Over the past five months, Air Force leaders have pointed to one key fact while advocating for their controversial decision to retire the A-10 Warthog, an aircraft specifically designed to provide support to ground troops. The service’s top leaders say the vast majority of so-called “close air support” missions conducted in Afghanistan since 2006 have been flown by a variety of aircraft that are not A-10s. Specifically, the leaders say that the 80 percent of these missions conducted by aircraft other than the Warthog shows that a variety of aircraft can do the critical mission of reinforcing ground forces with firepower from the air.
However, a number of observers challenge the Air Force’s claim that 80 percent of close air support missions are really conducted by non-A-10 planes. These observers assert that the service has deliberately manipulated the data to support its case.
The plan to retire the A-10 has sparked a firestorm of criticism from members of Congress, A-10 pilots and airmen whose job is to embed with ground forces and call in air strikes.
In fact, Congress is well on the way to rejecting the Air Force’s plans. The House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday, rejecting sending the A-10s to the boneyard. The Senate is expected to do the same.
The Air Force says it can save $4.2 billion over the next five years by retiring the fleet of 350 A-10s. The savings would be plowed into other aircraft that can perform a variety of missions, including close air support.
And, in making the case to retire the A-10, the one number that comes up time and again at congressional hearings is this: 80 percent.
“Eighty percent of what we have done in close air support in Afghanistan has been by aircraft other than A-10,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told the House Armed Services Committee in March.
Building on this statement, Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh has said, “We’ve flown a number of close air support missions with multiple airplanes,” including the B-1 bomber, F-15E, and F-16.
Also included in the 80 percent are FA-18s, Reaper and Predator drones, along with AC-130s gun ships and AV-8Bs.
The PBS NewsHour asked the Air Force about the basis for the 80 percent figure. The NewsHour shared the Air Force answers with A-10 supporters and those who advocate retiring the aircraft. The complete exchange can be viewed in the document linked here.
“This is a classic case of using numbers as propaganda for some bureaucratic position. This 80 percent number is a total fabrication,” said Pierre Sprey, one of the key designers of the A-10 in the 1960s and 1970s. Sprey has recently been lobbying Congress to save the aircraft.
Among the data the Air Force provided was a breakdown of the number close air support sorties flown between 2010 to 1014: 121,653. Also included was the number of sorties with at least one weapon released: 8,691.
Sprey notes that of the 121,653 close air support missions conducted, “93 percent of them never drop a weapon.” Sprey says the Air Force is “counting a whole lot of fluff.”
“The Air Force is counting these missions or these activities in a way that biases strongly against the A-10,” said Winslow Wheeler, a former congressional staffer with more than three decades of experience working for both Democrats and Republicans. Wheeler is now with the Project On Government Oversight, a non-profit watchdog organization.
The Air Force is “not counting sorties where actual munitions delivery actually occurs,” he said. And they are “not distinguishing” between bombing fixed points on the ground from 20,000 feet and supporting troops that are moving while under fire from an enemy in close proximity. Wheeler said it is in situations like this “that really count” and where the A-10 outperforms all other aircraft.
The 80 percent figure was generated by the Air Force’s headquarters in the Middle East, called Air Force Central Command or “AFCENT” for short. The director of public affairs at the command, Lt. Col. Edward Sholtis, wrote in an email to the NewsHour that “AFCENT hasn’t made statements against the A-10, and we aren’t collecting data to make an argument against the A-10.”
The information about the number of missions flown is gathered by Air Force officers in order to help plan operations, the public affairs official wrote.
“The data is collected and used over time to determine how many of what type of aircraft are needed at any given time or place to support the requirements established by joint commanders. AFCENT does not collect or use its data to propose or make changes to the Air Force’s force structure; that is the Air Force’s job,” Sholtis wrote. “If we were selectively collecting or providing data to make an operational case against the A-10, there’s other data (such as response time, loiter time, and total munitions available) that could better make that case. Our collection of data on CAS [close air support] missions flown predates Air Force proposals to divest the A-10 fleet.”
