Finally: Pentagon proposes grudge match between A-10 Warthog and F-35

Okay, okay, this probably won’t be anywhere near as cool as it sounds, but it certainly does sound smart, at the very least. The Pentagon has faced flak from both Capitol Hill and its rank and file for their extremely expensive plan to replace the reliable A-10 Warthog for close-air-support missions with the untested and problem-plagued F-35. Travis Tritten reports for Stars and Stripes that after years of controversy over the plan, the Department of Defense will conduct war games with both platforms head-to-head to determine which plane can fulfill the mission most effectively:

The high-tech and expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will face off in upcoming testing with the Air Force’s aging close-air-support stalwart, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the director of the Defense Department operational test and evaluation office said Tuesday.

The battlefield comparison “makes common sense” and will pit the two airframes against each other in a variety of war scenarios this year, Michael Gilmore said during Senate testimony.

The department is in the midst of developing the F-35 – the most expensive procurement program in its history – to take over the A-10’s four-decade-old role of supporting ground forces with its titanium armor and powerful nose cannon. But the move is opposed by infantry troops and members of Congress who believe the A-10 is uniquely capable of saving lives on the battlefield.

“To me, comparison testing just makes common sense,” Gilmore said. “If you’re spending a lot of money to get improved capability, that’s the easiest way to demonstrate it is to do a rigorous comparison test.”

First, though, the Pentagon has to get its F-35s working properly. Tritten notes that the latest in a long series of “glitches” involves its radar system, which randomly stops functioning and requires rebooting in flight. That could complicate comparative war-gaming — as well as potentially put pilots and ground personnel at greater risk. It’s hard to run a test between an operational and well-known system and a mock-up. Plus, the Pentagon has already acknowledged that the F-35 isn’t going to be able to outperform the A-10, at least not initially, even if it runs perfectly (via Twitter follower Zaggs):

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon’s newest and most expensive weapons program, will only offer limited close air support when it begins operational flights in the Air Force next year, a top general said.

“In many ways, it won’t have the some of the capabilities of our current platforms,” Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of the service’s Air Combat Command, acknowledged during a briefing with reporters on Friday at the Pentagon. …

Carlisle said the F-35A won’t initially be able to perform “advanced” close air support “because those are systems that are going to be coming onto the airplane in later blocks.”

The technologies the aircraft will initially lack include the large area, high-definition synthetic aperture radar known as “BIG SAR,” which is needed to get the best functionality out of the electro-optical targeting system, as well as a pinpoint glide bomb known as the Small Diameter Bomb II, or SDB-II, the general said.

Carlisle said the systems are slated to be integrated into the aircraft as part of a Block 4 software upgrade, the first version of which isn’t scheduled to arrive until 2021. “All of those are things that are going to be coming on in Block 4,” he said.

Even the F-35’s 25mm, four-barrel GAU-22 gun won’t be ready for at least a couple of more years.

That might make the war games this year more of a rout, no?

The tests won’t pit the two platforms against each other in identical tactics, however, a point to keep in mind. The A-10 is designed for slower flight and sustained fire, while the F-35 (theoretically) uses nimbleness and speed to accomplish the same mission in a different manner. That makes this more than just a grudge match between two systems; it’s also a test of strategies and philosophies, and the difference is not simply theoretical. The strategy that produced the A-10 came in an era where the threats where almost entirely state-based, and where complex air-to-ground attack systems were not widely distributed outside of those threats. Now, our main threats come from non-state organizations and our approach to them does not involve the use of large armies (at least for now), and our enemies do have access to systems that make slow-moving close-air-support platforms more vulnerable.

Under those circumstances, the A-10 approach may or may not be outdated. However, that platform seems to be performing well despite those changed conditions, which is probably why the infantry on the ground see no reason to change. The Pentagon’s decision to conduct head-to-head tests of both the platforms and the strategies should at least address those concerns, and seems so common-sensical that it may have some puzzled that the Department of Defense actually agreed to conduct them.

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