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.