Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Its nickname is “warthog.”
That’s the first clue that flying an A-10 is not the Air Force’s most glamorous mission.
It’s designed to support ground troops, not to engage in the dogfighting that makes up the pop culture image of air combat.
The wars in the Middle East, though, have made close-air support — bombing targets near troops — one of the Air Force’s top missions.
“The A-10 was not the most sexy, popular weapon system the Air Force had,”said Lt. Col. Paul Johnson, the 414th Combat Training Squadron director of operations at Nellis Air Force Base. “But now since we invaded Afghanistan and we invaded Iraq, that is the mission du jour.”
Training, in turn, is adapting.
As a trial, the Air Force is adding a week of training on close-air support to the upcoming Red Flag, the aerial combat exercise run by Nellis. (This is in addition to Green Flag, an ever-evolving, joint exercise with ground forces that prepares units for deployment and focuses on close-air support.)
“It’s the reality of the time that we’re living in now; the fight that’s happening now,” Johnson said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others perceived a reluctance by the Air Force to shift focus to missions tailored for irregular warfare, such as close-air support, intelligence collection and troop movement.
Many just “didn’t think the Air Force was getting it,” according to Jeffrey White, a former, longtime military-capabilities analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Dominated by fighter pilots, Air Force leadership is sometimes derided by critics as fly boys or the fighter mafia. The service, the criticism goes, is interested only in the glamorous missions. And now that unconventional warfare is the dominant fight, some say the Air Force is only begrudgingly fulfilling its role.
“There are no aces for flying ground support,” White said.
The tension over priorities reflects a decades-long philosophical debate about the role of the Air Force: What mission should be predominant?
Gates, who never undermines the significant contribution the Air Force makes to the wars, has been pushing hard for more emphasis on intelligence collection using unmanned drones (much of which is done out of Creech Air Force Base, north of Las Vegas).
Last spring he vented publicly and forcefully, particularly toward the Air Force, that senior military leaders were “stuck in old ways of doing business.”
Shortly thereafter, and following a report detailing the erosion of the nuclear weapons program, Gates in an unprecedented action fired both the civilian Air Force secretary and the Air Force chief of staff.
Although the nuclear weapons issue is a valid reason alone for the firings, it’s telling that Gates then appointed as chief of staff a general who lacks a call sign, making it the first time the head of the Air Force doesn’t have a fighter or bomber pilot pedigree. Instead, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz has a background in transportation command and is more joint-forces minded.
Still, it would be wrong, White said, to paint the service as a dogmatic bureaucracy that can’t adapt. It can and does.
And, added Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, “the air-air and intense air-ground missions are still there, still driving most force structure, still absorbing most modernization dollars — not for these wars, but for deterrence and possible future wars.”
Success comes down to achieving a balance between the current needs and the ability to handle future threats. The Air Force would be called on to rapidly wage conventional air warfare if, say, things went bad with Iran or North Korea, White said.
Regardless, now A-10 pilots have a little more cachet, or as Johnson put it, “hair on their chest.”