By Winslow Wheeler
Cutting cheap, efficient weapons to make way for much pricier ones
There has been a short-sighted eagerness in some news articles and commentaries to disparage two actions by the House Armed Services Committee in the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
The HASC seeks to retain in the military force structure the Air Force’s A-10 Warthog close support aircraft and the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington. The Air Force and the Navy want to retire these systems prematurely, thereby seeming to save money.
But the longer-term game being played is to smooth the way for far more expensive, truly unaffordable, replacements the Air Force and Navy have cued up. And in the case of the A-10, the older, cheaper alternative is the inestimably more effective one.
The continuing narrative on the HASC’s rejection of the Air Force’s and Navy’s so-called cost saving measures is that the politicians are preserving their political rear ends and mindlessly running up costs in rescuing the entire A-10 fleet and George Washington in 2015.
It’s certainly true that some, even many, of the advocates of the A-10 and George Washington have very porky basing, employment, contracting and political considerations pushing them.
Arizona Congressman Ron Barber, who has the A-10 based near Tucson at Davis-Montham Air Force Base, and Congressman Randy Forbes of Virginia, who never met a Navy program he didn’t like—both of them leading the respective, but separate, efforts in the House—are two cases in point.
It is also true that the HASC’s rejection of Defense Department’s very modest efforts to lower the outrageously high costs of DoD healthcare and across the board pay raises—among numerous other examples—show pandering politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, at their short-sighted worst.
However, there is more to the story on the A-10 and George Washington.
The flattop is due for its mid-life nuclear Refueling and Complex Overhaul costing over $700 million in 2015 and billions overall in the years immediately following. The $3-billion RCOH will keep the carrier for another 30 years. Over time, it would also help keep the carrier force at the statutorily required 11 ships, which the Navy also wants to retain.
And there lies the rub. The larger, and more costly, issue is whether to keep the carrier fleet at 11, which will clearly mean building more of the new Ford-class aircraft carriers—the first one now nearing completion.
The first of those is costing more than $13 billion, and the next one will be very close to that. With or without George Washington living out the rest of her design life, the bigger budget issue is whether to permit the Navy to build more of its Ford-class cost behemoths.
Does it make sense to keep the aircraft carrier fleet at 11 and, if so, does it make sense to buy replacements costing about twice what it cost to buy the earlier Nimitz-class carriers, of which George Washington is an example?
The Navy would like to bias the debate. Its proposition to dump the George Washington early would surely leverage things in favor of continuing with the newer carriers—even making room for more of them, eventually.
Unfortunately, the discussion on George Washington has been almost exclusively on the $700 million to be spent in 2015—not the issue of keeping an 11 carrier fleet and the scores of billions to replace George Washington and other carriers as they age.
Those issues are more controversial and harder to debate. Too many seem unwilling to enjoin them.
That deeper debate would also include what too few understand to be the extreme vulnerability of aircraft carriers to modern diesel-electric submarines and very low altitude, very fast anti-ship cruise missiles. The debate is largely ignoring the key points. Maintaining 11 carriers is excessive, even foolish … and proceeding with the Ford-class is insane.
The current debate is engaging in little deliberation on the former and none on the latter.
The A-10 controversy is even more stunning. Surely, Barber has his own political situation very much in mind as he has argued, both effectively and successfully, to keep the A-10 in Arizona and all other states. But he also has substance on his side—and not all of the A-10 advocates on Capitol Hill have their hand in the home basing till.
Nonetheless, the A-10 is repeatedly listed as an example of the short-sighted, selfish Congress rejecting an Air Force proposal to save money. In fact, quite the opposite is the case.
The A-10 is far less expensive to operate than any of the alternatives in performing the close air support mission. And the A-10 performs the close air support mission for soldiers and marines engaged in ground combat far more effectively than any of the alternatives.
The Air Force’s replacement for the A-10 in the future is the F-35A. Buying just the F-35s needed to replace the A-10 fleet will cost somewhere between $25 and $50 billion—depending on a variety of factors, such as actual unit cost and numbers to be bought.
The F-35 will also cost untold billions more to operate, multiples of what the entire A-10 fleet costs to use. Put simply, keeping the A-10 now is the low cost alternative. The Air Force’s plan to replace it will cost many multiples.
Moreover, the F-35 may even be one of the least effective alternatives to the A-10. It, like the F-16 and B-1B—two of the Air Force’s designated substitutes—is designed for high speed, higher altitude flight and cannot protect itself from any-caliber ground fire.
But also, the F-35 is so complex and burdensome to deploy and maintain that it will simply not be available to fly the day-in, day-out missions that close air support requires across the battlefield. You can’t be effective at any level if you can’t be there.
Unlike all the rest, the A-10 can fly low and slow to find and identify the enemy and protect our own forces from friendly fire. It has the aerodynamic characteristics to turn and re-engage targets in seconds, not minutes, and it is available generally and on a day to day basis due to its low cost and simplicity.
It also has a gun that its enemies know, fear and hope to be replaced by the likes of the guns on the F-16 and F-35. The B-1B has no gun.
Sadly, too many of the A-10 advocates do not put the gigantic cost to buy and operate the F-35 and its relative ineffectiveness front and center in their arguments in favor of the A-10. As a result, they can—and do—fall victim to the short-sighted criticism that they are acting out of selfish, porky considerations, not out of legitimate concern for higher costs and lower effectiveness.
It is indeed short-sighted, but it is not the short-sightedness of rejecting utterly phony Air Force and Navy “cost-saving” recommendations. The A-10 needs to stay in the Air Force—unless and until it is replaced by something even better, rather than the F-35.
And before we drop the George Washington, the country needs a serious debate on not just the size of the aircraft carrier fleet. but also on the inane prices the Navy wants us to pay for any new replacements—should we decide we actually need them.
Winslow Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, a part of the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.