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Analysis

F-35 and A-10 Close Air Support Flyoff Report

POGO obtained a copy of the A-10 and F-35 flyoff testing report and, unsurprisingly, the F-35 did not come out as the clear winner.

(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO)

Pentagon leaders sold the concept of the F-35 to Congress and the American people by saying it would be an affordable replacement for the F-16 in the air supremacy role and the A-10 in the close air support role. Nearly 22 years later, the notion of the F-35 as an affordable replacement for any program has long-since been shattered. Serious questions remain as to whether the unreliable F-35 can be an effective replacement for the successful F-16. As for close air support, questions remain about the F-35’s ability to fill the A-10’s role, and a report detailing the results of comparative tests conducted in 2018 and 2019 between the two programs, obtained with a great deal of effort by the Project On Government Oversight, casts even more doubt on the matter. 

POGO received a copy of the “F-35A and A-10C Comparison Test” report through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and subsequent litigation after the original request in April 2022 went unanswered. 

The results were apparently not what the Air Force’s leaders expected, because they fought to hide them completely for years. The Pentagon’s testing office only drafted the report in February 2022, nearly three years after the tests concluded, and even now they are refusing to disclose many of the key findings: The released report is heavily redacted. Still, the information they did release does not paint a very positive picture of the F-35’s ability to fill the highly critical role the A-10 has performed capably in the United States’ last three major ground wars.

From the fragmentary information now available, it is clear the Air Force’s plan to replace the A-10’s capabilities will come up short. Yet Congress is on the cusp of authorizing the retirement of 42 A-10s in the next fiscal year, a decision they are making in an information vacuum since the report has not been widely circulated.

The Tests

The tests, which were designed to evaluate the A-10’s and the F-35’s ability to perform all attack aviation roles including close air support, airborne forward air control, and combat search and rescue, took place between April 2018 and March 2019 after Congress included a provision in the fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. They took place over the vehement opposition of Air Force leaders: Then-Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh called the proposed tests a “silly exercise,” claiming the F-35 was never intended to be a replacement for the A-10.

In fact, the F-35 has always been designated as the replacement for the A-10, as well as for the F-16. Press reports at the time of the original contract award in 2001 made that point clear.

POGO broke the news that the tests were underway in July 2018 after receiving documents detailing how they were being conducted. It became immediately clear that the tests were designed to make the F-35 look as good as possible. At the time, POGO reported on the shortcomings of the testing program.

The Pentagon’s testing office only drafted the report in February 2022, nearly three years after the tests concluded, and even now they are refusing to disclose many of the key findings.

One especially notable shortcoming was the absence of ground troops during the tests. Because the primary reason for the exercise was to see which aircraft could better support and protect soldiers and Marines, their exclusion suggested that Air Force leaders weren’t interested in a true close air support demonstration. Ground combat is chaotic and fluid, with constantly changing circumstances as the enemy actively works to avoid observation. People designing a real close air support demonstration will attempt to create conditions where ground forces will have to talk pilots on to elusive targets. Based on the instructions from the ground controllers, the pilots will have to identify and track the targets long enough to engage them with either bombs or cannon fire. However, the comparison tests between the A-10 and F-35 were set up in a way that didn’t adequately test the F-35’s ability to perform this vital role. 

Another notable shortcoming was the location of the tests: They took place in a desert environment at California’s China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and Arizona’s Yuma Proving Ground using targets sitting in the open. Anyone with access to Google Earth can easily spot the targets in satellite imagery. The lack of tree cover and camouflage made it easier for the pilots of both aircraft to perform all the missions, but the choice of location was particularly poor to test combat search and rescue capabilities since in real situations the pilots flying would need to locate and protect their downed counterparts until they can be rescued. It’s fairly easy to find a person who is in the open desert. A more realistic test would have been to search for a person as they actively try to evade capture by the enemy in a wooded environment, but that did not happen in this case.

