The U.S. Air Force manipulated casualty data to make the A-10 attack aircraft appear more hazardous than it really is, according to a watchdog group.
The service "cherry-picked" information on civilian casualties and friendly fire deaths in Afghanistan, making it look as though the aging gunship is responsible for killing more American troops and Afghan civilians than any other warplane, according to the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.
The raw figures, which were the subject of a recent story in USA Today, don't take into account the frequency with which the aircraft were flown -- critical for any kind of comparison, only cover certain years, and leave out a major incident in 2009 involving the B-1 bomber in which nearly 100 civilians were killed, POGO said.
"Those cooked statistics excluded—and kept classified—data that is essential for a basic understanding of the issue," Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at POGO, wrote in an analysis.
The flap comes just weeks after Maj. Gen. James Post, vice commander of Air Combat Command, warned officers that praising the A-10 to lawmakers would amount to "treason."
It may give congressional overseers such as Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, yet more fodder to block the service's latest proposal to retire the Warthog by 2019 to save an estimated $4.2 billion a year and free up maintainers for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Congress rejected the service’s requests to begin the process of divesting the low, slow-flying aircraft in the current fiscal year and included about $337 million in the budget to keep almost 300 of them in the inventory. While they did allow the Air Force to move as many as 36 of the planes to back-up status, they blocked the service from sending any to the bone yard.
The 30mm, seven-barrel GAU-8/A Avenger in the nose of the Cold War-era Warthog can hold as many as 1,174 rounds designed to shred the armor on tanks, combat vehicles and other targets.
The Air Force data show the A-10 was involved in missions that killed 35 civilians in the five years through 2014 -- more than any other aircraft. However, they also show the Warthog flew almost 2,700 combat missions, or kinetic sorties, during that period -- far more than any other plane. That translates into 1.3 civilian deaths per 100 missions. (The rate increases to 1.4 when including wounded civilians.)
That's the second-lowest casualty rate of any of the aircraft, behind the KC-130 cargo plane, according to POGO. Which was the worst offender? The AV-8B Harrier jump-jet, which had 8.4 civilian casualties per 100 missions, according to the group's analysis:
|Platform||Casualties per 100 Kinetic Sorties|
"The table makes it clear that the A-10 is the safest airplane in Afghan combat, except for the KC-130," it states. "In fact, the A-10 produces nearly five times fewer civilian casualties per firing sortie than the B-1 bomber."
And that's taking into account the Air Force's truncated time period, which excludes the so-called 2009 Granai Massacre in which a B-1 killed between 26 and 147 civilians and wounded even more, according to POGO.
"The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission estimated 97 civilians killed, which the Department of Defense has not disputed," the analysis states. "Including 2009 would have made the B-1 bomber the worst killer in theater by far."
The data also show that the A-10 flew sorties that resulted in the deaths of 10 American troops, though the F-15E Strike Eagle was involved in missions that wounded 34 U.S. service members and the F-18 flew sorties that killed 25 coalition members and wounded another 54.
POGO concludes, "Air Force headquarters is engaged in an all-out campaign to use any means possible—including threatening service members and doctoring data for the media—to bolster its failing argument on Capitol Hill to prematurely retire the A-10. Retiring the A-10 gets rid of an Army-supporting mission Air Force generals despise and protects the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program from a combat-proven competitor."
Lt. Col. Christopher Karns, a spokesman for the Air Force at the Pentagon, said the service wasn't trying to be selective with data on civilian casualties, or CIVCAS in military parlance. Rather, it only began tracking the incidents in a standardized and consistent manner since 2010, he said.
"In 2010, CIVCAS was tracked by the Air Force using consistent DOD guidance," he said in an e-mail. "The incidents captured were entered into a data base, validated and met the common definition applied across all the services."
The point in releasing the information was to respond to a specific media query and highlight how the service's aircraft -- including the A-10, F-15E, F-16 and B-1 -- all have relatively low casualty and fratricide rates, and can perform the close air support, or CAS, mission equally well, Karns said.
"The A-10 is an effective platform, there's no denying that," he said in a telephone interview. "However, with the fiscal realities of the day, we have to be responsible and take a look at actions that may help us ensure an affordable Air Force in the future."
He added in the e-mail, "We never take the application of force for granted. From 2001-2014, the incident rate for fratricide for all platforms and services is .0003%. We're all trying to make this statistic zero."