Air Force leaders have made no secret about the difficult decisions made during the service’s deliberations on the Fiscal 2015 budget. For the first time, the Air Force—like the rest of the military—was required to adhere to congressionally mandated caps on spending, forcing officials to re-evaluate their priorities and make painful sacrifices.
The result of the negotiations is a nearly $500 billion budget proposal for the Defense Department that reads like a long list of winners and losers. And perhaps no two programs better illustrate the budgetary challenges and dilemmas facing the cash-strapped department than the Air Force’s decisions on the A-10 Warthog and the Combat Rescue Helicopter.
The missions of the two aircraft overlap. But the Air Force attempted to put the two airplanes on different paths going into next year as officials evaluated what made the budget cut—and more importantly, what did not.
The Air Force moved the A-10, a close air support aircraft popular with both ground forces and on Capitol Hill, to the loser column. The service’s budget proposal would retire the entire fleet of 334 Warthogs, a move Air Force officials have estimated would save a tantalizing $4.2 billion over the next five years.
“Cutting the A-10 fleet was the lowest risk option from an operational perspective—a bunch of bad options,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III told the House defense appropriations subcommittee on March 26. “And while no one is happy, especially me, about recommending divestiture of this great old friend, from a military perspective, it’s the right decision and is representative of the extremely difficult choices that we’re facing in the budget today.”
As the Air Force was making the tough decision to send the A-10s to the boneyard, officials made an abrupt about-face on the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH), a nascent program that the service had planned to shelve, at least for now.
Indeed, the Air Force sent a budget to Capitol Hill that contained no funding for the CRH program, despite $334 million approved for the program this fiscal year. Prewritten budget documents stated that the department planned to delay the program by two years to explore less expensive options.
But officials suddenly changed course on the program after the budget request was finalized, a highly unusual move for a Pentagon whose budget-drafting process consumes most of the year.
“Breaking news: We have made a decision to fund the CRH,” Maj. Gen. James F. Martin Jr., the Air Force’s budget director, told stunned reporters at the Pentagon on March 4, the day DOD released its budget request.
The Pentagon budget, especially in today’s cost-constrained world, is the product of a series of puts and takes within each of the service’s accounts. But how could two aircraft that share a role in combat rescue have such different fates
In a series of testimonies and public statements over the last several months, defense officials have made clear they believe the A-10 has performed well. But they argue it is largely a one-trick pony whose job could be filled by other, more multimission aircraft.
In short, the A-10 was a tempting bill payer.
Meanwhile, top officials believe the Combat Rescue Helicopter will fill a critical mission gap, enabling the service to divest itself of aging rescue choppers in its fleet.
What may have really worked in the CRH’s favor is that little is required for the program next year. The Air Force plans to tap already appropriated money to award a contract this summer and keep the program afloat into 2015, making it a low-risk financial decision in the short term.
Welsh has acknowledged that every major decision the Air Force makes in the budget will ultimately affect his force’s mission. And those decisions, he has said, are driven strictly by declining budgets.
When asked by the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee on April 2 whether the Air Force wanted to retire the A-10 because it was no longer relevant or because of limited dollars, Welsh said flatly: “Because of budget problems, clearly.”
Welsh, who has spent thousands of hours in the cockpit of the A-10, has steadfastly stood by the service’s choice to retire the fleet and has urged an extremely reluctant Congress to back the decision rather than try to find savings elsewhere.
Other cost-saving options included retiring F-15 and F-16 fighters, but the service would have to retire such a large number of those aircraft to find the same savings as divesting itself of its A-10 fleet. The service also considered—and rejected—delaying purchases of the F-35 strike fighter, which will count close air support of ground troops among its many missions.
During weeks of testimony before the congressional defense committees, Welsh explained over and over that other aircraft—including fighters and bombers—can fill the close air support gap created by retiring the A-10s. However the A-10 cannot, in turn, fill in the gap if the service retired platforms more oriented to a wider range of missions.
