The U.S. Air Force has begun a much-anticipated competitive fly-off between two controversial warplanes in an effort to determine which is better at supporting ground troops.
The fly-off, required by law under the terms of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, pits the new F-35 stealth fighter against the 1970s-vintage A-10 ground-attack plane.
But one critic says the fly-off is rigged in favor of the F-35, which unlike the A-10 is still in production and supports thousands of American jobs. "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," Dan Grazier, a former Marine officer who now works as an analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Government Oversight.
The point of the contest is to determine whether the high-tech F-35, a favorite of the defense industry and the Air Force brass, can at least match the rugged A-10's proven ability to hit enemy forces in close proximity to friendly troops during a chaotic, surprise battle—and survive.
Supporters of the F-35—a hot export commodity for builder Lockheed Martin—hope the test will finally end lingering doubts about the supersonic stealth fighter's suitability for dirty, dangerous close air support missions.
The idea of a head-to-head warplane contest goes back to 2013. At the time, the Air Force was proposing to quickly retire its roughly 350 A-10s and spend the maintenance savings—around $4 billion, according to the Air Force—on new F-35s, which cost around $100 million apiece.
Under the Air Force's plan, F-15 and F-16 fighters would have taken over the A-10's mission until the F-35 was fully combat-ready sometime in the early 2020s. But the lightly-built F-15 and F-16—to say nothing of the F-35—weren't designed for the most dangerous close-air-support missions, where pilots can face withering enemy fire.
The subsonic A-10, by contrast, is heavily armored, highly maneuverable at low speeds, and packs a unique, 30-millimeter cannon for piercing the armor of enemy tanks. Stories abound of A-10 pilots saving the lives of soldiers and Marines on the ground with fast and overwhelming firepower. “If we retire the A-10 before a replacement is developed, American troops will die,” wrote Arizona representative Martha McSally, a former A-10 pilot.
Congress repeatedly rebuffed the Air Force's request to retire the A-10s. In 2015, J. Michael Gilmore—then the Pentagon's chief weapons-tester—agreed in principle to a fly-off in order to settle the controversy. "You have to go out and get data and do a thorough and rigorous evaluation," Gilmore told reporters.
But Gen. Mark Welsh, then the Air Force's chief of staff, called the proposed competition "a silly exercise." The F-35's speed and stealth give it an advantage over the A-10 in the most intensive combat scenarios, Welsh argued.
Sen. John McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot and chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, disagreed. "I've had a little military experience myself including in close air support," McCain told Welsh in one particularly heated 2016 hearing. McCain inserted language in the following year's defense authorization mandating the fly-off.
Three years later, the contest began in near-secrecy at desert ranges in California and Arizona. The Air Force didn't publicize the ongoing fly-off, running from July 5 to July 12, and didn't immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
But Grazier said he obtained a copy of the testing plan. In a lengthy article on the Project On Government Oversight's website, Grazier claimed the testing plan underscored his worry that the Air Force would stack the deck against the A-10.
"Both aircraft are given an equal one hour to attack targets, when in fact the A-10 has more than twice the F-35’s endurance over the battlefield, a key capability when friendly troops urgently need support in battles that last many hours, or even days," Grazier wrote.
"Both aircraft are assigned an equal number of attack sorties—even though the A-10 has demonstrated in combat an ability to generate sorties at a rate three times greater than the maintenance-intensive F-35 has been able to demonstrate under far less demanding peacetime conditions," he added.
In addition, Grazier claimed, the Air Force allowed the jets to fly as high as 10,000 feet, where conditions favor the faster F-35.
Testing officials also limited the number of weapons the A-10 could carry, while allowing the F-35 to carry its maximum payload, Grazier claimed. “The weapons load assigned to the F-35—a single 500-pound guided bomb instead of the (still inadequate) two it can carry—unrealistically lightens the F-35 in an attempt to give it a maneuverability advantage during these tests,” Grazier wrote. “At the same time, the 30-millimeter cannon, which is the A-10’s most effective weapon and the one most demanded by troops in close contact with the enemy, has been arbitrarily limited to 400 rounds instead of the 1,174 it actually carries in combat.”
“Equally artificially, the testers loaded the A-10 with two unguided 500-pound bombs, weapons it never carries in combat because they are too inaccurate and too dangerous to friendly troops,” Grazier continued. “In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, the A-10 always carries a full complement of guided bombs instead of unguided ones."
But Brian Laslie, an air-power historian and author of The Air Force Way of War, said aspects of the fly-off actually favor the A-10. For example, the apparent absence of simulated, long-range enemy air-defenses let the slower A-10 safely make its way to the battlefield.
The F-35's stealth and speed help it to avoid those kinds of defenses. The A-10, while more resistant to, say, gunfire, is widely viewed as too slow and easy to detect to avoid sophisticated surface-to-air missiles. "You could make it a high-threat-ridden system where the A-10 would enjoy even less favorable odds," Laslie told The Daily Beast.
Laslie said that both camps are missing the point in pitting one airplane against another. "I think the question of which platforms best perform the [close air support] role is more complicated than the binary F-35-versus-A-10 argument and becomes dependent upon environment, basing, threat-systems, etc."
Nuance is missing from the warplane debate, Laslie said. "Both sides probably already have predetermined outcomes and it would be difficult to change minds."
Grazier, for one, said he already knows what will happen next. "Air Force leaders will march up to Capitol Hill with the results of this test and say they have met all the criteria set by Congress and try to get the A-10 program cancelled."