Heart of Empire — January 22, 2014, 2:02 pm

Warthogs and All

The U.S. Air Force’s foolish plan to scrap its most effective plane

A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II in-flight over Afghanistan, October 7, 2008. ©© by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon

A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” in-flight over Afghanistan, October 7, 2008. ©© Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon (via Flickr)

According to legend, it was airpower that conquered Afghanistan back in 2001, with the Taliban sent packing after a few weeks of precision strikes from U.S. warplanes. Now it looks as though airpower is playing an important role in turfing us out of the country, with the reborn Taliban snapping at our heels. The January 15 airstrike in Parwan Province, which according to the Afghan government killed at least twelve civilians, including seven children, allegedly inspired a retaliatory Taliban attack that killed twenty-one people at a Kabul restaurant last week, most of them foreigners. President Hamid Karzai is now demanding that all U.S. and allied airstrikes cease forthwith.

We don’t yet know the details of the Parwan strike, for example the type of aircraft used. The promised investigation will take a long time, and its conclusion will doubtless be classified. But the details of an equally disastrous attack in May 2012, reported exclusively in my piece “Tunnel Vision,” in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, tell us a great deal about how such events occur. 

That strike occurred in Paktia Province, close to the Pakistani border, and it was inflicted by a B-1 bomber, a plane originally designed to drop nuclear bombs on Moscow. The target was a farmhouse inhabited by a man named Shahiullah and his family. The payload of several tons of bombs killed him, his wife, and five of his seven children. The ground controllers directing the attack, and the crew of the B-1, had been informed that only civilians were at the scene, and that this was a “bad target.” This information came from the one plane in the U.S. arsenal designed specifically for close air support of troops on the ground: the A-10 “Warthog.” Two A-10 pilots had spent many minutes circling low over the farm, scanning it at close range with the naked eye and through binoculars, then warning repeatedly that it was a bad target and refusing to strike as ordered. Their warnings were ignored by the ground controllers, who handed the mission over to the willing B-1. As a result seven people, including a ten-month-old baby, died.

With the exception of drone assassination strikes, close air support is the main function of airpower these days. Since targets tend to be close to friendly troops, commanders require precise information about the location and identity of targets. So one might assume the U.S. Air Force would cherish a plane that is uniquely and specifically designed to perform this mission. Such is not the case. Service chiefs appear determined to junk the A-10, which can operate close to the ground because of its armored cockpit; the location of its fuel tanks, which are well away from its engine; and other features that allow the pilot to brave enemy fire at altitudes that would prove fatal to thin-skinned fighters such as the F-16 — let alone a lumbering bomber like the B-1. In addition, the A-10 can fly slowly while maneuvering nimbly. Unsurprisingly, American soldiers and Marines, who are often themselves the victims of inaccurately targeted bombs, cherish the Warthog as a close friend in combat.

In theory, technology has taken care of the problem, with high-definition video screens for targeting, and bombs and missiles that are precisely targeted by GPS or lasers. In practice, things are not so tidy. “People just don’t realize,” one weapons designer commented to me, “that high-definition video isn’t good enough to show the subtle stuff you’ve got to see to keep from hitting your own guys or killing civilians.” He compared the task to watching a Super Bowl broadcast and attempting to determine whether a spectator was leaning on an AK-47 or a cane. The vaunted capability of drones to give operators thousands of miles away a low-flying-bird’s-eye view of the enemy gets unfavorable reviews from pilots. “If you want to know what the world looks like from a drone (video) feed,” an Air Force officer with extensive drone experience told me, “walk around for a day with one eye closed and the other looking through a soda straw.”

The consequences are frequently bloody. In a particularly deadly attack in May 2009, bombs from a B-1 killed at least 140 men, women, and children in Farah Province because the pilot, according to the Pentagon’s own explanation, “had to break away from positive identification of its targets” — i.e., he couldn’t see what he was bombing. Other mass-civilian-casualty incidents during the Afghan war, such as those in Kunduz (2009, ninety-one dead), Herat (2008, ninety-two dead), and Kunar (2013, ten children), can be traced to the same fatal dependence on video-screen images and inaccurate second-hand information from the ground.

As I explain in my Harper’s feature, the Air Force’s decision to junk the A-10 while retaining the B-1 and the even more unwieldy B-52 bombers for close air support may seem inexplicable, but it is in reality quite logical. The service owes its independence from the army to its success in marketing the notion that bombing an enemy heartland far from the battlefield can win wars. The principle of close air support for ground troops negates this core ideology. That is why the Air Force is junking the A-10. It claims it will save $3.5 billion over the next five years by removing the planes from service, but it is simultaneously planning to start a new long-range-bomber program that will cost at least $81 billion, and almost certainly many times that amount.

Share
Single Page

More from Andrew Cockburn:

From the January 2018 issue

Swap Meet

Wall Street’s war on the Volcker Rule

From the October 2017 issue

Crime and Punishment

Will the 9/11 case finally go to trial?

Letter from Washington September 10, 2017, 9:00 am

Crime and Punishment

Will the 9/11 case finally go to trial?

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

Amount American Airlines saved in 1987 by eliminating one olive from each salad served in first class:

$40,000

A daddy longlegs preserved in amber 99 million years ago was found to have an erection.

Trump tweeted that he had created “jobs, jobs, jobs” since becoming president, and it was reported that Trump plans to bolster job creation by loosening regulations on the global sale of US-made artillery, warships, fighter jets, and drones.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today