WASHINGTON — The debate over force structure reductions outlined in the Air Force’s fiscal year 2015 budget should be about capabilities and missions, not aircraft, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III told the Senate April 10.
Testifying alongside Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Welsh addressed the service’s decision to divest the A-10 Thunderbolt II fleet.
“The great thing about this is we have a lot of people passionate about what they do, about the airplane they fly, about the mission we perform, and that’s a wonderful thing,” Welsh said. “I don’t see anything wrong with the debate. But I am concerned that we’re talking about perhaps some of the wrong things, because this isn’t about whether or not the A-10 is a great aircraft or whether it saves lives on the battlefield. It is a great aircraft, and it does save lives.”
So the focus, Welsh said, should be about the service’s overall ability to meet the combatant commanders’ requirements, not about which airframe performs the mission.
“The issue really isn’t about the A-10 or even close air support. It’s about all the things we provide as an air component to a ground commander,” Welsh said. “For the last 12-and-a-half years, we’ve been doing CAS; that’s what’s visible.”
But Welsh said the Air Force’s most significant role in saving lives is much greater than close air support.
“Where you save big lives on a battlefield … is by eliminating the nation your fighting’s will to continue the fight by eliminating their logistical infrastructure, their command and control capabilities, their resupply capabilities; by providing air superiority so your ground and maritime forces are free to maneuver and are free from air attack, which we have never had to deal with because we’re good at this,” Welsh said. “The other thing you have to do is eliminate the enemy’s reinforcement capability. And then, of course, you have to do close air support.”
But the challenge, officials say, is that there are a lot of other aircraft that do CAS that also do those other missions.
Like the F-16 Fighting Falcon, “which, in fact, has flown more CAS sorties than the A-10 all by itself over the last eight or nine years,” he said. “So does the F-15E (Strike Eagle), the B-1 (Lancer), the AC-130 (gunship), the B-52 (Stratofortress). They’re all great, and they’ve all saved lives on the battlefield.”
“The comment I’ve heard that somehow the Air Force is walking away from close air support I must admit frustrates me,” Welsh said. “CAS is not an afterthought for us; it never has been. It’s a mission. It’s not an aircraft. It’s our mission and we’ll continue to do it better than anyone on Earth.”
To better understand the Air Force proposal, officials explained that the decision to cut fleets of aircraft was based on the need to return to sequestered funding levels in 2016.
“We needed to reduce our planned spending in other areas by billions of dollars a year, trimming around the edges just isn’t going to get it done,” Welsh said. “So we were forced to take a look at cutting fleets of aircraft as a way to create the significant savings that are required.”
The service has five mission areas where aircraft could be reduced. The air superiority mission area is not an option because of reductions already planned, officials said. Eliminating an entire fleet would leave the service unable to provide air superiority for a full theater of operations.
“No other service can do that,” Welsh said.
Officials looked at the space fleet, “but no combatant commander is interested in impacting the precise navigation and timing, communications, missile warning or space situational awareness and other special capabilities that those assets provide,” he said.
The number one shortfall combatant commanders identify year after year is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, so they would not support more cuts than already planned in that mission area.
“I spoke with Chief of Staff of the Army Ray Odierno to ask what he thought about reductions in the airlift fleet. His view was that a smaller Army would need to be more flexible, more responsive and able to move quicker,” Welsh said, so the idea of cuts to airlift assets beyond those already planned were not considered.
Divestiture of the KC-10 Extender as part of the air refueling fleet was considered, but an analysis revealed that mission impact in that area was too significant. As an alternative, service officials looked at KC-135 Stratotankers, “but we would have to cut many more KC-135s than KC-10s to achieve the same level of savings,” Welsh said. “And with that many KC-135s out of the fleet, we simply can’t do the mission.”
This left officials turning to the strike mission area for consideration. Divestiture of the A-10 fleet would save $3.7 billion and another $500 million in cost avoidance for upgrades that wouldn’t be required.
“To achieve the same savings would require a much higher number of either F-16s or F-15Es, but we also looked at those options,” Welsh said. “Even if an additional $4 billion became available, I believe the combatant commanders would all tell you that they’d rather have us fund more ISR and airborne command-and-control capability than retain the A-10 fleet.”
The Air Force ran an operational analysis on several options for savings. Officials compared divestiture of the A-10 fleet to divestiture of the B-1 fleet, to reducing the F- 16 fleet and to a deferred procurement of a number of F-35 Lightning IIs. They also looked at standing down fighter squadrons, resulting in further decreases in readiness levels.
“We used the standard (Defense Department) planning scenarios, and the results showed that from an operational perspective, cutting the A-10 fleet was clearly the lowest-risk option,” Welsh said. “And while no one is happy about recommending divestiture of this great old friend, it’s the right military decision and representative of the extremely difficult choices that we’re being forced to make.”