WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s top weapons tester confirmed to a small group of reporters on Thursday that his team will pit the full-up F-35 joint strike fighter against the A-10 Warthog and potentially other aircraft during comparative tests slated to take place in 2018.
The tests will occur during the formal initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) phase of the F-35’s development, and will evaluate the fighter jet’s ability in a close-air support role compared to the legacy A-10, said Michael Gilmore, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) said Thursday during a small gathering at the Pentagon. The tests will use the F-35’s final Block 3F software that provides the jet's full combat capability, Gilmore said.
"The comparison tests on the close-air support mission will reveal how well the F-35 performs and whether there are gaps, or improvements in capability, compared to the A-10," Gilmore said. "There are going to be differences, absolutely, in the way the F-35 conducts CAS in comparison to the A-10, and that’s yet another reason to do this comparison test, to understand what those differences mean."
Gilmore said he expects the tests will show that in some scenarios the F-35 performs better, while in others the A-10 has the edge.
Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, agreed the comparative tests may reveal shortcomings in the F-35’s capabilities at that stage in its development.
"I do not doubt that there will be some areas in maybe a permissive environment where the A-10 may be able to do certain things that the F-35 at that stage of its development may not be able to," Bunch said Thursday. "We will utilize all of the resources that we have to be able to meet that CAS requirement if we find out that the F-35 is unable to do that at that point."
During the tests, DOT&E will send out F-35 formations and A-10 formations separately to conduct the same close-air support missions, Gilmore said. The team will vary the threat to better understand the advantages each aircraft brings to the fight, he added.
DOT&E is also looking into testing the F-35 against other aircraft that perform the CAS mission, for instance the F-15, Gilmore said.
"We're looking at all the missions and where it would make sense to do comparison testing and where it wouldn't, and we're going to be working with the services to develop that plan," Gilmore said. "I expect there will be comparison testing against other aircraft – I'm just not prepared at this point to tell you exactly which ones."
DOT&E chose to pit the F-35 against the A-10 specifically because the F-35's requirements document directly state the next-generation plane will replace the A-10 in the close-air support role, Gilmore said.
The planned tests are not unprecedented, Gilmore noted. DOT&E conducted similar comparison tests, between the F-22 and the F-15, during F-22 IOT&E, he said.
"You can't guess at what the improvements are, you can't guess at what the capability gaps are when we bring on these new complex systems," Gilmore said. "Our experience in operational testing has shown repeatedly and in fact the F-15C [vs] F-22 comparative testing demonstrated that it's really not wise to guess."
Despite remarks by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh earlier this week that seemed to indicate he thought such tests would be irrelevant, Gilmore said he has been assured Air Force leadership is fully on board with the planned test schedule.
The Air Force is committed to fully testing the F-35's capabilities as they come online, and is confident test results will validate the jet's ability to fulfill the CAS mission before it reaches full operational capability, Welsh said in an Aug. 27 statement.
"Delivering fires to troops engaged in close proximity to the enemy is a contact sport and we are committed to the F-35 as a critical component of this joint and combined team," Welsh said. "Any comparison with the F-35 must be part of a more holistic assessment of our CAS enterprise beyond just a flyoff between one aircraft vs another. A comprehensive, formal testing program will ensure we continue to evolve as leaders in this critical mission."
The Air Force plans to declare the F-35A operational in August 2016, when the service will stand up an operational squadron with 12 to 24 aircraft and trained pilots.