The Air Force’s Smear Campaign Against the A-10 Relies on Flawed Data
Per sorties flown, the attack jet is actually one of the least dangerous to friendly troops
Air Force headquarters is getting desperate to dump the A-10. Congress has demonstrated strong support for keeping the A-10 and is skeptical of the Air Force’s attempts to retire the platform. An Air Force general even accused any pilot who tells Congress why the A-10 supports troops so effectively in combat of committing treason.
Now, to further muzzle any honest debate about providing adequate close air support for our troops, Air Force headquarters cherry-picked and then declassified selected statistics for USA Today—all to tar the A-10 with having killed more American troops and Afghan civilians than any other plane.
Those cooked statistics excluded—and kept classified—data that is essential for a basic understanding of the issue.
The key issue Air Force headquarters obscures is the rate at which these tragic losses occur. Obviously, some aircraft have flown far more attack missions than other aircraft. For instance, the A-10 has flown 4.5 times as many firing sorties as the B-1.
However, the critical number is not the total soldiers and civilians killed and wounded, but the ratio of those losses to the number of sorties flown.
Without this crucial rate, which the Air Force downplayed or excluded entirely, you can’t determine the likelihood of friendly or civilian casualties or which plane types are least likely to inflict these terrible losses.
Even when you look at the Air Force headquarters’ doctored statistics, it turns out the A-10 is significantly safer than most of the other planes. Only a total misreading would suggest that the A-10 is the plane most dangerous to friendly troops or civilians.
For example, the data sheets the Air Force prepared for the press showed the A-10 had a “.3 percent” rate of incidents causing civilian casualties, which was the second lowest rate of any aircraft.
Using the same data sheets and long division, you quickly find that the A-10 suffered 1.4 civilian casualties for every 100 “kinetic”—weapons employed— sorties. The B-1B bomber, the platform Air Force headquarters always touts as the preferable alternative, had a rate 6.6—nearly five times worse than the A-10.
Every other aircraft except for the KC-130 also had rates well in excess of the A-10, but neither the Air Force nor available reports even hinted this was the case.
So how did Air Force headquarters cook the numbers? For one, the numbers were cooked by time frame. The chart comparing civilian casualties starts in 2010, conveniently excluding the 2009 Granai Massacre in which a B-1 killed between 26 and 147 civilians and wounded many more. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission estimated 97 civilians killed, which the Department of Defense has not disputed. Including 2009 would have made the B-1 bomber the worst killer in theater by far.
For the fratricide data, on the other hand, the Air Force incongruously extended the time-frame back to 2001. If they had used the same time-frame, the B-1 bomber’s killing of five American troops in 2014 would have made it top the list for fratricide.
Second, the Air Force’s data doctoring went so far as to exclude all wounded U.S. troops, all killed or wounded allied troops, and all wounded civilians over the same time period.
Including these statistics would have collapsed their case against the A-10. If the Air Force included all friendly killed and wounded, three aircraft would have caused substantially greater total fratricide losses than the A-10.
This was also an obvious conclusion from the released data sheets, but not mentioned in the press reports.
Finally and most importantly, to make sure no one could compare aircraft using the crucially important friendly casualty rate per 100 sorties, the Air Force withheld as classified the number of firing sorties each plane flew during the fratricide data period—2001 to 2014—notably the same data they declassified for their civilian casualty chart from 2010 to 2014.
Using these declassified 2010 to 2014 sortie totals and corresponding civilian casualty totals for each plane, simple long division yields the following table of casualty rates for each plane.
The table makes it clear that the A-10 is the safest airplane in Afghan combat, except for the KC-130. In fact, the A-10 produces nearly five times fewer civilian casualties per firing sortie than the B-1 bomber, even in the artificially truncated 2010 to 2014 time period.
But when you consider that the A-10 makes at least two to three times as many firing passes per kinetic sortie as the B-1 bomber, the comparison becomes even more lopsided, with the A-10 causing at least 9 to 13 times fewer civilian casualties per effective firing attack than the B-1 bomber.
As for friendly troop losses, when and if the Air Force is forced to release this still-classified data on sortie totals for the fratricide data period, it is almost certain that the A-10 results will be similarly lopsided.
Air Force headquarters is engaged in an all-out campaign to use any means possible—including threatening servicemembers and doctoring data for the media—to bolster its failing argument on Capitol Hill to prematurely retire the A-10.
Retiring the A-10 gets rid of an Army-supporting mission Air Force generals despise and protects the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program from a combat-proven competitor.
As part of the nation’s obligation to provide the best possible close air support for our troops in current and future battle, it is essential for Congress to investigate whether or not the A-10 is essential to the safety of the people who are fighting our wars and to prevent Air Force headquarters from recklessly retiring any additional A-10s until the truth has been determined.
Congress needs to ask the Government Accountability Office to gather and assess the available combat experience of ground troops plus the complete combat data, all fratricide and civilian casualty data, and all kinetic sorties.
The GAO should then report back to the House and Senate Armed Services committees before they mark up the new defense policy bill.
In addition, these committees should hold hearings on the A-10 controversy and include witnesses with meaningful combat experience—and not limit its hearings to witnesses hand-selected by Air Force headquarters—to accurately testify and provide the needed facts for and against the Air Force’s troubling effort to deprive our forces of the A-10’s unique capabilities as fighting continues in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
What we don’t need is more doctored and incomplete information from Air Force headquarters to sell their dumping of the A-10.
Mandy Smithberger is the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight, where this article originally appeared.