The B-1 vs. The A-10, and a very misleading headline.

On June 9, 2014, confusion and poor tactics led to a B-1B bomber dropping two 500 pound bombs on US and friendly Afghan troops. Five Americans and one Afghan soldier were killed in the incident.

Yesterday’s Washington Times published a lengthy piece by Rowan Scarborough about the incident:

The “friendly fire” airstrike that killed five American soldiers in Afghanistan on June 9 is the first known case of a battlefield catastrophe that can be linked to automatic defense spending cuts that greatly curtailed prewar training.

A review of the worst American fratricide in the long Afghanistan war also shows that the military’s official investigation faults a Green Beret commander, an Air Force air controller and the four-man crew on the B-1B bomber that conducted the errant strike.

But the investigation, headed by an Air Force general, does not question the use of a strategic bomber for close air support, even though experts say the tragedy illustrates why the big plane is misplaced in that role.

The Washington Times has reviewed the investigation and interviewed knowledgeable sources to compile a picture of the doomed operation in southern Afghanistan’s Zabul province, as well as the political and military missteps that precipitated it. Key among them, according to defense experts, was the use of the strategic bomber.

Scarborough’s angle is that the B-1B is an obviously poor choice for the Close Air Support mission, and apparently, the Air Force is stubbornly refusing to admit that in spite of the opinions of “experts.”

And of course, there’s a political battle about the future of the A-10.  From further down in the article, John McCain has to make an appearance. From Senate hearings in April, questioning the Secretary of the Air Force, Debra Lee James:

Mr. McCain, not afraid to bluntly question generals and their civilian heads, stopped her right there, asking her to detail the “so forth.”

She said it included the B-1B: “It is my belief that the B-1 bomber has done some close air support in Afghanistan.”

Sen. McCain expressed amazement.

“That’s a remarkable statement,” he told her. “That doesn’t comport with any experience I’ve ever had, nor anyone I know has ever had. See, this is an example. You’re throwing in the B-1 bomber as a close air support weapon to replace the A-10. This is the reason why there is such incredible skepticism here in Congress.”

Gen. Welsh jumped in to say the B-1B had been doing close air support for some time.

Incensed, Mr. McCain said those had been “a very limited number of missions of close air support. General, please don’t insult my intelligence.”

Senator McCain, for all his military aviation experience, seems to have not noticed that B-1Bs have been flying Close Air Support missions in Afghanistan for thirteen years now, and this is the first friendly fire incident in which one has been involved.

In fact, while there are potential issues with using the B-1B for CAS, it also brings some very good attributes to the fight. First, persistence. It has the endurance to stay on station for hours on end, far longer than any tactical fighter bomber, even the A-10. Second, compared to any other platform, it can carry a much greater payload of ordnance. That gives it the ability to reattack targets as needed. Additionally, it can carry a wide variety of weapons on each mission, allowing it to tailor the the weapon to the target. The B-1B, originally intended as a nuclear bomber, is restricted by treaty these days to a purely conventional mission. And the community has invested a lot of time and money to optimize the platform for the CAS role.

Of course, “experts” have to weight in.

“The A-10s would not have been orbiting five miles away,” said William Smith, a retired Air Force officer who logged more than 3,000 miles on the A-10. “They would have been right over top of the fight.”

He further explained how the A-10 and pilot do the job: “Being right over the fight, with the A-10’s tighter turn radius, gives us the ability to stay right on top of the target, allowing the pilot to have constant eyes on the fight. A-10 pilots know you can’t see the infrared strobe in the sniper pod. You need to look out the window, through the NVGs. A-10 pilots wear the goggles continuously.”

Mr. Smith is now part of a coalition trying to save the A-10. He grimaces when discussing the B-1B as a stand-in.

Here’s the thing, yes, the expert cited is indeed an expert. But n0te that he has a strong bias to advocate for the A-10. Let’s also note that the A-10 has been involved in several fraticide incidents, including an attack on the British Army in Iraq in 2003.

Fraticide is not a platform problem, it’s usually a tactics and communications problem, often exacerbated by “buck fever” where someone is overly eager to contribute to the fight.

And sometimes, the real reason is staring you in the face. From this very same Washington Times article, there’s this stunning bit:

In addition, The Times review found that the Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), a critical player who made a major miscalculation that night, had a checkered career.

