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Gen. Welsh Defends F-35 For Close Air Support; Hopes Summit Will ‘Reset’

Posted by Colin Clark on

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James

UPDATED: Sen. McCain SASC Spox Rejects Air Force Rationale For Retiring A-10

ORLANDO: Sequestration. Base closures. Readiness. Modernization. ISIL. Russia. The list of challenges faced by Air Force leaders is long. But none may be more intractable or politically difficult than retiring the A-10 “Warthog” close air support fleet.

The Air Force has never really wanted to do CAS, its critics charge. No aircraft has ever been as good at CAS as the A-10, they say. Air Force claims that planes armed with precision munitions execute CAS operations as well as the A-10 are spurious or unbelievable, they say.

Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, knows this all too well. He also knows that the Air Force can save an estimated $4.2 billion by retiring the A-10 fleet. So Welsh charged the head of Air Combat Command with sitting down with the Marines and the Army the first week of March at a CAS summit so everyone could “reset” the CAS conversation and focus on the best ways to accomplish the mission — and not just the A-10, he told reporters this morning.

“We all want the same thing and we have to find ways to get there,” Welsh said near the end of the Air Force Association’s annual winter conference. But much of the public discussion about the Air Force, the A-10, and the CAS mission “is really kind of a little ridiculous,” he said, noting that the Air Force has flown more than 20,000 CAS sorties a year for ground troops.

UPDATE “The A-10 continues to prove its enduring value as a close air support platform against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The A-10 is also deploying in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, reassuring our NATO allies and partners in the face of continued Russian aggression in Ukraine,” Dustin Walker, Senate Armed Services Committee spokesman wrote in an email. “Senator McCain continues to believe this administration’s attempt to prematurely retire the A-10 fleet without fielding a suitable replacement is folly. And he will do everything in his power to oppose it.” UPDATE ENDS

He pointed to the F-35B as a key CAS platform. “That’s all the Marine Corps is buying it for,” he told us. “It will be a good CAS platform… It takes time to develop these things,” noting that the A-10 took years to become the excellent CAS weapon it is now.

In the longer term, Welsh said the weapons used for close air support “need to change.” Among the possibilities — lasers and much smaller projectiles; perhaps even “splintering bullets.” The Air Force has “look at different ways of doing this.”

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James chimed in, saying she hoped “this body of thought that comes from the summit would help us reengage with the Congress and find a different approach.”

On other issues, Welsh said the Air Force planned to rely heavily on virtual environments — simulators and other tools — as it trains pilots to combat fifth-generation threats such as the aircraft China and Russia are producing. New aircraft can change things so rapidly — “frequency changes used to take five years; now they can be changed virtually overnight,” he noted — that it doesn’t make sense to try and replicate them in an aircraft when it can be done  rapidly and relatively inexpensively in a simulator.

And pilots don’t need to train as much for high-G combat with its punishing turns and other maneuvers because combat occurs beyond visual range in a fifth-generation fighter, Welsh said.

James said during her speech this morning — just before she and Welsh sat down with reporters — that the service would ask Congress for legislation to allow Reserve pilots to train active-duty Air Force pilots, which is currently barred by law. It’s a smart political move, regardless of its operational utility, that may help heal wounds still festering between the active and the other components of the force.

What do you think?