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The Big Ruse

Buck McKeon’s A-10 Sell-Out

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

Supporters of the A-10 “Warthog” close air support aircraft in Washington and US combat Soldiers and Marines who have seen, and are seeing, combat in Afghanistan were stunned Monday to read about a decision of the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Buck McKeon (R-CA).  He is joining with the Air Force and wants to retire all of these extraordinarily effective combat aircraft, sending them all to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force base, starting as soon as next year.

Ever since Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) Mark Welsh decided to get rid of all of 300-plus A-10s in the active and reserve Air Force and the Air National Guard, the media and congressional hearings have been stuffed with information from combat veterans, pilots and defense specialists about how spectacularly the A-10 has been performing in Afghanistan and all other recent US wars in Libya, Iraq and Kosovo–going as far back as Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

McKeon’s A-10 sell-out comes in the form of a ruse.  His draft legislation, to be moved Wednesday (May 7) at the mark-up of the House Armed Services Committee of its FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), creates a distinction without a difference with CSAF Welsh’s retirement plan.  McKeon’s own description of his handiwork says he “would limit funds to retire A-10 aircraft unless each such retired aircraft is maintained in type-1000 storage [which] means storage of a retired aircraft in a near-flyaway condition that allows for the aircraft to be recalled into use by the Regular or Reserve Components of the Department of the Air Force.”

Falling for the ruse either foolishly or knowingly, some media describe the language as “something of a compromise” or emphasize the “near fly-away” condition of the A-10 fleet after it is sent to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan.  However, a simple check of what “type-1000 storage” means reveals that the aircraft will be made un-flyable and sealed in two layers of latex, which can be removed and the aircraft made operable only after considerable effort.

However, the storage condition of the aircraft is not the real reason they will be unavailable.  With the entire fleet to be sealed in latex, there will be no A-10s flying to maintain a cadre of qualified pilots and maintainers.  That cadre is to be disbursed throughout the Air Force or retired.  Without ongoing training and combat operations, their skills will erode to the point of evaporation.  It is not just the extraordinary characteristics of the A-10 itself that make it such a lethal system; it is the hard earned skill levels-very unique for the close air support mission-of the pilots, maintenance personnel and ground controllers.

The Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan may be able to prepare the A-10s for flight operations in a few weeks, but there will be no one to fly and maintain them, nor the cadre of ground combat operators who best know how to use the unique A-10.  Those skill levels will take months, rather years, to restore to the level that they are at today.

Some have immediately seen through McKeon’s ruse; note the comments of Senators Ayotte, McCain, Graham and Chambliss in a press release of Tuesday May 6; note their acknowledgement that “Units will be stood-down, training will no longer occur, and crews will be re-assigned.”

McKeon’s decision to entertain such a phony compromise comes as a surprise.  While McKeon has won himself a reputation with objective observers for primarily being a play-thing of the defense manufacturers due to his being so much on the take for their political contributions (as shown by his file at OpenSecrets.org), such politicians are usually also willing to show how stoutly they “support the troops” by funding weapons in use-and effective-in combat.  McKeon would seem to have evolved to a different calling: he is retiring at the end of the current Congress; he continues to litter his nest with campaign contributions; he apparently is “over” supporting the troops with weapons that work.

There is no shortage of money for keeping the A-10.  That is clear in the draft NDAA that McKeon is recommending to the House Armed Services Committee.  McKeon compiled a list of 28 programs that he added money for in the bill.  It all costs an extra $5.8 billion, and the $400-$600 million needed to preserve the entire A-10 fleet in 2015 would only have ranked fifth or sixth in size of the programs he added-including $796 million for refueling a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and $800 million for an amphibious warfare ship, both of which the Navy did not select to fund.

To pay for his $5.8 billion in add-ons, McKeon found a commensurate amount of offsets to keep the overall bill at the level required by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and subsequent congressional budget deals. McKeon did not even tap the huge amount requested to fund the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ($8.3 billion), and he even set up another huge slush fund-not yet tapped-in the form of $6.2 billion for procurement and $64.7 billion for operation and maintenance in a $79.4 billion fund-as yet neither specified nor even formally requested by the Obama administration-for operations ostensibly for the war in Afghanistan.  Known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, this $79.4 billion fund is just a placeholder amount based on the funding requested for 2014; it is still pending a decision in the Pentagon on what will actually be needed for the significantly reduced American presence in Afghanistan in 2015.  Nonetheless, McKeon wants to keep it at the inflated $79.4 billion level-with no telling what other programs he will shower with the excess funds.

In short, one thing Buck McKeon was not short of in his decision to sell out the A-10 was money.

The final irony-to put it politely-comes with Buck McKeon’s assertions about the war in Afghanistan, itself.  In his fact sheet on his version of the NDAA, he exhorts the Obama administration to keep a robust number of troops in the conflict there, saying the “mission cannot be carried out with fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops.”  With his A-10 sell-out effected, those troops will not have the lethality against the enemy they can only have with the A-10.

Buck McKeon is not just selling out the A-10; he is selling out those American forces in Afghanistan-and possibly elsewhere-in the future that will not have the A-10 to support them.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.