For that matter, if the Air Force’s leadership were willing to live up to its patriotic responsibilities, it would be ordering a sensible successor to the A-10 Warthog. This, the most effective aircraft in the War on Terror, is flown primarily by National Guardsmen and loathed by fighter-jock AF generals because it’s ugly, slow, unglamorous, and designed specifically to support ground forces. Indeed the USAF tried to get rid of it after the first Gulf War, and only grudgingly changed its collective mind when the Army threatened to break its traditional agreement not to field fixed wing aircraft.
The A-10 is due to be replaced not by another rugged, highly survivable ground attack aircraft specifically designed for close air support, but by a version of the fabulously expensive and delicate F35 fighter. This has the same disadvantages as the F16s and F18s that have been responsible for so many friendly fire casualties and civilian deaths — it can’t fly slowly enough to see what’s happening on the ground, it burns up too much fuel to loiter long around the battlefield, and it’s too valuable to fly low and in range of enemy guns and missiles.
Meanwhile, down on the ground, G.I.s patrolling Iraqi cities should long ago have been issued personal radios like British troops have.
Personal radios enable a squad to split up and patrol down parallel streets, to let each other know when they see trouble ahead or behind, and to do so without shouting and therefore giving away their own positions. It’s a relatively cheap piece of equipment – used already by U.S. Special Forces – that could have saved hundreds of American troops from death or injury.
It is true, as Donald Rumsfeld said, that you go to war with the equipment you have. But we have now been fighting the Iraq war for four years.That is more than enough time for Pentagon officials to realize that foot patrols in dangerous urban areas are something that soldiers are going to have to do, in Iraq and elsewhere, if America is to have a chance of winning the “war on terror.”
Finally there’s the question of personal weapons. When I was first in Baghdad in the spring and early summer of 2003, the troops with whom I was embedded found several large arms caches. They contained, among other modern weapons, crates of Heckler and Koch MP5 sub machine guns. These are the weapons you see used by SWAT teams on TV and in the arms of elite units everywhere. The troops grabbed them, and used them for several weeks before they were forced to hand them over for the use of Iraqi security forces. The reason they were so keen wasn’t just because the H&Ks are accurate, reliable, and associated with “high speed” special forces. It was because unlike the G.I.s’ standard issue M16s and M4s, the H&K is ideal for the tight spaces of urban warfare – staircases, corridors, alleyways. Moreover they can be fired from inside an armored humvee or other vehicle without hitting a crew member in the face.Unfortunately this is not a factor that counts for much in a military-industrial bureaucracy awash in high tech, peacetime fantasies of networked warfare, and oblivious to the practicalities of fighting in hot dusty places, where reliance on sensitive electronic equipment can be deadly.
It is all very well to call on politicians to “support the troops.” The Pentagon should do likewise.