WASHINGTON: Want to know how fractious the debate over the retirement of the A-10 has gotten? With an eye clearly on Congress, the canny head of Air Combat Command, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, today canned his deputy who had made dumb comments about the subject.
They were especially stupid because Maj. Gen. James Post told the audience at an Air Force base that he thought anyone who talked to Congress about the A-10 outside of the bounds of currently agreed service policy was committing “treason.”
Given the nature of the military chain of command it is easy to understand why the Inspector General has concluded that Post’s remarks about the A-10 could have a “chilling effect” on his subordinates. After all, he used the word “treason” and made it clear he thought the senior leadership had agreed on the policy to retire the A-10 so subordinates should stick to that line.
“To many, the message clearly came across that he did not want Air Force members addressing the A-10 issue with Congress,” the IG’s report says. Just so, but the investigation also, “found no evidence that Maj. Gen. Post’s comment actually limited any of the witnesses’ access to a member of Congress. None of the witnesses indicated that they were making or preparing to make a communication to a member of Congress.”
Now Congress is usually willing to accept being politely snubbed by senior defense officials as long as it’s not about something they really care about. But Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot and congressional liaison, really cares about the A-10, many of which happen to be based at Davis-Monthan Air Base in his home state, Arizona. McCain heard about the remarks (tip of hat to my former editorial home, DoDBuzz) and contacted the IG. McCain, of course, is not alone in his opposition to retiring the A-10. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, whose husband was an A-10 pilot, has led the opposition and has won a wide base of support for her position on the Hill. That, of course, doesn’t mean McCain or Ayotte are correct in opposing the plane’s retirement. It just means they possess the power to stop it.
From the other side of the Capitol, House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry chimed in with grim approval of Post’s firing: “Relieving General Post of his command is an important and correct action in this instance. Members of Congress must be able to receive unfiltered facts and opinions from service members in order to fulfill our duties under the Constitution. Attempts to prevent or restrict that communication cannot be allowed.”
While I think Post certainly was very unwise to make his comments, Congress also needs to consider the chilling effect its actions can have on the Air Force’s senior leadership — as well as that of the other services — as it faces tough choices as sequestration looms. If humor and the use of hyperbole can destroy a senior leader’s career (there’s so much room for discussion there…), why will they risk speaking honestly before Congress, let alone before subordinates?
Was former Defense Secretary Bob Gates smarter than we all want to admit when he demanded that senior leaders sign non-disclosure agreements and successfully stripped Congress of the information on which it so depends? Congress whined about it but, as most defense lawmakers admitted privately, it worked in the short term. As a member of the press and advocate for open debate, I cannot condone such restrictions. Both Congress and the military must remember that open and freewheeling debate tests faulty assumptions and usually forces both sides to better actions — when we’re lucky and they actually listen. Simply getting your message out and squelching the opponent’s message isn’t the smart play in the long run.