F-35 vs. A-10: Which Plane Should Defend America's Soldiers?

The Buzz

Politico Pro and Bloomberg have been reporting of late that the Pentagon’s Office of Test & Evaluation (OT&E) is planning a series of head-to-head close air support tests between the A-10C and the F-35A. USAF Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh had previously called that “a silly exercise”; the Lightning II, he insisted, is a combat aircraft for the “entire battlespace,” not just close air support, or CAS, for short. POGO shortly thereafter took advantage of its Google search engine to play gotcha with his “conflicting statements” on the issue. Fairly, though, the general might have used an analogy from the 1920s. In a competitive gunnery exercise between a battleship and an aircraft carrier, the battleship will win. But that doesn’t tell us to buy the battleship—just not to wind up like HMS Glorious. Unless designed carefully, such tests may not tell us much at all. So, if we were going to design such a field experiment, build a model, or hold a wargame, what would we want to know?

Start with what information is available to the pilots, whether through the F-35A’s sensors or the A-10C’s bubble canopy. Doug Birkey of the Mitchell Institute and Rebecca Grant of IRIS Research recently stressed to Defense News that close air support isn’t strictly about visually sighting and diving on targets. It’s about garnering information for precision weapons strikes. In theory, the F-35A could do that very well, so fight’s on, right? Maybe, but read on.

Because while you’re thinking about all that information, test vulnerability too. The F-35A isn’t actually invisible, and however awesome the pilots, the A-10C can only absorb so much punishment. For ground forces, reconnaissance doctrine talks about fighting for information; in the air, that can go awry very quickly. As USAF pilot Derek O’Malley and Professor Andrew Hill of the Army War College argued at War On The Rocksanti-aircraft defenses are more lethal than they used to be, so strafing runs may be a questionable choice.

Next, handicap on cost. O’Malley and Hill followed their essay with another about how technology would solve most problems, as long as the Joint Strike Fighter was at the center of it all. In a response, Army officer Benjamin Fernandes, now a PhD student at George Mason, argued that sooner or later, sensors will get jammed, spoofed, or hacked, and a combat pilot is going to need to visually sight and shoot someone with a cannon. But except in extreme circumstances, strafing runs may be a particularly questionable choice for a hundred million dollar airplane.

Don’t discount differential training. General John Loh, a former USAF vice chief of staff, wants to retire A-10Cs, but require that new F-35A squadrons devote a fixed amount of their training time to close air support. CAS, they say, is not a plane, it’s a mission. But if it’s a mission, then training is an essential part of it. Between single-seat aircraft types, can multi-mission pilots undertake any mission as well as single-mission pilots? The Marine Corps doubts this; its single-seat F-18C squadrons specialize in air-to-air work, while its twin-seat F-18D squadrons focus on air-to-ground. Bombing in support of troops in contact can be a two-person job.

Then finally, once you’ve scienced the hell out of those tests, listen to the market. Boeing would be delighted to refurbish the A-10Cs and sell them overseas to customers closer to, say, North Korean or Russian tank battalions. With stronger language, blogger Tyler Rogoway concurs. At one point, Boeing was even discussing terms with the USAF. But is anyone buying? I’ve argued particularly that South Korea and Poland should consider buying used, but interest there hasn’t apparently been strong. Plenty of countries have armed helicopters for ground attack. Plenty of countries have turboprop-powered, fixed-wing aircraft dedicated for ground attack. Only the U.S. and Russia have fleets of manned, jet-powered, fixed-wing, ground attack aircraft, and those are designs from the 1970s. So if no one wants these surplus A-10Cs, then maybe the market knows something.

This is not to suggest that the Marines should dump the F-35B, and just talk to Insitu about weaponizing their RQ-21A Blackjacks. All the same, DARPA sometimes has crazier ideas, and last year’s wacky can seem pretty reasonable today. Long before it had such a large fleet of AH-1Z Viper (“Zulu Cobra”) helicopter gunships, the Marines' aviation leadership feared shifting away from fixed-wing fighters. In the 1950s, helicopters were pitched as the solution to avoiding concentrating the fleet for amphibious assault. At the time, the fear was nuclear bombs; today it’s supersonic cruise missiles. But the Israelis recently replaced their Cobras with missile-firing drones, so different military establishments take different views at different times on how to support troops in contact.

