According to a new report released by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO, a part of the Straus Military Reform Project), the long-awaited close air support flyoff between the legendary A-10 Thunderbolt II and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has finally begun — although, according to some experts, the secrecy surrounding the event isn’t the only thing that seems fishy.
The comparison testing, intended to see if the F-35 could feasibly serve as a functional replacement for the venerated A-10 in the realm of close air support, began on July 5 and will conclude on the 12th, with only four days of actual flights therein. The testing is being conducted at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona, and it would appear that the branch not only hoped to keep the testing quiet despite significant public interest. However, they also aimed to stack the deck in favor of the forthcoming fifth-generation fighter, which is already touted as the future of the force regardless of the test’s outcome.
Dan Grazier, a military fellow at POGO who claims to have spoken to some officials involved in the fly off that requested anonymity, described the flyoff as stacked in favor of the F-35, at the expense of realism. He wrote,
They are staging an unpublicized, quickie test on existing training ranges, creating unrealistic scenarios that presuppose an ignorant and inert enemy force, writing ground rules for the tests that make the F-35 look good — and they got the new testing director, the retired Air Force general Robert Behler, to approve all of it.”
Based on the circumstances outlined in the report, that seems an apt description of the situation. Close air supports operations require the ability to respond to a wide variety of complex situations, though the testing parameters remained simplistic and straightforward. Further, the test saw no participation from Army or Marine Corps ground troops — a troubling revelation when one considers that the Air Force’s role as a provider of close air support requires the direct involvement of the troops on the ground.
The testing involved a 10,000-foot ceiling, which some argue favored the F-35 considerably. In combat conditions, the A-10 is known to dip below 1,000 feet while providing close air support to troops in the fight, something the F-35 would likely struggle to do as effectively. The first day of testing was held in what is considered a “permissive” environment — meaning there are no significant anti-aircraft weapons systems in play, but the test still included mock shoulder fired platforms that pilots can expect to encounter when engaging with ground forces. However, no data acquisition system was established to determine the level of success each aircraft had at avoiding these munitions, making the results of the test qualitative at best.
“Rather than having charts of performance data, the evaluators will simply be able to report any results they want, without any way to verify the reports,” Grazier described.
Oddly, neither aircraft participated with full weapons payloads — with the A-10 only carrying less than half of a full magazine for its legendary 30mm GAU-8/A Avenger cannon. The F-35 also entered the fight light on weapons, but in a noticeably different capacity: it carried only a single 500-pound bomb internally despite being capable of carrying far more. Some have argued this decision was made to ensure the F-35 had high levels of maneuverability thanks to not being hindered by a full weapons payload.
Further testing has included a move to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California, forcing them to forgo live munitions for the remainder of the tests in favor of operating against mock anti-aircraft assets.
The most significant issues with these secretive tests seem to come down to a lack of understanding (or intentional misrepresentation) of how close air support operations tend to work. The majority of the tests were carried out on flat terrain against static targets, both considered unlikely circumstances in a real combat situation but uniquely suited for the F-35 which can currently only engage fast moving targets with specific weapons platforms. It also didn’t include the specially trained personnel tasked with coordinating close air support on the ground, suggesting that the tests involved known targets at known distances that required little guidance from ground level personnel — something unlikely to ever occur in actual close air support situations.
While the results of the testing will likely not be released until well after the 12th, it would seem that the tests themselves were skewed intentionally to favor the F-35, which makes some sense considering the immense cost associated with the Lockheed Martin platform and the understanding that, ultimately, the branch has no choice but to field these fighters in roles that will require them to fill a close air support role. The aging A-10, despite ongoing efforts to keep them in the fight, has already fended off retirement on more than one occasion, but even the legendary bruiser will eventually become too expensive to maintain. When that day comes, the F-35 will have to replace it, whether it proves highly capable of the job or not.
Nonetheless, if these reports of the testing in Arizona and California are accurate, it seems Air Force officials aren’t interested in knowing how the F-35 will actually fair in such a combat environment, and are instead looking to bolster the reputation of the aircraft by suggesting it was able to match, or potentially even defeat, the A-10 in close air support fly off.