WASHINGTON — The Air Force's decision to divest itself of the A-10 has created a massive headache to the service, with the Warthog community teaming up with supporters on Capitol Hill to try to block the combat jet's retirement.
But one constituency that has not chimed in? The powerful adjutants general leading the military forces at the state level.
It's not a coincidence that the states have been quiet on the A-10. Instead, it's part of a coordinated, long-term effort by service leaders in the Pentagon to involve their state-level comrades in the planning process.
"There's a lot of action under the water that people aren't seeing," said a former high-ranking member of the Air National Guard.
That action is a legacy of the bruising fight over the US government's fiscal 2013 budget, the result of a spending proposal that included major cuts to the military's National Guard and Air Force Reserve components.
Feeling betrayed by planners in the Pentagon, the Air Guard and reserve rallied their supporters on the Hill in open legislative warfare, a public battle that resulted in the Air Force's budget plans being thrown out and the creation of the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force to try to smooth relations.
The Air Force's active component reassessed its strategies after that fight, according to top service officials, and when it came time to plan the fiscal 2015 budget — one that would, by necessity, include major cuts to platforms and personnel — Air Force leaders made sure to include the Guard in the process early.
"This year, we involved two of the [Air Guard adjutants general] from the very beginning in our POM [program objective memorandum] development process," said Lt. Gen. Michael Moeller, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs. "It was an integrated, total force approach from the start to finish. It's a fundamental change, and it is permanent.
"We will not conduct these major processes unless it's a total force effort," Moeller added. "Absolutely, an institutional requirement. That's based on our success in this environment from building the [fiscal] 2015 sequestered POM. We could not have done it unless we did it as a total force."
The two adjutants general most involved in the process were Maj. Gen. Emmett Titshaw of Florida and Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards of Colorado. Both represented the Air Guard to the Total Force Task Force.
Discussions on force structure also went from the states up, thanks in part to work done by the Air Guard's Strategic Planning Systems and its future missions database, which allows Guard commanders to seek with replacement options for scenarios such as losing their A-10 fleet.
The Guard has shared that information with Moeller's A-8 planning directorate, laying the groundwork for both sides to avoid another 2013-esque scenario.
That two-way communications played a key role in ensuring the adjutants general of states about to lose their A-10 fleet understood and were not blindsided by the plan, according the former Guard official.
"There's no surprises to the adjutants general," he said. "The adjutants general have already thought through what do we do if these mission go away, they understand this was not the 'Air Force versus the Guard,' and they understand the need for Welsh to do what he's proposing.
"Rather than surprise everybody, they included them in the process, and everybody knows what's going on," the source said. "The TAGs [adjutants general] have already briefed the governors before any announcement to say, 'Don't worry, we know how to handle this, and we can make the adjustments and maintain capability for both the federal and state missions.'
"They're not going to shoot any of their bullets fighting the Air Force on this because they understand why it's happening, and they see where the future is and how they can convert the mission they have into future missions."
One Air Guard pilot said: "The reason the governors and TAGs aren't complaining is the active Air Force was smart about how they went about the divestiture by offering flying missions to A-10 states."
While the state-level leadership may be fine with the A-10 divestiture now, the pilot warned they may come to regret it.
"If/when the US gets into another ground war and starts losing service members from all 50 states, then, and only then, will the states take notice," he said. "By then it would be too late, and we will have realized the Vietnam fast-jet [close-air support] failure lesson all over again."
It's hard to overstate how much damage the adjutants general could do to the Air Force's budget plans if they decided to fight against the move to retire the Warthog. However, the director of the Air Guard insists there have been nothing but good conversations with the state-level representatives.
"They don't get emotional about it as some people do about the A-10s," Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke said of the TAGs. "When I tell them, as an airman, that I have flown the missions, I have flown [the] aircraft, when I explain to them and tell them, 'What your airmen are going to be doing is important to the nation,' they get it."
Clarke added he hasn't "heard anything" from governors of affected states voicing displeasure over the plans.
Under the Air Force's plan, six states will lose their A-10 Guard or reserve units in four waves of divestiture:
■ Beginning in 2015, the A-10 unit at Gowen Field Air National Guard Base near Boise, Idaho, would transfer to a classic association with F-15E fighter jet units at nearby Mountain Home Air Force Base.
■ In 2017, the Guard A-10 unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich., would receive eight KC-135 aerial refueling planes.
■ In 2018, the Guard A-10 unit at Martin State Air National Guard Base, Md., would receive eight C-130J cargo planes while the reserve unit at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., would receive 18 F-16 fighters.
■ In 2019, a reserve unit at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., and a Guard unit at Fort Wayne, Ind., would receive 18 F-16s.
"In each case, the Air Force has decided to move the iron to make sure the Air National Guard stays robust and these airmen have a value-added mission they can do in the future," Clarke said. "It's not a jobs thing, it's about what you do that serves the nation and the state that's important to Guard people, and that includes the adjutants general."
While the governors and TAGs may be willing to sit this fight out, the Hill remains the biggest roadblock to the retirement of the A-10, a twin-engine, armor-protected jet designed to defend troops on the ground.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH., has been the leading figure in defending the A-10, and her support seems to be growing. She has picked up a powerful voice on this issue in Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and has also seen Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Jim Risch, R-Idaho, join in a pledge to block A-10 cuts.
Both McCain and Risch represent states that would move from A-10s to other planes, potentially setting up an interesting dynamic if the governors and TAGs truly believe they would be better off with F-15s or F-16s instead of A-10s for the state Guard and reserve units.
Brian Everstine in Washington contributed to this report.