Even today, even the Marines aren't completely wedded to shipborne manned aircraft. The Harvest Hawk program put Hellfire missiles on Hercules tankers to turn their KC-130s into impromptu gunships. They can loiter for hours, refuel other planes, and relay communications along the way—but don’t hazard them around serious anti-aircraft threats. The point is that even a well-designed test will leave many open questions about which airplane—fighter-bomber, drone, helicopter gunship, fixed-wing gunship—will provide the strongest competition to a dedicated, armored, manned, fixed-wing attack plane in different scenarios. So choose your test carefully, OT&E. Like the USMC, the USAF needs to fill the squadrons with planes that won’t leave the guys on the ground in the doghouse, or leave General Welsh to shake a fist skyward. Curse you Red Baron!

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where this piece first appeared


The Effort to Destroy the Iran Agreement: Chapter Two

Paul Pillar

Anyone tired of hearing about the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program is not going to get relief soon, despite the Congressional voting this month that is supposed to decide the matter. It now appears likely that even if the Republican-controlled Congress enacts a resolution of disapproval, any such resolution would not survive a presidential veto, which means the agreement itself will come into force. It also is possible that opponents will fail to get the 60 votes needed to get such a resolution through the Senate in the first place, in which case the outcome would be decided even earlier. If the Iranian nuclear issue were one that people with honestly expressed substantive differences had been addressing consistently in a sober and well-reasoned fashion, one might expect that those on the losing side of that outcome would accept the result and turn their attention to how they can participate effectively in vigorous oversight of the agreement's implementation. There are indeed substantial opportunities for Congress to exercise such oversight. But debate on this matter has had a deficit of sobriety and honesty. Some of the principal sources of opposition to the agreement have involved wanting the Iranian nuclear issue to fester indefinitely or for the Obama administration to fail in its efforts to do something about it.

The voting and possible vetoing that will take place later this month thus will mark only the end of one chapter in a continuing political contest. Opponents of the agreement will continue to try to subvert it even after it enters into force. The partisan divide in sentiment on the issue, which, as Jim Lobe points out, has become increasingly sharp as reflected in opinion polls over the past year, will be one of the drivers of continued opposition. The issue has exhibited a familiar pattern in which members of the public who have little substantive knowledge of the matter of question take their cues from leaders of the party with which they most identify. A self-reinforcing cycle of adamant opposition by Republican politicians and consequent opposition by a cue-taking Republican base has put the Iranian nuclear issue on a similar trajectory as the Affordable Care Act—i.e., endless preoccupation by the Congressional portion of half the political spectrum with killing it rather than implementing it, no matter what experience may show is working or not working.

Efforts to kill the agreement, after the votes this month that will determine whether the agreement will go into effect, will center on getting the United States not to live up to its end of the agreement. Given that the United States has no obligations under the agreement other than to end some of the punishment it has been inflicting in the form of economic sanctions, the agreement-killing strategy will entail slapping new sanctions on Iran until Tehran is pressed passed the limits of its tolerance for such accord-circumventing behavior. The specific tactics may involve in effect restoring some of the nuclear-related sanctions that are due to be relaxed under the agreement, but under some new label such as terrorism or something having to do with other Iranian behavior. Ideas have already been advanced along these lines. Other creative ideas of opponents include having states rather than the federal government sanction Iran. All such maneuvers will make it difficult for Iranian leaders committed to observance of the agreement to deflect charges from their domestic opponents that the United States snookered Iran and that it is not in Iran's interests to continue to live up to the agreement.

U.S. opponents of the agreement will supplement their sanctions maneuvers with continued efforts to play up any bit of Iranian behavior that is objectionable or can be portrayed as such. The prominence that already has been given to the opponents' contention that sanctions relief will be a “financial windfall” that will fund increased “nefarious” Iranian activity in the region sets the stage, of course, for later drawing attention to just about anything that Iran will actually or allegedly be doing in the Middle East that can be objected to. The argument will be that any such behavior is a direct consequence of the “windfall,” regardless of how much it actually is a matter of Tehran reacting to events not of its own making and has little or nothing to do with Iranian finances. This will all be in addition to making public issues out of anything that can be construed as an Iranian violation of the nuclear agreement itself (which is different from the necessary process of sustained, careful, responsible oversight). We have already gotten a preview of this sort of tactic with many such construals regarding Iranian observance of the Joint Plan of Action, the preliminary agreement reached in 2013, on which the actual Iranian record of compliance has been excellent.

