The years-in-the-making debate over whether the Air Force should scrap its A-10 Warthog attack aircraft in favor of the over-budget F-35 has taken a harsh rhetorical turn.
A two-star general last month reportedly accused Air Force pilots who tell Congress about successes of the four-decade-old Warthog of committing “treason,” drawing the wrath of senators, defense policy critics and bloggers. The Air Force inspector general’s office has confirmed that an investigation was launched on Jan. 22.
Maj. Gen. James Post, vice commander of Air Combat Command, was reported to have made the comments at a January closed-door meeting of the Tactics Review Board at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The story, as relayed by meeting attendees, was broken by Air Force veteran Tony Carr writing on the blog John Q. Public. Carr was outraged at the apparent violation of free speech and the story was picked up by Stars and Stripes, the Associated Press and Defense News.
“If anyone accuses me of saying this, I will deny it,” Post told the meeting, according to the blogger. “Anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason.”
Carr proceeded to attack the Air Force’s initial silence on the episode, saying officers “were concerned less about his use of hyperbolic brio than how his words fit within a pattern of creeping fascism in the ranks. In other words, no one was calling for Post to be relieved so much as they were looking for the Air Force to make an affirmative statement about the non-negotiable rights of airmen to engage in free expression and engage their legislators.”
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called on Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James to investigate. The Arizona Republican has long advocated that the Air Force retain the A-10, which provides close air support to ground troops in combat.
Another A-10 backer, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, at a Jan. 28 hearing, told Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh that “this is very serious, to accuse people of treason for communicating with Congress,” adding her concern that the Air Force may seek to intimidate A-10 pilots who contact Congress in a sort of “reverse investigation.”
Welsh replied that he would be “astonished” if there were such a reverse probe, saying he would never condone one. He supports “any airman’s right to discuss anything that you would like to discuss with them and to give you their honest opinion,” Welsh said, but he added that he would not recommend any action against Post until the investigation is complete. Welsh did, however, say he personally phoned Post on learning of his reported accusations of treason.
After President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget was released proposing decommissioning the A-10, Ayotte issued a statement on Feb. 2 conveying her disappointment. “Our ground troops and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers — our nation’s true close air support experts — overwhelmingly believe that the A-10 provides life-saving close air support capabilities that no other current aircraft can. That’s why Congress — on a bipartisan, bicameral basis — prohibited the Air Force from retiring any A-10s in fiscal year 2015,” she said.
On Thursday, the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit advocacy group that pushes for transparency and against waste, joined with other whistleblower protection groups in sending the Air Force Secretary a letter protesting alleged retaliation against Air Force pilots who spoke out on the A-10 and demanding that Post be fired, or at least suspended during the inquiry. “Maj. Gen. Post’s bullying comment shows he lacks the judgment to continue in his current role of vice commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command,” POGO wrote.
The Air Combat Command, in a Jan. 27 statement to Air Force Times, said Post’s “use of hyperbole” was intended to prove a point and not to restrict airmen from communicating with members of Congress. “The Air Force decision on recommended actions/strategic choices for the constrained fiscal environment has been made and the service’s position communicated. While subsequent government debate will continue at the highest levels as those recommendations and other options are evaluated, our job as airmen is to continue to execute our mission and duties — certainly our role as individual military members is not to engage in public debate or advocacy for policy.”
On Friday, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department inspector general told Government Executive that her office always oversees “administrative investigations involving senior officials once they are completed by military service IGs.”
A week after his scoop, Carr wrote that “the Air Force doesn’t need a protracted investigation to determine what happened here, and it doesn’t need to barricade itself behind a bevy of pundits spouting misguided propaganda to maintain an appropriate public image. All it needs to do is account for the facts, make a decision based on those facts, and report that decision publicly so that various constituencies can understand the applied rationale. This would provide a perfect opportunity to remind airmen of their rights and limitations in public debate.”