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As already reported, the Pentagon said on Apr. 30, 2019 that it finished comparative testing of the US Air Force (USAF) F-35 and A-10 to measure their performance in combat search-and-rescue (CSAR), close air support (CAS), and airborne forward air control (FAC(A)) missions.
About two-thirds of the testing was done in 2018.
New details on the test that compared the A-10 and the F-35 are offered by a newly emerged report that raises more questions about the 5th-generation jet’s ability to fill the A-10’s close-air support mission.
The report features the results of a CAS flyoff between the F-35A and the A-10C, which was mandated by Congress in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act and carried out in 2019.
The report says that the test was conducted in “low- and medium-threat environments” and not in a hostile or high-threat environment because the “F-35A, along with the F-35B and F-35C, is being thoroughly evaluated during F-35 IOT&E in high threat scenarios versus modern, dense [surface-to-air missile] and fighter aircraft, missions for which the A-10C was not designed.”
DOT&E said in the report that no ground troops participated in the flyoff, which doesn’t “invalidate the conclusions of this report. However, a more dynamic and representative environment for operational testing of these missions may be needed to judge improvements in performance in these or any other systems under test.”
Many details are blacked out in the version released to POGO (he Project On Government Oversight, which sued the Pentagon in federal court after its FOIA request for the report was denied). For instance, the report says the A-10 “enabled more attacks than the typical loadout of the F-35A” but does not reveal how many targets each aircraft hit in the test.
There are hints that it required more F-35 sorties than A-10 sorties to accomplish some missions. For example, this half sentence (“sorties than A-10C sorties would be necessary to attack the same number of targets”) is followed by this text: “The number of sorties necessary to complete the same mission objectives in contested environments would depend on air defense suppression plans.”
This could be due to the fact that the A-10 can carry more munitions: the Warthog in fact was built around the mighty GAU-8 Avenger 30-millimeter gun that holds 1,350 rounds of ammunition, while the F-35’s GAU-22 25-millimeter gun can only carry about 181 rounds.
The report also said that the A-10 is able to fly closer to targets than the F-35:
“The test team did not record the slant range to the target with the generated coordinates, so its effect cannot be directly assessed. Even so, tactics typically caused A-10C pilots to fly closer to the target than F-35A pilots, which could explain some of the differences in the measured location errors. Target location error only affects the use of GPS-aided weapons. In any case, the location error is sufficient to cue another [close air support] aircraft’s targeting pod.”
The newer gun hasn’t always managed to shoot straight the report added. As a result DOT&E told the Pentagon to “fix the F-35A gun, improve digital communication, video data link capability and interoperability with 4th generation aircraft, and develop training programs to further improve F-35A effectiveness in these missions.”
However, Russ Goemaere, a spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office, told Defense One that the program has “improved” the gun and the jet’s interoperability with 4th-gen fighters and said “they are effective.”
POGO’s Dan Grazier wrote, “Despite the heavy redactions in the released report, it is clear the results of these flawed tests disappointed the powers that be. Had the F-35 come out as the winner, there can be little doubt that a clear, declarative statement to that fact would have prominently appeared in the opening paragraph of the report.”
The USAF would not comment on the report, nor say whether service leaders had tried to prevent the report’s release. A spokesperson said that close air support is a mission, not a specific platform.
“The future force will be inherently close air support-capable, with the multi-role capabilities to ensure survivability in all scenarios. While successful in permissive environments, the A-10 is not survivable in a highly-contested future fight,” said service spokesperson Ann Stefanek.
As we have already reported, the USAF Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown Jr. said on Mar. 7, 2023 the service would likely retire all its A-10 Warthog attack aircraft over the next five or six years.
Until recently, the USAF and Congress have disagreed over what to do with the iconic close air support aircraft (CAS). While the A-10 was known and beloved for its CAS role in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last two decades, the USAF says the low-and-slow-flying plane would not be able to survive in a fight against a nation with modern air defenses, like China.
The first A-10s to be retired have been those of the 163rd Fighter Squadron ‘Blacksnakes’, of the 122nd Fighter Wing, at Fort Wayne Air National Guard Base (IN).
As already explained, the Department of the Air Force selected Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, as the preferred location to receive the next active-duty F-35A Lightning II mission.
The two squadrons of F-35As are projected to begin arriving in FY29 and the number of personnel is expected to remain the same.
The Fiscal Year 2024 Program Objective Memorandum details department plans to retire 54 A-10 Thunderbolt IIs. If approved, six A-10s will be divested out of Moody AFB in FY24 with the remaining A-10s divesting by FY28.
The service also announced that the 124th Fighter Wing at Gowen Field Air National Guard Base, Idaho, is expected to transition to an F-16 Fighting Falcon mission.
The transition will better align the Department of the Air Force to support the National Defense Strategy and will allow the Idaho Air National Guard 124th FW to leverage existing fighter aircraft operations and maintenance expertise once its A-10 Thunderbolt IIs retire, beginning fall 2026.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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