Upon arriving June 1 in Afghanistan, he had been told before the operation that he had been selected for “involuntary separation,” meaning his Air Force career was over.

This JTAC also had been demoted in rank for misconduct. On another occasion, he was kicked out of a special unit because he twice called in close air support directly over friendly positions during training. Yet he was allowed to participate in the operation on relatively short notice.

The Times has learned the JTAC showed a lack of basic knowledge about close air support when interviewed afterward by investigators.

Emphasis mine.

A JTAC who was so incompetent that he should never been allowed to touch a radio, combined with the fog of war lead to this tragedy. All the other factors cited in the Air Force investigation are simply contributing factors, not causal ones.

Many people, McCain, Smith and others, are using the deaths of these soldiers for political ends. Mr. Scarborough should be ashamed of himself for playing along.

10 thoughts on “The B-1 vs. The A-10, and a very misleading headline.”

  1. Hmmm, I guess that using a B-1 for CAS isn’t quite the same as trying to use a B-52 for the same operation. You’ve given me some food for thought, so I look forward to hearing what others who’ve been on the ground feel about the B-1 vs the A-10.

    1. Actually it pretty much is the same as using a B-52. The difference is that the BUFF is a little bit more expensive (per flying hour) to operate. Both have the capabilities brad outlined above.

      The effectiveness of both craft performing CAS is a “dirty little secret” of this war. :-/

  2. I would assume, especially at night, that the aircraft is dropping on GPS coordinates fed to them from the ground, not visually identifying targets themselves.

    If you’re dropping on a given set of coordinates from 30,000 feet, it really doesn’t matter what type of plane you are.

    1. The idea that an A-10 would have prevented this assumes that 1) the pilot would look out the window 2) that he would have been able to make sense out of what he was seeing 3) that he would recognize the difference between what he was seeing and what he was being told and 4) that he would have determined that he was getting bad coordinates rather than forming a mistaken impression at altitude, in the dark, and at speed.

  3. It may be nitpicking, but I don’t consider simply dropping bombs close to friendly forces from 12000 or so to be “close” air support. If it is, then B17s were doing “close” air support during WWII.

    I also think that blaming this incident on sequestration is overreach. For one thing, as you point out, the JTAC should never have been given that job. Lack of money didn’t put him there.

    1. “Close” refers to the impact, not the platform. Barring epic cock-ups B-17’s weren’t dropping anything in the neighborhood of Allied troops.

    2. Yep. After I wrote that I realized it might be a bit silly. I need a time delay on my Enter key.

      Still, using an aircraft like the B1 for CAS is at least as silly. The A-10 is being retired at least partially for cost and vulnerability reasons, yet the B! is considerably more expensive to own and operate. Why on earth do you need a crew of four allegedly highly trained crew flying a 150 ton aircraft from distant bases to drop a couple of 500 lb bombs?

      The article says the aircrew couldn’t see the infrared strobes of the ground troops with either their sensor pod or night vision goggles. They did not know how to use their equipment. They dropped on muzzle flashes they therefore assumed were not close to friendlies.

      The article says only that they used 500 lb. bombs. They may well have been within a 30 m. CEP, which was unfortunate in this case.

      During Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy in WWII, B-17s were used against the German troops defending the area of the attack. Of course they were supposed to bomb no closer than about 2,000 meters, but when you bomb from far away, vertically or horizontally, things tend to go astray.

      The whole incident seems to me to be full of bad training and bad decisions which cannot be attributed to sequestration.

    3. Well, the B-1 does things the A-10 can’t, like strategic bombing and not getting shot down by MANPADS. Since we have B-1s for those tasks, and the B-1 can and has done the job of the A-10, why are we spending the money on A-10s? The A-10 may be cheaper to operate per hour, but I doubt that either the differential or the number of flight hours are large enough to offset the cost of the entire A-10 support pipeline.

      The Taliban have been known to use jury-rigged IR cameras, so maybe the reason nobody on the plane saw the strobes was because they were turned off. Or maybe the aircrew was screwed up, just like plenty of A-10 pilots. Indeed, having multiple crewmembers enables a level of backup absent in a single-seat cockpit. How many friendly-fire incidents have we not heard about because someone looked over a said “Hey, Bill, I think those are our guys”? No platform is immune to fratricide, and modern technology puts the B-1 aircrew far closer to the FAC than the A-10 pilot was when the plane was first fielded.

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