WASHINGTON — To gauge the joint strike fighter's ability to perform in a close-air support role, the Pentagon's top weapons tester has declared the sleek new fighter jet must face off against the lumbering A-10.
The Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation plans to pit the full-up F-35 against the legacy A-10 Warthog and potentially other fighter jets to evaluate the next-generation aircraft's ability to protect soldiers on the ground. The tests will identify the assets the F-35 brings to the close-in fight, and where it falls short compared to legacy planes, according to DOT&E chief Michael Gilmore.
"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 told reporters during an Aug. 27 gathering at the Pentagon. "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."
The comparative tests are slated to take place in 2018 during the formal initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) phase of F-35 development, Gilmore said. The exercises will use the F-35's final Block 3F software, which provides the jet's full combat capability, he noted.
During the test period, 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 and disadvantages of each aircraft in battle, he continued.
DOT&E is also looking into the merits of testing the F-35 against other aircraft that perform the CAS mission, for instance the F-15 Eagle, 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."
The planned comparative tests are not unprecedented, Gilmore noted. DOT&E conducted similar trials, between the F-22 Raptor and the F-15, during the Raptor's IOT&E, he said. These tests are crucial in determining the capability gaps of these complex new systems.
"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."
DOT&E chose to pit the F-35 against the A-10, specifically, because the F-35's requirements directly state the next-generation plane will eventually replace the aging A-10 in a close-air support role, Gilmore said.
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.
The single-mission A-10 is perfectly suited for the CAS mission in non-contested airspace, for instance in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia. The Warthog carries a wide range of ordnance, and can fly low and slow — unlike the F-35, which relies on its advanced technology to provide the pilot enhanced situational awareness of the entire battlespace.
"Can [the F-35] do close air support? Sure," Aboulafia said. "But there's nothing like an A-10 in a world where nothing shoots back."
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 during the Aug. 27 gathering. "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."
But JSF is designed to take advantage of modern technology early A-10 pilots never dreamed of, its proponents say. The fighter jet is equipped with advanced stealth, integrated avionics and an integrated sensor package. Meanwhile, the plane's groundbreaking new helmet provides a 360-degree digital view of what's going on around the aircraft, essentially letting the pilot "look through" the cockpit floor and walls.
"The helmet is much more than a helmet — the helmet is a workspace," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said during an Aug. 24 press conference at the Pentagon. "It's an interpretation of the battlespace, it's situational awareness. Calling this thing a helmet is really — we've got to come up with a new word."
Meanwhile, the F-35 has proved its ability to conduct close-air support missions at night and during the day, Joint Program Office spokesman Joe DellaVedova said earlier this month.
However, Welsh noted the Air Force never intended to use the multirole fighter jet as a direct replacement for the A-10, which is a single-mission platform dedicated to close-in attack.
"The idea that the F-35 is going to walk in this door next year when it [reaches initial operational capability] and take over for the A-10 is just silly," Welsh said. "It has never been our intent and we've never said that, so that's not a plan."
Still, Welsh said in a statement following the press conference that he is confident the F-35 will be able to effectively protect troops in ground combat.
"With Dr. Gilmore's assistance, we will continue to test the F-35's capabilities as they come on line, and I'm confident the result will validate F-35's mature CAS capabilities before reaching FOC," Welsh said in an Aug. 27 statement.
Despite Welsh's remarks earlier this week in which he dubbed a head-to-head matchup of the two planes "silly," Gilmore said he has been assured Air Force leadership is fully on board with the planned test schedule.
"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."