“The other airplanes we’re talking about—F-16s, F-15Es, the B-1—they do other things besides close air support in an uncontested environment, as we’ve had in Afghanistan,” Welsh told House appropriators.
Air Force officials have repeatedly said the A-10, while a useful platform valued by ground forces, performed only 20 percent of the close air support missions in Afghanistan, an indication that the negative effects of retiring the fleet could be mitigated by tapping other aircraft.
“The A-10 doesn’t operate throughout the battlefield,” the four-star told reporters after the hearing. “I understand the mission can be done better in some ways with an A-10. But we are way past having the best in every mission area across the Air Force. That’s just not where our funding levels are. And so we just have to make very difficult choices about how to balance what we provide to the theater commander.”
Welsh said the decision was based on logic, not emotion.
Lawmakers, however, are simply not buying the Air Force’s logic. After some public battles over the aircraft, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees included provisions in their versions of the annual defense authorization bill that would keep the A-10s in service through at least next year.
The House’s version of the bill, passed May 22, would raid war funds to find the $635 million needed to keep the A-10s flying next year. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s bill, meanwhile, would authorize $320 million for the A-10s, enough to maintain them next year without beginning an expensive rewinging of the aircraft, the panel believes.
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a vocal Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee whose husband flew A-10s in Iraq, rejected the characterization of the A-10 as a single-mission or an unessential airframe.
“It’s not a single-mission aircraft. No. 1, that’s inaccurate,” Ayotte said in a brief interview. “When you’re taking fire, what do you want? You want the kind of fighter that is low and slow and can take out your enemy.”
Close air support, she added, is “one of the most important missions that we have. It actually protects lives.”
Other missions for the A-10, able to fly low and survive direct enemy hits from armor-piercing and high explosive projectiles up to 23 mm, include airborne forward air control and combat search and rescue, according to the Air Force’s own fact sheet on the airplane.
Indeed, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia has said he believes the Air Force is “discounting its capability” in combat search and rescue.
Ayotte, who held up Deborah Lee James’ nomination as Air Force Secretary last fall as she demanded answers from the Air Force on its plans for the A-10, said ground troops, including those in Afghanistan, are nonetheless backing her crusade to save the airframe.
“I was in Afghanistan a week ago and I can’t tell you how many people on the ground have said, ‘Keep going defending the A-10 because last night an A-10 saved my butt,’?” she said.
The Air Force, meanwhile, is proceeding with the CRH, another aircraft in the life-saving business. Service officials expected to award a contract on the estimated $6.5 billion program to Sikorsky by the end of June.
Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz called the decision to move forward with the program a “pragmatic issue,” considering the toll high-altitude operations in Afghanistan and the high temperatures in Iraq took on the service’s fleet of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters.
“The current fleet of -60s is early ’80s vintage,” Schwartz, now the president and CEO of Business Executives for National Security, said in an interview. “And I’ve flown them. They are getting worn out.”
The Air Force has discussed buying a new combat rescue aircraft for the better part of the last decade. But the predecessor to the CRH, the CSAR-X combat search and rescue helicopter, was canceled in a spate of program terminations announced by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in early 2009.
Gates axed the helicopter program just months before the Air Force planned to award a contract for a replacement for the HH-60s, long believed by service leaders to lack the speed, range, cabin space, survivability, battlespace awareness, and all-weather operability needed for the search and rescue mission.
Instead of proceeding with the CSAR-X, Gates ordered a review to determine whether the military needed a specialized aircraft for combat search and rescue or whether it could be done using existing aviation assets across the services.
After getting a $334 million influx of cash this year, the Combat Rescue program appeared to be on track, but it was nonetheless targeted for cuts until the budget-day save.
During the briefing with reporters, Martin said he had been informed of the Air Force’s intention to award a contract on the CRH as he was walking into the briefing. The service put out an official statement later in the day, pinning the decision to the “criticality” of the personnel recovery mission.
Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning told reporters March 11 that the reason for the last-minute change of heart on the CRH was a combination of the priorities of a new Secretary—James took the service’s top civilian job on Dec. 20—and the late enactment of 2014 appropriations, signed into law more than three months into the fiscal year.