The U.S. presidential election calendar has given diehard opponents of the nuclear agreement added incentive to inflict lethal sabotage on the agreement within the next 16 months. The prospect of a Republican entering the White House in January 2017 may in this respect present more of a vulnerability than an opportunity for opponents. Republican presidential candidates have been competing with each other in telling the primary-voter party base how quickly and peremptorily they would renounce the agreement with Iran—with the only differences being whether it would be on the very first day in office, whether renunciation would take place before or after consulting with advisers, etc. It would be tough for any of these candidates, if elected, to back down from such an oft-repeated pledge. But such a presidential renunciation would be a more direct and blatant unilateral U.S. reneging on a multilateral accord than even some of the more aggressive sanctions-restoring tactics mentioned earlier. And such a renunciation would come after three years (counting from when the JPOA came into effect) of Iran living up to its commitments under the agreement and not moving to make a nuclear weapon.

The discomfort that the future president would be feeling in this situation would reflect what has been the underlying concern of confirmed opponents of the nuclear agreement all along: not that the accord will fail, but that it will succeed.                             

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

The Ultimate Weapon: Nuclear Armed Battleships?

The Buzz

In the early 1980s, four Iowa-class fast battleships originally built during World War II—Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin—were taken out of mothballs and returned to active duty.

Nearly 900 feet long and displacing close to 60,000 tons, the battlewagons could fire a nine-gun broadside sending 18 tons of steel and explosives hurtling towards their targets.

The battleships were modernized to include cruise missiles, ship-killing missiles and Phalanx point-defense guns. Returned to the fleet, the ships saw action off the coasts of Lebanon and Iraq. At the end of the Cold War the battleships were retired again. All were slated to become museums.

Few knew, however, that returning the battleships to service in the ’80s had been only part of the plan. The second, more ambitious phase was a radical redesign of the massive warships that would have combined the attributes of battleships and aircraft carriers.

(Recommended: Is It Time to Bring Back the Battleships?)

The resulting ship, a “battlecarrier,” was merely one of many schemes over the span of 30 years to modernize the most powerful American battleships ever built. The various proposals—all of them nixed—had the World War II-era ships carrying hundreds of U.S. Marines or launching Harrier jump jets or even firing atomic projectiles.

A Hole in the Navy:

Before World War II, planners had assumed that the big-gun ships would win wars by duking it out with enemy vessels of the same kind. Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway dispelled that notion, as the flexibility and long-range striking power of aircraft carriers proved superior to battleships’ broadsides.

(Recommended:  5 Ultimate Battleships)

The battlewagons were relegated to a secondary role in the fleet, shelling shore defenses ahead of landings by the Army and Marines. And after the war, the Navy shed most of its heavy cruisers and battleships while retaining its aircraft carriers. The rush to embrace missiles further reduced the influence of the big-gun vessels, and the era of the battleship appeared to be over for good.

For the U.S. Marine Corps, this was a worrying trend. The seaborne invasion of Inchon during the Korean War showed that the age of amphibious assaults was not yet over. Military planners liked aircraft for their flexibility, but from the Marines’ perspective a ship that could sit off a coastline and bombard it with heavy guns for hours on end was vital.

There was a solution. The four Iowa-class battleships, in mothballs since World War II, were briefly reactivated during the Korean War to provide gunfire support for U.N. forces—and retired again after the war was over.

(Recommended: 5 Most Deadly Aircraft Carriers)

For some Navy planners, battleships were back in vogue. There were frequent attempts to return the battlewagons to service.

Nuclear Battleship:

In 1958, the Navy proposed overhauling the Iowa-class ships by removing all of the 16-inch guns and replacing them with anti-aircraft and anti-submarine missiles.

The new “guided missile battleships” would also carry four Regulus II cruise missiles, each of which could flatten a city a thousand miles distant with a nuclear warhead more than 100 times as powerful as the bomb used on Hiroshima.

The result would have certainly been the most powerful battleship ever, but the concept was riddled with inefficiencies. Under the proposal, 2,000 sailors would have had to sail into hostile waters in an expensive, 900-foot vessel to attack just four targets with nuclear weapons. An Air Force bomber could attack as many targets, at a greater range, with fewer than a dozen crew.

