Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said Monday that any plan to compare the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s ability to do close air support (CAS) to that of the A-10 Warthog, which currently flies those missions, would be “a silly exercise.”

An F-35A fires 181 rounds from its wing-mounted 25mm cannon.
An F-35A fires 181 rounds from its wing-mounted 25mm cannon.

“The F-35’s mission in the close air support arena would be to do high-threat close air support in a contested environment that the A-10 would not be able to survive in. That will be the role of the F-35,” he said during a briefing to reporters, adding that the aircraft will not be able to conduct CAS mission until at least 2021, when it reaches full operational capability.

“The idea that the F-35 is going to walk into the door next year when it becomes [initially operational] and takes over for the A-10 is just silly. It’s never been our intent and we’ve never said that,” he said.

Still yet to be seen is whether Welsh’s objections will sway the Pentagon’s independent testing community.

Last week, an official from office of the director of test and evaluation (DOT&E) revealed plans to administer “comparative tests” between the F-35 and A-10 during initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) in 2017. The tests would gauge any new capabilities the F-35 could bring to the table, as well as any deficiencies it has compared to the legacy platform. (Defense Daily, Aug. 20).

Should the A-10 perform well, it could add more fuel to the arguments of Warthog proponents who have argued for the platform’s continued use by the Air Force. The service has been trying to retire the platform since 2014 to fund other budget priorities.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said that if the service could spend “billions and billions” of dollars more than the president’s budget request, it would like to retain the A-10.

“But in a budget constrained environment, this is one of the tough choices that we had to make for the sake of moving forward and modernizing,” she said.

Welsh pointed out another problem with being forced to keep platforms it would like to divest, such as the A-10 and U-2 spy plane: Unless those aircraft are retired, the service doesn’t have enough maintainers to repair the F-35.

“We have enough airmen identified and in training to make the IOC (initial operational capability) date. The IOC date has never been a concern for the maintenance side of the house. It’s full operational capability that is the problem,” he said.

“Eventually” Welsh would like to procure a replacement for the A-10 that would be designed from the ground up to conduct CAS in low threat environments, he said.

There currently is no program of record on the books for that capability.