U.S. Air Force officials told lawmakers last week that a report is out on the results of comparion testing between the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35A and the A-10C close air support aircraft–testing that finished in March 2019, but it was unclear whether those results would be publicly available.
In a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC) tactical air and land forces subcommittee on Apr. 27, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) asked whether the Air Force planned to release an unclassified version of the report and, if not, whether the Air Force planned to brief Congress on the results in a classified session.
“On the fly-off, I know the report was made available,” Air Force Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the service’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, replied. “I’m not sure what I can share here so I want to make sure I take that for the record just so I’m careful here, but we were pleased this year that we were able to provide the report because the test has been done for some amount of time, and we’re pleased that we could share the results, but, if I could take that for the record to make sure I don’t share anything I shouldn’t in open session.”
Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter, when asked by Gallego for his input, agreed with Nahom.
Nearly three years ago, Gallego had asked about the same issue. In a May 2, 2019 hearing of the HASC tactical air and land forces panel, Gallego inquired about initial results from the JSF Operational Test Team’s comparison testing at Edwards AFB, Calif., of the F-35A and A-10C for close air support, combat search and rescue, and airborne forward air control missions.
The fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act had ordered such comparison testing, which began in April 2018, and then took a hiatus as A-10Cs deployed to support combat operations. The remaining one-third of testing finished in March 2019.
At the May 2, 2019 HASC subcommittee hearing, Robert Behler, the then-director of the Pentagon office of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E), told Gallego that his office hoped to provide the comparison testing report by the end of 2019 to accompany DOT&E’s beyond low-rate initial production (LRIP) report for the F-35.
The latter study has been on hold, as the F-35 program encounters delays in the final 64 runs for the Joint Simulation Environment high-end air-to-air engagements–runs that will complete initial operational test and evaluation.
During the May 2, 2019 hearing, Behler said that the A-10C and F-35 comparison testing during day and night involved moving targets, urban terrain, radar-guided surface to air missiles, manportable air defense systems, and anti-aircraft artillery and that the combat search and rescue mission dealt with a downed crew member at nighttime who also received HH-60 and MV-22 combat search and rescue rotary wing support.
Behler told Gallego that “the biggest thing” that could come out of the A-10C/F-35A comparison testing is the benefit of using the F-35 for sensor fusion to direct older aircraft.
“The F-35, as we expected, has a big advantage in a high threat scenario where the stealth and sensor fusion really helps,” Behler said. “In a lesser threat environment, we were able to put more weapons on the wings of the F-35. So, we were able to get much better loads on the aircraft. The A-10C, as we thought, in a low threat environment, with more fuel and more weapons, they really do a very good job. And the other part about the A-10C is that they specialize avionics for those three missions [close air support, combat search and rescue, and airborne forward air control]. And one thing that can’t be overlooked is that there is 40 years of experience close to the ground with the A-10, and training really matters. We had, in the second part of the testing in March , we had A-10 pilots, former A-10 pilots, that are now part of the F-35 force.”
The tandem use of the F-35A and A-10C may not happen, as the Air Force’s future years defense plan indicates that the service plans to retire its 281 A-10s by fiscal 2028 (Defense Daily, Apr. 27).
“I already know that the A-10s performed really well during the [A-10/F-35 comparison] tests,” Dan Grazier, a senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, wrote in an Apr. 28 email. “The number one goal of the designers of the test was to show that the A-10 could not survive in the high threat environment Air Force leaders always talk about…I know, from multiple people directly involved in the tests, that not a single A-10 was ‘shot down’ during them so the Air Force will do everything they can to make sure the report doesn’t see the light of day before they are successful in retiring the fleet.”
Neither Gallego’s office nor the Air Force had responded by press time on May 2nd.
The briefing noted that 145 A-10s are non-deployable and that the Air Force has not funded a needed replacement for the A-10’s central interface control unit (CICU), which manages the A-10’s avionics, graphics, and communications.
The Air Force “resourced A-10 to divest yet flew it like an enduring fleet, rapidly accelerating decline toward today’s hollowing fleet,” per one of Lee’s slides.
Boeing [BA] built new wings for 173 A-10s under the 2007 A-10 Enhanced Wing Assembly Replacement program worth $1.1 billion. The company delivered the first wings under that contract in 2011 and the final set in 2018.
In 2019, Boeing won another contract potentially worth $999 million to re-wing the remainder of the A-10 fleet (Defense Daily, Aug. 21, 2019). But the service now plans to maintain and modernize just 218 of the planes before divesting them by 2028.
The A-10 has been a target of proposed cuts by the Air Force before, including in 2014, when the service requested the retirement of the then-fleet of 334 planes to save $4.2 billion over five years–a proposal that Congress rebuffed.