NDAA Update: The House Says Keep the A-10

By Greg Mercer

There are many fights and quirks intertwined with the National Defense Authorization Act.  One of them is the A-10 Thunderbolt II (sometimes called the “Warthog”) close support aircraft.  A lot has been made of this particular aircraft, given the Air Force’s desire to phase it out of combat and eventually replace it.  Congress, however, appears to have different plans.

An amendment to the NDAA introduced by Martha McSally (R-AZ-2) in the House Armed Services Committee prohibits the Air Force from using appropriated funds to retire, store, or replace any A-10 aircraft—effectively mandating that the Air Force maintain at least its current stock of 171 A-10s.  Planes, of course, need pilots (well, most of them do), so the amendment also requires that the Air Force not “make significant reductions to manning levels with respect to any A-10 aircraft squadrons or divisions.”  This means that not only does the Air Force have to keep the planes, it has to keep flying them too.  The Air Force has warned that maintaining the A-10 will mean cuts to other programs.

This isn’t an indefinite measure, though.  The amendment calls for an outside study commissioned by the Department of Defense to explore options for retiring and replacing the aircraft.  The Air Force can continue to explore retirement of the A-10—a clearly articulated goal—but it must do so on Congress’s terms.

What, then, motivates Congress?  While mandating the continued operation of the A-10, seemingly against the wishes of the Air Force, might paint Congress as a backwards facing, wasteful organization in contrast to the Air Force’s progressive, cost-saving efforts, this definitely isn’t a fair take on the relationship.  After all, the Air Force also recently asked for 1000 more Air-Launched Cruise Missiles at a cost of $9 billion.  So, it’s not as if the Air Force is desperate to save money at every turn.

Two possible Congressional motivations stand out: First, the A-10 is currently operated by 16 Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command squadrons throughout the United States—those are plenty of constituent jobs.  Second, members of Congress were likely impressed by the A-10’s record in Iraq and Afghanistan, where its close support role was used to support troops in combat.  While this might not represent a statistical study of its effectiveness, the A-10 has an obvious reputation of saving lives.  Thus, Congress likely views A-10 retirement as something that isn’t yet broken, and doesn’t need fixing.  The Air Force disagrees.

It’s a frustrating situation, but it also calls out the need for checks and balances in military priority setting.  We’ll find out more about the fate of the A-10 when the House NDAA is voted on and reconciled with the Senate version.

Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

2016 NDAA: Helicopters, Counters for Unconventional Warfare, and a Bunch of Ships

By Greg Mercer

Every fiscal year, Congress passes the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a piece of comprehensive legislation that funds the Department of Defense and the national security programs operated by the Department of Energy. Since the military is extraordinarily expensive to maintain, and Congress famously “holds the purse strings”, the NDAA is a catalyst for major changes and reforms, and the process of authoring and passing it can tell us a lot about the gap between Congressional and military priorities. The NDAA is going through the House markup process (House first, then Senate, because it’s a financial bill), with subcommittee markups taking place this week and the Full Committee Markup taking place Wednesday, April 29 (Rayburn House Office Building Room 2118 at 10 AM if you’re really interested). The process has already highlighted some trends that will have a major impact in FY16.

Defense News reports that the Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee has requested that the Pentagon replace some helicopters. The subcommittee requested that the Pentagon create a plan to replace existing AH-6 and MH-6 “Little Bird” helicopters within 90 days of the NDAA’s passage and to indicate how they plan to do so with “anticipated funding requirements… for development and procurement of an A/MH-6 replacement platform.” A/MH-6s are commonly used by special operations forces, so it’s no surprise that the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee would be concerned about the future of Special Forces aviation.

The subcommittee also notes that they are concerned about the “unconventional warfare capabilities and threats” posed by Russia and Iran. The proposed legislation defines this as: “…activities conducted to enable a resistance movement of insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area.” Clearly, this refers to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and Russian aggression, as well as the involvement of Iran in combatting ISIL forces in Iraq, which has seen Iran training and equipping as many as 30,000 troops and deploying missiles.

Finally, the subcommittee touches upon a trendy, favorite topic, expressing concern about DOD’s cyber capabilities. It requests a briefing on the process of identifying and remedying current vulnerabilities by February 1, 2016, and a briefing on the DOD’s cyber mission force and whether it can meet its intelligence collection and analysis needs but November 1, 2016.

Elsewhere, Defense News also reports that the Navy’s FY16 budget requests have generally enjoyed support from the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee. The subcommittee approved requests for building three new Littoral Combat Ships (a program which has seen controversy in the past), two destroyers, two attack submarines, the completion of a new amphibious ship, continued construction on two new aircraft carriers, procurement of new Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the development of an unmanned, carrier-based jet.

The NDAA will remain dynamic and likely controversial as it works its way through the legislative process. Its position at the center of DOD’s operations for the upcoming year makes the NDAA perennially attractive to those in Congress and the Administration who seek reform or procurement changes. I’ll try to offer more as the process continues.

Image Credit: U.S. Navy