Nov. 15, 2014 - By AARON MEHTA – Defense News
WASHINGTON — After a relatively quiet summer, the battle for the future of the A-10 Warthog exploded in the last two weeks, reopening deep fissures between Congress and the US Air Force that seem to show the two sides at a total stalemate.
The A-10 issue — the Air Force wants to scrap it, Congress wants to keep it — has aroused a passionate array of protectors in a way the Air Force seemed unprepared to deal with. At this point, neither side in the debate is willing to trust the other’s ideas or facts.
Deborah Lee James, service secretary, acknowledged in July that the service needs to do a better job of showing “consistency” to members of Congress, and the drive to better relations with the Hill was highlighted as a key part in the service’s newest 30-year strategy document.
While that is a noble goal, those in the trenches indicate trust is still a hard concept for the two sides, particularly when the A-10 is involved.
The relations between the Hill and the Air Force have been degrading since the middle of the last decade, said Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute.
“There is no doubt that is an issue, and this current crop of leadership has tried hard to steer the vessel in a new direction and to slowly move the organization back to a place of mutual trust with the Hill,” Eaglen said.
The current A-10 fight “just goes to show how deep the damage has been and how lasting the effects are,” she added.
Emotions are running high on both sides, creating a winner-take-all culture that is unlikely to result in any sort of compromise.
One Hill staffer who has been engaged with the service on the A-10 issue said there is a feeling the service plays with facts and figures to force its argument down the throat of Congress.
“Their arguments come up, don’t stand up to facts, we push back, we don’t get satisfying responses, and my assessment is the Air Force wants to retire the A-10 and they don’t want to find a solution to make it work,” the staffer said.
Rep. Ron Barber, an Arizona Democrat who made saving the A-10 a key part of his re-election campaign, expressed frustration with the service during a Nov. 13 rally in support of the plane.
“We’ve seen several attempts by the Air Force to go around our decisions, to make moves to divest even though we told them not to,” Barber added, his voice rising in anger. “We will continue to tell them to listen to the will of Congress.
“The Air Force, they are persistent. But so are we. We’re not going to give up this fight until we prevail.”
On the other side, two Air Force officials complained that the Hill ignores the service’s analysis supporting the need to retire the Warthog.
Those officials singled out Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., as particularly dug in on the issue, and complained that her office doesn’t offer any alternatives when it rejects options brought forth from the Air Force.
“The options, we’ve [explained] — in exquisite detail — why those aren’t feasible options,” one official said, “it comes down to, she just doesn’t believe us.”
“If they had something to offer, believe me, we would go take a look at it,” the second official said.
Maintenance Battle Lines
The latest fight over maintainers is a perfect summary of the situation.
The Air Force is claiming that its planned Aug. 16 initial operating capability (IOC) date for its fleet of F-35A joint strike fighters is now in peril because the A-10 cannot be retired, as a large chunk of the 1,100 maintainers needed for IOC on the stealthy jet were to be moved from the stood-down fleet of Warthogs.
Members of Congress who appeared at a Nov. 13 event supporting the A-10, including Ayotte, expressed skepticism over the sudden use of the F-35 as a talking point.
“The Air Force has continued to make this a false choice between the F-35 and the A-10,” Ayotte said, noting the argument has just appeared on the scene after previous talking points failed to retire the Warthog. “How many different arguments has the Air Force made along the way?”
“I’m not trying to impugn their motives,” the senator later told Defense News. “I just think they have been of the mindset from the beginning to retire this airframe, and that mindset doesn’t seem to have shifted despite the Congress weighing in pretty clearly on this.”
The service officials countered by saying they looked at 11 choices for how to handle this issue, and while it weighed them all, the A-10 retirement remains the best choice.
Take two of those 11 choices as examples of the “he said, she said” nature of the discussion.
One option would involve finding Air National Guard volunteers to come online and take over some F-35 maintenance work. The Air Force officials said that plan has many flaws, including requiring pulling Guardsmen from their units and the fact their civilian jobs would not be guaranteed without a full mobilization order from the president.
The staffer disagreed with that assessment, concluding that the service could find a way to make it work. “After interviews and exchanges I’ve had with the Air Force, I was left with the impression they have not fully explored the mobilization option,” the staffer said.
What about turning to contract maintainers? Could Lockheed Martin workers, already familiar with the F-35, chip in?
The Air Force claims it will take a year to spin up those contractors and establish a contract vehicle to get them on board. But the staffer believes there is a contracting vehicle in place through existing agreements with Lockheed.
Eaglen believes both sides have an argument, but are simply talking past each other at this point.
“The Hill is right the Air Force has lots of options, and the Air Force is right they probably chose the best one,” she said. “Just because there is another option doesn’t make it the best option that hurts the [least].”
Perhaps most telling, the Air Force is talking with members of the Hill about a partial retirement — shutting down three A-10 squadrons, or about 72 planes, which the service officials said would free up enough maintainers to handle F-35A IOC.
On the face, that would seem like a compromise. The Air Force gets enough planes retired for its requirement, while keeping the Warthog around to protect troops on the ground. But the Hill staffer derided that idea, calling it “just another version of the same plan to divest the A-10, and that is not a compromise.
“There is a pattern here of ‘give me what I’m asking for,’ but framing it as a compromise,” the staffer said. “This is not the first time they’ve done this. They tried to send some to the boneyard and called it a ‘compromise.’ That’s not a compromise. That’s how you divest things.”
Both Barber and Ayotte have rejected that option, leaving the service and Congress once again at loggerheads — and growing increasingly frustrated with each other.
“The Air Force doesn’t want to find a creative solution of fully [maintaining] the F-35A, which is a requirement they’ve known about for years and should not have been surprised by,” the staffer said. “The question is whether they want to.”
“We’ve gone through it and they haven’t been able to provide us with a viable option,” the first Air Force official countered.
At the start of the summer, Eaglen expected the A-10 fight to end as these things usually do — with the Air Force getting its way, even if it had to wait a year or two. Now, she’s not certain that is true.
“I’m surprised at the ferocity of the A-10 community,” she said. “They punch above their weight class. I’ve seen this fight play out a million times before and it doesn’t turn out this way normally. Eventually the services get their way. But there are always exceptions, and this may prove to be one of them.