The Air Force’s decision to retire its A-10 fleet of close-air support planes was based on minimizing the impact to its overall warfighting capability, and any efforts by Congress to stop the retirement would only cause greater degradation of warfighting abilities, the Air Force chief of staff said March 14.
Testifying to the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. Mark Welsh said his service did significant research, both operational analysis using Defense Department wargaming tools and consulting with military leaders across the services, to craft the best way forward under tight budgets.
For example, he said, “[intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] is the number-one shortfall our combatant commanders identify year after year after year–they would never support even more cuts than we’ve already had to put in our plan,” he said. Nor did the Air Force want to cut its air superiority assets, as the Air Force is the only branch that covers that mission set. The service looked into cutting its global mobility fleets, which seemed like a good option for the Air Force but, Welsh found out, would have hurt the Army. He said he spoke to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, and “his view was that a smaller Army would need to be more responsive and be able to move more quickly. He did not think further reduction of airlift assets was a good idea.”
Where there will be cuts, according to the Air Force’s budget request, is in the strike mission area, where the service reluctantly proposed divesting the entire A-10 fleet of 283 aircraft.
“We also looked at the F-16s and the F-15Es,” Welsh said. “As the chairman mentioned, I am an A-10 pilot by trade, that’s where I grew up in this business, and Betty and I have a son who is a Marine Corps infantry officer. Close air support is not an afterthought to me, and it’s not going to be a secondary mission in the United States Air Force. But close air support is not an aircraft, it’s a mission, and we can do it very, very well with a number of airplanes today.”
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James noted later in the hearing that only 20 percent of close air support missions in Afghanistan have been conducted with A-10s, and F-16s and other platforms have performed the bulk of the missions.
“The reason we looked at the A-10 is because we can save $3.7 billion across the [Future Years Defense Program] by divesting the fleet, and another $500 million in cost avoidance for planned upgrades that wouldn’t be required,” Welsh said. “To achieve the same savings would require a much higher number of either F-16s or F-15Es. We also looked at those options. We ran a detailed operational analysis comparing divestiture of the A-10 fleet to the divestiture of the B-1 fleet, reducing the F-16 fleet, deferring procurement of a number of F-35s, or decreasing readiness further by standing down a number of fighter squadrons. We used the standard DoD planning scenarios, and the results showed that cutting the A-10 fleet was the lowest-risk option from an operational perspective. And while no one, especially me, is happy about recommending the divestiture of this great old friend, it’s the right decision from a military perspective, and it’s representative of the extremely difficult choices we’re being forced to make.”
Several members of both the House and Senate armed service committees strongly oppose the retirement, and it is unclear if the Air Force will be allowed to stick to its budget plan or will be forced to find that more than $4 billion elsewhere in the budget.
If sequestration goes back into effect in fiscal year 2016, as is the current law, then the Air Force would also be forced to divest the entire KC-10 fleet, a blow to the refueling mission area.
Welsh said that, in crafting its non-sequestration-compliant budget plan for FY ’15-19, “we looked at our air refueling fleets and we did consider divesting the KC-10 as an option, but the analysis showed us the mission impact was too significant,” he said. “However, as my boss said, if we do return to sequester-level funding in ’16, this option must be back on the table. We would have to cut many more KC-135s than KC-10s to achieve the same savings, and with that many KC-135s out of the fleet we would not be able to meet our mission requirements.”
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) asked what would happen if Congress did not allow the KC-10 retirements. James responded that the KC-10 retirement represented $2.6 billion in savings over the FYDP and that taking that money out of the KC-135 fleet or anything else would be operationally damaging.
“Every decision we’re making is going to hurt,” Welsh added. “Wherever we take that $2.3 to $2.5 billion, it’s going to come out of another mission capability…It’s going to impact our capability and capacity.”
After the hearing, Welsh told Defense Daily that the Air Force did have a backup plan prepared in case Congress rejects the A-10 or KC-10 divestiture, but it wasn’t a good backup plan.
“We know where the trades would have to be,” he said. “It’s not going to be a good backup plan–anything we change, we will lose capability somewhere else. We think we’ve prioritized it properly now, we will have to adjust and reprioritize if Congress makes that choice.”