The Pentagon’s independent testing office wants to pit the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and the A-10 Warthog against each other for comparative tests that will gauge the new jet’s ability to take on close air support (CAS) missions—as well as any limitations it might have in that environment, an official from the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) said Aug. 20.

An F-35A, tail number AF-2, fires a burst of rounds down range at the Gun Harmonizing Range July 17 at Edwards AFB.
An F-35A, tail number AF-2, fires a burst of rounds down range at the Gun Harmonizing Range July 17 at Edwards AFB.

The benefits of comparing the F-35 to the A-10 are clear, said Curt Cook, an air warfare specialist at DOT&E. Cook is helping to design the tests the F-35 will face during initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E), currently slated for late 2017 or early 2018.

“You figure out really quickly what the new capabilities are that you’re fielding and how well they perform in comparison to your existing capability, but you also understand if there are any gaps that are being left open by the new system,” he said during a panel on close air support at the 32nd Annual International Test and Evaluation Symposium in Arlington, Va.

DOT&E has designed about half of the mission sets that the F-35 will fly in IOT&E. Under the current test plan, the office first will evaluate how the jet performs in a close air support (CAS) mission.

“The two main things we wanted to make sure that we have were a realistic airspace management control system that included the ground component, but also a dynamic problem on the ground that had to be solved,” he said. “We wanted that problem to have several tiers of urgency.” The longer the mission takes, the more serious the situation on the ground becomes.

DOTE wants to evaluate the effectiveness of the plane through proportional measures—such as what fraction of weapons hit the desired target—and continuous measures, like how long it takes the forward air controller to pass information to ground troops, and how long it takes troops to act after receiving that direction, Cook said.

The F-35 will then face off in comparative tests against the A-10 Warthog, a Vietnam War-era plane developed specifically for CAS missions.

The Air Force’s test community has pushed back on the comparative tests, mostly because those officials had little experience with them, Cook said. The services have also pushed for more functional testing—which would evaluate whether its weapons and systems are working properly—rather than testing the jet’s performance in an operational environment.

“The problem with that is pretty clear. There’s a lot more going on in this problem that has to be solved on the ground than just whether the functions can be executed by the aircraft,” he said. “If you’re not trained to work in this environment, you can’t work in this environment. You might deliver weapons, the functionality might be there, but you’re not going to be effective.”

Comparative tests aren’t new, pointed out Tom Christie, a former director of operational test and evaluation. After the A-10 was selected by the Air Force, Congress directed the service to fly it against the A-7. The Warthog dominated the A-7 during the 1974 fly-off.

The A-10’s design includes several characteristics that that give it unequaled capability in CAS missions, he said. It is maneuverable at most speeds and altitudes and has large wings that allow for short takeoffs and landings. It can loiter for an extended periods of time and operates under a low ceiling. And because it flies at a slow speed—only 300 knots— it’s easier for the pilot to conduct ground attacks.

But although the A-10 is much loved by the ground troops that have depended on it, Air Force leadership’s support of the plane has always been lukewarm, Christie said.

Over the past two years, the Air Force has unsuccessfully attempted to divest the A-10 to free up funding for other priorities. However, Congress—backed by former joint terminal attack controllers and other veterans groups—have blocked its retirement.

“The Air Force would like you to believe, right or wrong, that the F-35 is the solution,” Christie said. “There is a question about whether the F-35 will be sufficient.”

Comparative tests will help illustrate the need for the Air Force to procure a single-mission, A-10 replacement, Christie said, but he’s doubtful the service will start a new program of record to do so.

The F-35 joint program office continues to work with DOT&E, a JPO spokesman said in a statement provided to Defense Daily.

“The F-35 is a multirole fighter designed with the entire battlespace in mind. It is equipped with advanced stealth, integrated avionics, and a powerful, integrated sensor package. The F-35 will be able to conduct the close air support mission effectively. The aircraft has exercised CAS missions on military ranges at night and in day, was able to receive targets from terminal air controllers on the ground, and able to attack and prosecute targets within acceptable battlefield timelines. The capability exists today and it will continue to evolve and get better in the future,” it said.

The statement echoes comments Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the program executive officer for F-35, made to reporters after an April House Armed Services Committee hearing on the platform.

“When you have an airplane that does a single mission…it’s going to be able to do that mission very, very well, and the A-10 does its mission very, very well,” he said. “But the F-35 was not designed just to do that mission. It was designed to do a whole host of missions. Therefore, you can expect that, because it’s going to do a whole host of things, maybe that one thing is not as good today as that airplane that has the single mission.”

The F-35 will be a very capable CAS plane once it gets its final 3F software in 2017, but it will be able to do many missions beyond that, he added.