America and the A-10: It's complicated

Much has been written about the pending retirement of the A-10. Clearly, opinions are deeply divided about the Air Force's plan to jettison its entire fleet of 343 A-10s.

Unfortunately, deep divisions will remain, no matter what new arguments might be made for or against the aging yet popular jet. That's because there is no single "right" answer on what to do with the A-10. And this dilemma, but one among the hundreds that the Pentagon and Congress must address and resolve upon each year, is a symptom of a much larger problem: the complete and total disconnect between military requirements, planning and resources.

The A-10 debate, though complex, can be summed up in two main arguments. Those who wish to keep the A-10 in service make a capabilities argument. They highlight its effectiveness in battle, the number of troops it has saved, and the gap it fills — a gap left by other close air support aircraft like the B-1s and F-16s.

Opposing them are those who want to retire the A-10. They make a budget-based argument. The Air Force has limited funds to work with, they note. And among all the programs it must support, the A-10 is of relatively lesser importance, while offering the biggest return in savings. The Air Force estimates it could save $3.7 billion by eliminating the fleet.

So who is right? In truth, the military planning and budgeting process has always been a back and forth between military requirements and limited resources. The Department of Defense (DOD) and Congress are constantly making decisions to cut or fund programs based on their importance to military operations. The reason why the A-10 decision is so difficult is because budget pressure from Congress is forcing choices about capabilities that will have a clear and negative impact on critical battlefield operations in a time when American forces are still in combat.

For the last several years, the defense budget topline has been lowered because Congress and the White House have agreed to reduce the deficit reduction but have been unwilling to reform the entitlements that drive the deficit.

Defense spending was not cut because of easing military requirements. There has been no fundamental change in the threat environment, nor modification of the United States' national security strategy.

Instead, spending decisions have been made to meet artificially imposed budget caps with little or no connection to what our government calls upon our military to do. This has created a widening gap between military requirements and available resources. The A-10 debate, centered on a platform that meets important battlefield capabilities but faces retirement to save money, reflects the severity of this gap.

The A-10 debate is complicated by another issue. Because the defense cuts were not requirements-based, there is no consensus about the make-up of the future military. Are we downsizing the military because we will need a smaller military in the future? Or do we consider these budget cuts to be temporary, confident that we will rebuild the military as soon as there is more money?

Clarity on this matter is essential if we are to make informed budget choices. For example, if the military is going to be rebuilt in a couple of years, it would make more sense to keep hardware, which is more difficult to recoup than skilled soldiers.

The responsible solution is to provide enough money to fund the requirements that the Pentagon, Congress and the White House think are important. Unfortunately, not much can be done about the size of the fiscal year 2015 budget at this point. Consequently, Congress will be forced to decide whether to allow DOD to retire the A-10 or to find another program to cut in its stead. And that decision will be made in a strategic fog.

At the end of the day, this one decision, while impactful, won't make or break the military. However, if defense planning continues to be a budget-driven activity, then debates similar to that surrounding the A-10 will only get more frequent and more fevered in coming years.

Instead of ignoring entitlement reforms and indulging in petty partisan sniping, Congress and the White House should sit down and make the hard budget choices needed to provide our military with the resources needed to execute the missions they assign to it.

Salmon is the senior policy analyst for defense budgeting in the Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.

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