And at $1.5 billion in today’s dollars, the conversion would have been expensive.

At the same time, the Navy had put in orders for submarines to carry Polaris ballistic missiles. The proposed missile submarines could attack targets more than twice as far away as the Regulus II-armed battleship could, while carrying four times as many missiles and spending most of their time underwater avoiding detection.

The nuclear battleship concept was dead in the water.

Amphibious Battleship:

In 1961 a new proposal would have utilized the Iowa-class battleships to increase the navy’s troop-carrying capability. The rear turret and its three 16-inch guns would have been removed. In its place would be a hangar and a flight deck capable of carrying 30 helicopters.

The ship would also haul 14 landing craft to bring tanks and vehicles ashore. Accommodations for 1,800 Marines would be added.

Each of the amphibious Iowas would have been a one-ship expeditionary force.

Capable of laying down its own fire support with the remaining six 16-inch guns and deploying a battalion-sized Marine amphibious unit by air and sea, the ship would have been a hive of activity.

But it would still be expensive to convert and operate, and the Navy had many surplus aircraft carriers that could more cheaply be converted to amphibious platforms. Three such older carriers were modified, and the Iowa-class again stayed in mothballs.


The cost of the Vietnam War put a temporary hold on talk of reviving the Iowas in some new form. One of the battleships, New Jersey, was briefly reactivated to serve in Vietnam.

In the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration began an ambitious shipbuilding program. It was decided to yet again bring back the four Iowas. In phase one, the ships were modernized with the addition of Tomahawk land attack missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Phalanx defense guns. By the mid-1980s, all four had returned to duty.

There was a phase two that was never executed, and it was more interesting.

This phase again involved removing the rear 16-inch gun turret. In its place would be built an overhanging flight deck and two forward-facing ski jumps that would hurl Marine Corps Harrier jump jets into the air. The ship would carry up to 20 Harriers, as well as a hangar and an aircraft elevator.

And that’s not all. Nestled between the two ski jumps would be a large field of missile silos, each holding Standard anti-aircraft or Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles.

The firepower of the battleships—and their destructive range—would have increased substantially. Trading one turret for 20 Harrier jets was a pretty good deal. Add the Tomahawks and their ability to strike with precision at a thousand miles and the improvements looked even better. The resulting warship would have equaled the firepower of a Nimitz-class supercarrier.

But as before, the Iowas’ inherent inefficiencies worked against them. With a crew of nearly 2,000 each, the ships’ high personnel costs made them prohibitively expensive to run in an all-volunteer navy. Harrier jets could already be carried by the Tarawa-class landing ships, and missile silos were proliferating across the fleet.

The Navy came to the conclusion that if the country was going to get its money’s worth from the four battleships, the vessels had to concentrate on their unique abilities: firing massive artillery shells at the enemy.

That meant keeping all three main gun turrets. The cool conversion schemes would have to stay just that, schemes.

Future Battlewagon:

Today the naval gunfire argument rages on. Even in the age of drones and precision warfare there are still occasional calls to bring the heavily manned, imprecise Iowa class back to service. There’s a certain romance to battleships, and having four Iowas sitting around in good condition has beguiled naval enthusiasts and planners for more than 60 years with schemes to bring them back.

The Zumwalt-class destroyers will go a long way towards providing battleship-quality naval gunfire support for the Marines. Minimally manned, relatively small, stealthy and precise, the Zumwalts are the antithesis of the Iowas, but functionally their successors.

Although each Zumwalt can only provide the explosive mass of a single one of an Iowa’s 16-inch guns, the newer ship can fire its smaller shells with GPS-aided precision up to 83 miles away, versus 20 miles for an Iowa.

Should the Zumwalt design be successful, the torch of the battleship could finally be transferred to them, and the Iowas can finally slumber in peace as museums, safe from the schemes of those who would revive them.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here.


No, China's Economy Hasn't Reached a Crisis...At Least Not Yet

The Buzz

I started my job at the Federal Reserve three weeks before Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.

I wish I had kept a diary of my initial months at the Fed, so I could recall clearly what we thought was happening each day. I do remember there was a discrete point where suddenly everything felt like it was in free-fall. It brought to mind the comment of Don Russel, Paul Keating's economic advisor, claiming there was a moment in his office when he heard the Australian economy snap, sometime in late 1989. I think I heard the U.S. economy snap in my Washington office in 2008.

