As the debate over the future of Close Air Support (CAS) intensifies, Air Force leaders looking to ditch the A-10 in favor of a massive fleet of expensive but CAS-incapable F-35s have found themselves increasingly at odds with the facts.
The latest to forego accuracy in a public statement on the A-10 issue appears to be General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, Commander of Air Combat Command, who made a particularly curious claim during a recent speech at the Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida.
In discussing air operations against Islamic State militants in Syria (ISIS), Carlisle sought to underscore the importance of survivability when he said:
“A Jordanian got shot down in Syria — which was tragic — and so that is a contested environment.”
Carlisle was apparently referring to Jordanian F-16 pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was captured by militants and later burned alive in a propaganda video. The problem with Carlisle’s statement is that the circumstances of al-Kasasbeh’s capture have not been confirmed, and indeed have been publicly disputed.
In the immediate wake of the Jordanian’s capture, ISIS claimed to have downed his F-16, an assertion denied at the time by officials at United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees the region and is responsible for ongoing operations.
In the video depicting al-Kasasbeh’s death, he himself attests to having been shot down. But the accuracy of this claim is disputed, and experts familiar with captive situations such as his urge caution in taking words rendered under extreme duress at face value without independent confirmation.
In a report filed by McClatchy on February 5th, a CENTCOM spokesman declined to discuss how the pilot came to be held by ISIS and made it clear that Jordanian authorities were still investigating the cause of the F-16’s crash. ““[I]t therefore would be inappropriate to discuss specific details,” said Col. Patrick Ryder. The Pentagon also declined to comment.
Carlisle’s remark is significant because of the context within which he made it. The Air Force is locked in a heated debate with members of Congress and other CAS advocates (including many of its own airmen) about the future of the A-10. Advocates of the proven twin-engine attack jet insist it remains essential to the proper support of maneuvering ground forces. Opponents want it out of the way – both practically and budgetarily – to make room for the F-35, which the Air Force sees as the staple of future tactical airpower.
Other remarks in the general’s speech illustrate possible motivations for his apparent departure from the established facts about al-Kasesbeh. Carlisle also insisted the A-10 has been limited in its utility against ISIS because of concerns about survivability. One problem with this claims is that it cannot be falsified. Military sources alone have access to the operational details necessary to verify the A-10’s level of participation, meaning any claims made can’t be tested. This sort of setup often leads to exaggerated, ambiguous, or otherwise misleading reports from government officials.
Recent claims concerning the A-10’s combat record in Afghanistan have brought this unfortunate habit into sharp relief, with government watchdogs increasingly vocal about an Air Force pattern of prevarication.
Still, given his reputation for good faith and fair dealing, Carlisle’s provision of a vague characterization without evidence might ordinarily suffice to inform audiences. He is considered trustworthy without question.
But in the context of the sharply politicized debate about Air Force modernization, his word alone is arguably insufficient. Unofficial reports indicate A-10s have expended as many as 70,000 rounds of 30mm ammunition since November, which would suggest it has executed at least several dozen kinetic missions in that time. The Air Force has elsewhere stipulated that the A-10 has flown roughly 14% of all anti-ISIS missions dating back to the September outset of the operation, despite the jet not arriving in theater until two months later. Despite how busy the jet has been against ISIS, officials continue to downplay its role. This is curious rhetoric from service officials who should be championing and celebrating the combat achievements of their airmen.
Carlisle’s logic is also worrisome. He frames concerns about the A-10’s combat vulnerability in terms of speed, seeking a contrast with higher-velocity aircraft like the F-16, F-15E, and F-18. This invites uneducated audiences to misapprehend the nature of the threat and the A-10’s relative effectiveness against it. The kinds of weapons assessed in open-source media to be in the ISIS arsenal are not appreciably more effective against aircraft based on airspeed. Survivability against Man-Portable Air Defense systems is instead a function of the capability of on-board countermeasures, aircrew proficiency, and aircraft redundancy.
The A-10 holds up just as well against these weapons as its fighter counterparts. In fact its dual engines, nimble maneuverability, and proficiency in operating proximate to hostile forces give it an advantage. When it comes to small arms or medium-caliber anti-aircraft fire, the A-10’s armor-reinforced airframe and rugged design make it the preferred weapon for CAS providers and customers alike.
The most mystifying aspect of Carlisle’s speech is his citation of a downed F-16 to help illustrate an assertion that the A-10 is less survivable than the F-16. This logic pretzel reeks of argumentative desperation. Such a departure from common sense is a rhetorical red flag.
If he’s right and the F-16 was indeed brought down by enemy fire, this is important not so much to support his claim of a “contested environment,” but to understand which airframes are best suited to meet the particular threats that make it contested. To have that discussion means understanding how the shoot-down occurred and what kind of enemy fire was applied. Providing a partial story doesn’t do much to advance or refute any argument, even if it makes for passable rhetoric.
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If he’s indeed pushing a questionable narrative in order to downplay the A-10, Carlisle joins an unfortunate parade of Air Force leaders and spokespersons incapable of advancing an effective argument without untethering from a factual foundation. This calls into question the wisdom of the decision sought; if retiring the A-10 is such a good idea for national defense, the facts – inelastic as they are – should be more than enough to make the case.
For Carlisle to join this parade would be particularly unfortunate. He has long been respected as a straight-talking leader of integrity, and many welcomed his appointment at Air Combat Command as a signal that the tone of the CAS and modernization debates would become more constructive. But his recent propositions, among them that the future of CAS is only viable with the fielding of an ultra-modern platform to replace the A-10, beg for more fact-based support.
Was Carlisle misspeaking about the Jordanian pilot? Unlikely. In his position, he’s regularly kept apprised of the key details of ongoing operations involving combat air forces, and is almost certainly too proficient in his role to misstate those facts publicly.
It’s possible that Carlisle knows something we don’t. He’s likely privy to classified information giving him a fuller picture of operational particulars than is available to the public. But it’s unlikely in the extreme that an officer as sharp as Carlisle would inadvertently inform his unclassified speech with something learned behind the classified veil.
Whatever the reason for what seems to be an unfounded statement by Carlisle, it adds fuel to fire being fanned by critics of the current Air Force senior leadership cadre. As the plan to invest upwards of $1 trillion of taxpayer money in the F-35 continues to move forward, those critics are increasingly concerned that this gargantuan expenditure might be rooted not in the soil of truth, but in the shifting sands of pure politics. Upon such sand seems an unlikely and unfortunate place for Carlisle to stand, so hopefully an explanation will arrive demonstrating the contrary.