The Air Force spokesman defended his service’s counting of close air support missions flown that did not result in bombs being dropped. Sholtis stressed that having aircraft fly overhead and be available to ground commanders when they were needed was important.
“The purpose of most CAS missions is to have capable forces ready when coalition forces on the ground need airpower,” Sholtis said.
The spokesman also emphasized the positive psychological impact of close air support missions in which no bombs are dropped.
“Measures of kinetic activity alone don’t capture events where aircraft presence was sufficient to deter attackers — which can be the better outcome in COIN [counterinsurgency] operations,” Sholtis explained in an email. “Actions like shows of force or armed overwatch of ground forces are legitimate and effective forms of CAS.” Shows of force are when aircraft fly overhead, making their presence known and signaling to the enemy — sometimes by dropping flares — that they might get bombed.
But counting shows of force is stretching the definition of close air support, according to retired Chief Master Sergeant Russell Carpenter, a 30-year veteran and specialist in leading troops who call in air strikes. When you “look up the definition of close air support, shows of force doesn’t fit in there.” Carpenter said what the Air Force has “done is said there are a variety of ways we achieve air-to-ground effects. But guess what, call that something else. But it is not close air support.”
Another controversial aspect in the way the 80 percent number was generated is the time frame of when close air support missions are counted. According to Air Force data released to the NewsHour, the service counted missions flown between 2006 and October 2013.
The Air Force told the NewsHour “unfortunately we do not have information prior to 2006 available in our AFCENT Combined Air Operations Center database.” Other Air Force officers who asked that their names not be used in this article, because they were not authorized to speak publicly, also told the NewsHour that the Air Force has not maintained records from before 2006.
But critics are skeptical.
“The date 2006 was not picked by accident,” said Sprey, the A-10 aircraft designer.
From March 2002 to December 2006, the only fixed-wing aircraft that could operate from the austere and dilapidated runways in Afghanistan were A-10s, according to the Air Force. Sprey believes counting close air support missions beginning in 2006 is suspect because that time period marks the point when different types of aircraft were beginning to operate out of the newly improved runways in Afghanistan.
“Before 2006, they couldn’t even get fighters into Afghanistan, they couldn’t land anywhere,” Sprey said. “They were totally dependent on the A-10 before and they don’t want to admit that, so they don’t tell you about it before 2006.”
Another basis for the 80 percent number that has come under fire is the manner in which actual missions are counted. Fighter and attack aircraft such as F-15s, F-16s and A-10s take off in pairs, but the two aircraft are only counted as one mission. Oftentimes, A-10s and other planes split up and conduct operations independently of one another.
Meanwhile, B-1 bombers, and Predator and Reaper drones, which always fly by themselves, are also counted as one mission.
Several observers say this methodology undervalues the “double-duty” contributions of A-10s, and overvalues the B-1 bombers and drones when they fly CAS missions.
Defending the counting methodology, the Air Force says if it “counted each aircraft in a two-ship A-10 formation as one CAS mission, you also would be increasing the numbers associated with other fighters that fly as two ships,” such as F-15, F-16 and FA-18s, according to Lt. Col. Sholtis. “So the increase in A-10 numbers as a ratio of total missions flown would not be as dramatic as some might expect.”
“There is no perfect metric for comparing the combat effectiveness of different aircraft,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for Defense Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “This is not ideal, but on the whole I think it is fair because it treats all fighters the same. Moreover, B-1s should be treated differently because they carry a much larger payload, can stay on station longer, and thus can do the job of more than one fighter. So while missions flown is not a perfect metric, I think it is a relatively fair metric.”
Harrison agreed with the Air Force’s overall argument: that many different types of aircraft can do the close air support missions and that the A-10 should be retired because of budget constraints.
“The supporters of the A-10 have the burden of proof to show what unique CAS capabilities the A-10 has that cannot be provided by any of these other platforms,” he said in an email response to questions. “Moreover, they need to make the case that these unique capabilities are important enough to justify the cost.”