“It was one of many decisions that we wrestled with over the course of last year,” Fanning said. “I think we were indicating—I know I was very publicly for a long time—that new starts were going to be very difficult in this budget environment.”
Before moving forward with the CRH contract, the program must go through a major acquisition review, including cost estimates, and requires sign-off from the Pentagon’s acquisition chief.
Like the A-10, the CRH program has the backing of many lawmakers. This could bode well for its future.
Those backers include Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the powerful Senate defense appropriations subcommittee. Within Murkowski’s home state of Alaska, the HH-60s flown by the Air National Guard have only about three years left of their service lives, and their mission capable rates are dropping.
“In Alaska, we have amazing men and women within our Air National Guard rescue squadrons. They do some amazing rescues in some pretty incredible places,” Murkowski, who estimates those units have saved more than 2,000 lives since 1991, said during the April 2 hearing. “But in order to do the amazing things, they need to have equipment. They need to have helicopters that are state of the art.”
During testimony on Capitol Hill, James has stressed that she sees the combat rescue mission being a critical one for the Air Force. She also views Sikorsky’s offer—lower than the Air Force had anticipated—as a good deal for the taxpayer.
“There is a need for this, a great need,” James told reporters after the April 2 hearing. “I certainly became convinced of that as I did my due diligence.”
Nonetheless, the fate of the CRH program—like any other in the Pentagon’s constrained budget—is far from assured. James herself has said that the Air Force will “probably re-evaluate” the future of the CRH if Congress does not provide the department with relief from stringent budget caps in place for Fiscal 2016 to 2021.
Lawmakers passed a budget agreement late last year that lifted those caps for Fiscal 2014 and 2015. But absent another bipartisan deal, expected by many to be elusive in an election year, the Defense Department will have to live with a budget that officials believe is inadequate to meet the national security strategy.
The Air Force is already scrambling to come up with funding for the CRH. The service will quickly burn through the $334 million in research and development money appropriated for the program for this year.
Service officials need to find another $430 million from within the five-year defense plan to pay for the CRH—no easy feat particularly if Congress continues to reject cost-saving moves like the A-10 retirements.
Wisely, the Air Force has intentionally delayed the heaviest investments in the CRH until after Fiscal 2019, a move that could help the program navigate the particularly tumultuous budget waters expected for the next two years.
“We had a couple of options with CRH when we decided to move forward with it in terms of how we ramp it,” Fanning said. “And we did pick one that ramped up a little bit more slowly in order to take some of the pressure off those two really difficult years.”
The Air Force is quickly trying to write a schedule for the program. That may mean little if the budget caps remain in place.
As the Air Force has demonstrated with the A-10, the savings generated from taking an entire fleet of aircraft out of the inventory is too great to pass up in this era of austerity.
Along with funding the aircraft comes the costs of training infrastructure, spare parts, and the logistic trail. There is also modernization to consider, even if those bills won’t be due for years. Retiring the A-10, for example, would allow the Air Force to cancel a $500 million upgrade planned for the aircraft.
Officials, meanwhile, can reassign pilots to other aircraft while protecting the service’s biggest—and most expensive—priorities. Those are, the Air Force has stated unabashedly for years, the F-35 strike fighter, the next generation bomber, and the KC-46 tanker.
“It makes less sense to sort of cherry-pick single airplanes or dozens or hundreds of airplanes and leave the tail intact when you could go after the A-10,” Schwartz said. “The fundamental argument here had to do with substitutability, and secondly how do you save the most money with the least pain.”
Schwartz, who is no stranger to budget battles himself, applauded Air Force leaders for the tough choices they made in the budget request, calling it a sound proposal that prioritizes modernization by reducing current force structure and making other cuts.
“It was a pretty bold package,” he said.
Perhaps too bold for Congress, however.
Megan Scully is the defense reporter for National Journal’s CongressDaily in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to National Journal and Government Executive. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Stealth Bomber, Public Message,” appeared in the February issue.