Judging by the headlines, many people heard the Chinese economy snap last week. I didn't. The stock market is in trouble, but I'm not too concerned. As I said in an earlier post, “The stock market does not look to be of systemic importance to the Chinese economy. It is relatively small, it is not a major source of finance for firms, and stocks are not widely held.”

I do think China's next GDP numbers, to be released in October, will be disappointing. One reason is that financial services, which had accounted for a lot of growth earlier in the year (growing by 17.4%), will likely have had a poor quarter.

But there some good news stories too. Many people were concerned about low government revenue growth earlier this year, suggesting this was a sign of a weak economy. That figure has bounced back nicely, growing at 12.6%, year on year in July, and as far as I'm aware, tax rate increases are not responsible. A poor manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI; an index gauging manufacturer's sentiment) seemed to kick off the recent round of hand wringing, but the PMI for the non-manufacturing sector has held up so far.

This relates to a general point made by one of my favorite China experts, Nick Lardy of the Peterson Institute. Lardy thinks services are growing quite quickly. Moreover, he has this rebuttal to those who doubt the data:

“Naysayers question government economic data, continuing to focus on weakness in China's industrial sector and the extremely slow growth of electric power output. But steel production, for example, is significantly more energy intensive than entertainment, so the demand for electricity has fallen sharply as the structure of the economy has evolved.”

It's fair to say there is an entire industry based on the claim that Chinese GDP has long been overstated. But we don't often hear about the fact that China underestimates housing services in GDP, which is documented in the appendix of Lardy's book Sustaining China's Economic Growth After the Global Financial Crisis.

I digress. Yes, the Chinese economy faces risks. Debt has ballooned over the last eight years. The IMF, in its 2014 Article 4 consultation, had these words to say:

“Looking at a sample covering 43 countries over 50 years, staff identified only four episodes that experienced a similar scale of credit growth as China's recent TSF growth. Within three years following the boom period, all four countries had a banking crisis.”

That's a worry. But it does not imply that crisis is a certainty, or even the most likely result. The IMF, in its 2015 consultation, was more upbeat. And this is money the Chinese owe to themselves in their own currency. That takes off the table many of the risk factors that have plagued other emerging economies.

Am I foolishly saying 'This time is different'? Ken Rogoff, a former Chief Economist at the IMF who wrote the book on financial crises, may suggest that I am. I could look silly in six months. What I am not saying, however, is that China is certain to grow steadily, without incident, for years. It would be remarkable if China did not encounter turbulence. I just think we are some way from a full-blown crisis.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsAsia

CFTNI Job Posting: Senior Fellow, U.S.-China Relations

The Buzz

The Center for the National Interest seeks to hire a Senior Fellow to lead projects on U.S.-China relations and U.S. policy toward China.  As the Center’s principal full-time professional staff member focused on Asia, the Senior Fellow will play a key part in shaping this program and will be expected to build a highly visible role in Washington’s policy community.

The successful candidate will be a competent and accomplished self-starter with expertise on one or more key areas including: U.S.-China political and security relations, U.S.-China economic relations, U.S. policy toward China, Chinese foreign policy, China’s economy, and Chinese domestic politics.

Key responsibilities will include:

- Working with the management and with a part-time senior colleague to define program priorities and leading the Center’s pursuit of the agreed goals on a day-to-day basis;

- Planning and organizing a monthly series of meetings focused on topical issues in U.S.-China relations, including political, economic and security issues as well as China’s domestic politics;

- Writing policy-oriented articles and reports, including for the Center’s magazine The National Interest and, commenting in national media, and speaking regularly at the Center and other organizations;

- Conceptualizing, writing and submitting proposals to foundations and other organizations, in consultation with the management, to develop and expand the Center’s projects related to China and U.S.-China relations;

- Supervising a part-time program assistant and one or more volunteer interns, as needed.

A graduate degree in a related discipline or equivalent professional experience is required; Chinese (Mandarin) language proficiency is highly desirable.  Salary and benefits are competitive and based on experience and salary history.

To apply, please send a cover letter, curriculum vitae, professional biography, references, and one or two policy-oriented writing samples to Paul Saunders, Executive Director, Center for the National Interest at

TopicsJob Posting