 retirement will render a critical gap in U.S. close air support capability.
“They all need to be called into the principal’s office to defend, in great detail, the F-35’s theoretical close air support capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. If they claim there will be no close air support capabilities gap, the burden should be on senior Air Force and Defense Department officials to prove it, along with independent GAO or similar oversight to ensure objectivity,” says Muck “We should start with immediate congressional hearings which should then frame an in-depth study to include a re-look at required capabilities, close air support definitions/assumptions and cost-benefit comparisons.”
“Additionally, if senior Air Force officials were to explain away the need for the unique close-fight capabilities the A-10 provides by asserting that the Army has agreed to cover more and more of the close-in fighting capabilities with its own attack helicopter/other organic assets, then the Air Force can’t have it both ways,” Muck continues. “Congress should then determine just how many of the currently projected Air Force F-35 purchases were justified because they were needed to provide close air support to the Army. Maybe they will find that they don’t need so many F-35s.”
Muck challenges the decision making process: “If they come on out and say we need the F-35, and the A-10 may be the best but the others are good enough, we need to ask the generals why they are so fervently uncompromising in defending the aircraft capabilities requirements needed to defend our joint forces from air attack (as in F-22, F-35), but at the same time, are so willing to quickly compromise when it comes to establishing aircraft capabilities requirements necessary to defend those same troops from ground attack? The double standard is glaring.”
Many also fear that under sequestration, the normal process of conducting hearings on military budget issues will not occur, and such early A-10 “divestiture” could happen overnight during a Continuing Resolution “backroom deal.” It is unlikely anyone will shut down the government to take the time to conduct hearings, and as a result, the A-10 might be mothballed with relatively little scrutiny and within an even smaller time frame to react.
“This is NOT about saving the A-10,” said Brown. “It’s about preventing the loss of a much-needed capability. In the close air support world, pilots learn something akin to the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath. In training we ask our pilots and joint terminal attack controllers (who control airstrikes from the ground) what the most important thing is when conducting close air support. We tell them: ‘First, do no harm.’ No matter what, always, always protect the friendlies. It is our ‘Prime Directive’; always protect the friendlies. That’s why A-10 folks are so deeply concerned; early A-10 retirement without ensuring its unique capabilities are preserved represents nothing less than a direct violation of that prime directive. Defense and Air Force officials have said, ‘We can accept some risk in this (A-10 retirement) area.’ That’s not accepting risk; that amounts to accepting recklessness when it comes to protecting the lives of our young soldiers, Marines, and Special Operators. We owe them better.”
Muck concludes, “I am puzzled that congressional folks don’t see what’s happening under their noses. They need to start asking the questions — and fast. I know they agree that we can’t leave the guys on the ground in a lurch. This train needs to stop, and the questions need to be answered before it leaves the station.”
Fans of the A-10 warthog are circulating a petition in hopes of gathering 100,000 signatures by September 16. Facebook groups Stand for Protecting Heroes, Keep the A10 in the U.S. Military, and Save the A-10 deployed rapidly in defense of the plane that offers them their best chance of survival in war.
The Save the A-10 Thunderbolt II from retirement due to budget cuts petition (sign here) asks signers to “Tell the Obama administration to reconsider the retirement of the A-10 attack aircraft.