As the United States Air Force “steers” the Close Air Support summit message, more details emerge as to its ability to fight the battles at hand and its maneuvers to fight a war that might never occur. Those maneuvers shook up a group of JTACs a week before the summit in their meeting with Secretary of Air Force Debra James and Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh.
On February 27, Welsh, James and members of the JTAC community met at the Pentagon to discuss Close Air Support and the role of the A-10. According to Charlie Keebaugh, former JTAC and head of the TACP Association, Welsh and James met at the request of JTACs, who were concerned about the USAF plans to mothball the A-10.
Keebaugh, a Ranger qualified JTAC who served on active duty for 10 years as an Air Force JTAC and TACP Instructor, was joined by two Silver Star winners and one 30 year Chief Master Sergeant among others in the hour long meeting with James and Welsh. He described the at times tense meeting in a recent interview on the James T. Harris radio show out of Tucson, AZ. (Listen to interview here.)
In his interview Keebaugh, confirmed reports there exists an unofficial pro-A-10 gag order placed on members of the Air Force. “Well, we went up with some guys, who had won Silver Stars for their actions in battle,” and “took a 30 year retired Chief Master Sergeant,” stated Keebaugh. “A lot of the guys we invited to go, were basically told they couldn’t go. There is an unofficial gag order out there,” stated Keebaugh.
Keebaugh said the group met for about an hour. “We gave them out thoughts,” said Keebaugh. “They were very receptive. They listened to our opinions, but like I said – as we just get past Major General Post’s statements – who called guys traitors for discussing the capabilities of the A-10 with Congress – we’ve got senior leaders trying to squash opinions of guys, and we told the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff that a lot of guys are being told that they can’t give their opinion, and they seemed surprised by that and it doesn’t make – doesn’t make sense – because Major General Post is at work today,” said a frustrated Keebaugh.
Many believed, like Keebaugh that Post should have been fired for his comments made at the Tactics Review Board at Nellis Air Force Base in January. The USAF leadership came under fire for the comments after Senator Kelly Ayotte called for an investigation.
“He makes those statements at the Weapons and Tactics Conference in Las Vegas – to a room full of warriors that have been battling the enemy for fourteen years – and these are guys that are the best and brightest in the Air force – these are the weapons officers of every squadron,” said Keebaugh. “He basically threatens them and tries to use his position to keep them quiet – for whatever reason – and that is the sort of toxic environment that we have going on right now. So it was surprising that the guys on the battlefield – their opinion is… not what the Secretary and CSAF are hearing. So, it is a very filtered message that has made its way to them, and we tried to give them an unfiltered message straight from the guys who are coming off the battlefield about what kind of impact it’s going to have on them if this A-10 is retired.”
Keebaugh told Harris, “Legally they can’t punish you,” said Keebaugh, “but guys feel very threatened as far as their career progression goes….”
Keebaugh, who deployed to Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regiment, and Bosnia and Kuwait with conventional forces, questioned the USAF A-10 decision. He quoted Senator Lindsey Graham, “The only people excited about getting rid of the A-10 is our enemy,” and concluded, “which they are clearly seeing now as ISIS is being devastated by the awesome effects of the A-10.”
Almost as devastating to the Air Force as the bad PR generated in response to its anti-A-10 Operation Destroy CAS campaign, is the news that also came out of the summit that JTACs, like Keebaugh are in short supply.
According Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of the service’s Air Combat Command, the JTAC shortage is an issue “at a time when American warplanes such as the F-15, F-16 and A-10 are back in the Middle East launching airstrikes against militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS,” according to an article in Military.com.
“The JTAC is a the guy on the ground responsible for taking what the ground commander wants to do on the battle field and takes the aircraft and implements those into the battle scheme and uses those aircraft to take out enemy targets,” Keebaugh told Harris. “So he is the guy typically, with eyes on the enemy coordinating with the guys on the ground, and making sure the aircraft engage the correct folks. So that we are not unnecessarily killing civilians, we are not putting our own guys at risk of fratricide and we are looking for the bad guys and putting bombs on their heads.”
Keebaugh, who has worked with all types of planes as a JTAC; “Anything with wings, I controlled it.” Keebaugh concluded, “Every JTAC that we have spoken to they are appalled that (A-10 divestment) is even on the table. It is funny that we are even being asked at this point. The Air Force has already made a decision – yet, now we are having a CAS summit to talk about how we are going to go forward? All these decisions, all these bits of information, all this input from key players should have been – you would think it would have been – discussed prior to the Air Force making such a decision like this. There are guys on the battlefield today that are using this aircraft and there is nothing else that can replace it.”
Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more evident that the Air Force is not fighting for the battlefield today, but one that might exist tomorrow. One which has no need for the CAS provided by JTACS and A-10s. They are spending billions on a doomsday scenario. To that end, they went so far as to scrub capability and capacity gaps as a result of divesting the A-10 from slides prepared for the summit, Operation Destroy CAS Update: Air Force “Steers” the Summit Message.
“With the “official” summit results in hand, the AF can now say, “look, we assembled the best and brightest of our CAS experts and this is the direction they have provided.” Unfortunately, the loud and clear message “if the A-10 is divested, the bar of performance for CAS will forever be lowered” was never delivered to the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. While editing context on slides briefed to general officers is a normal course of action, the content on the slides was carefully “steered” to remove all mention of risks identified by the summit attendees.”
“The Air Force – a lot of folks in D.C. have it in their mind that a JTAC gets shot at and he types in some grid coordinate and then data bursts it to an airplane and a bomb magically appears on the enemy’s head and the battle is over. That could not be further from the truth. It is very much a team work effort between the guy on the ground, the pilot in the aircraft, to locate that enemy, determine where he is, ensure that he has hostile intent to meet the rules of engagement set forth by that theater prior to engaging him, and that’s like I said – very much a team effort… If you are going to take away a very, very important team member in that engagement and give me some guy who, also a dedicated American flying another aircraft – don’t get me wrong – they are great at what they do. The problem is that they’ve got twelve different mission sets that they have to be very good at and CAS just being one of them, versus the A-10 who has Search and Rescue, and Close Air Support – CAS being the primary mission set. The guy flying the A-10 is a CAS professional. It’s what he does. He is a trusted member of the team as we are looking for the enemy. So no technology is going to replace the conversation that I’m going to have with the aircraft before we engage the target. I’m never going to data burst a grid coordinate and not talk to an F-35 pilot and have them engage something – it’s not going to happen.”
In his interview with Harris, Keebaugh discussed the fact that the new technologies will not get the current job done. “New technology is never the answer – it’s not going to be the answer to fighting the enemy we are fighting today – and we are going to have Americans unnecessarily die on the battlefield if this (A-10) is retired before a suitable system is fielded and put into use. And what that does is create more Gold Star families.”