These are hardly the only ways the designers attempted to give the F-35s the best chance possible for success. The F-35 pilots selected to fly the jet in most of the tests were veteran A-10 pilots who had transitioned to the newer platform. The test report pointed out that F-35 pilots at the time did not have any training requirements for the airborne forward air controller or the combat search and rescue role. The former A-10 pilots were chosen to “minimize the impact of this training shortfall on the comparison test.” This statement acknowledges, perhaps unwittingly, the value of having pilots who are specifically trained for the close air support, combat search and rescue, and airborne forward air controller missions.

And it must be pointed out that the Air Force has done little to correct the F-35 pilots’ training shortfalls in the years since the tests. POGO obtained Air Force training memorandums in early 2023, and they showed that there are no close air support or related mission training requirements for any F-35 pilots in 2023 or 2024.

Close air support and combat search and rescue are the most delicate combat roles of military aviation: Pilots need to drop bombs and fire rounds at targets close to friendly troops. With that in mind, it is amazing to learn that the tests used “simulated ordnance” in all but one of the test events. That means no live weapons were dropped for most of the tests. Rather than observing actual hits or misses, officials judged the results based on cockpit video and self-reported outcomes by the pilots and participants on the ground. This created an opportunity for officials to manipulate the results based on desired outcomes and operator bias. According to the report, live ammunition wasn’t used due to “range safety restrictions.”

POGO obtained Air Force training memorandums in early 2023, and they showed that there are no close air support or related mission training requirements for any F-35 pilots in 2023 or 2024.

All of this adds up to an unreliable attack aviation test that wasn’t even really an attack test at all. Without ground troops operating anywhere near the targets, the tests could at best be considered an exercise in battlefield air interdiction, or the use of aviation to disrupt or delay enemy forces before they can engage against friendly units. They certainly didn’t test the F-35’s ability to support troops who are already engaged with the enemy, the primary mission of the A-10. Members of Congress clearly mandated a close air support comparison test, but that is not what they got.

The Results

Despite the heavy redactions in the released report, it is clear the results of these flawed tests disappointed the powers that be. Had the F-35 come out as the winner, there can be little doubt that a clear, declarative statement to that fact would have prominently appeared in the opening paragraph of the report. 

The unredacted text of the report features no such statement.

To the contrary, the report’s authors concede the F-35 did not perform as expected in the A-10’s traditional role. The report states the tests fulfilled the congressional mandate — which is debatable —and then went on to say the tests yielded “important conclusions that should be useful in improving F-35A performance in these mission roles…”

The actual recommendations to improve the F-35A’s effectiveness in the close air support, airborne forward air control, and combat search and rescue roles appear on page 31 of the report. The authors included eight specific recommendations, but Pentagon officials redacted the text based on national security concerns. Notably, the authors did not include any such list of recommendations for the A-10C.

From what can be read in the report, a picture emerges of the F-35A’s shortcomings in the attack role. In one cut-off sentence, the report says “sorties than A-10C sorties would be necessary to attack the same number of targets.” It’s clear from the context of the report that it takes more F-35 sorties than A-10 sorties to attack the same number of targets. Later in the report, the testing officials point out that the “typical loadout of the A-10C enabled more attacks than the typical loadout of the F-35A.”

The original designers of the A-10 understood the importance of a large ammunition capacity for the aircraft they created. They knew the ground forces needed an aircraft that could remain overhead for a significant amount of time with enough bombs and rounds to make repeated attacks. The F-35A’s relatively small bomb load, especially in stealth mode, puts the aircraft at a disadvantage when compared to the A-10’s capabilities, especially in the close air support role. The A-10C can carry 16 GBU-39 small diameter bombs; the F-35 can only carry eight. The A-10’s iconic 30mm GAU-8 cannon system has an ammunition capacity of 1,350 rounds; the F-35A’s smaller 25mm cannon system can carry only 181 rounds. But the F-35A’s gun doesn’t shoot straight, so it hardly matters how much ammunition it carries.

The fact that it takes more F-35 sorties to destroy a target becomes much more significant considering the program’s low readiness rates. The Government Accountability Office published a report in September 2023 detailing the struggles the services have maintaining the F-35. The GAO found that the entire F-35 fleet has a full mission capable rate of less than 50%. So not only does it take more F-35 sorties to fill the role of the A-10, but it is also unlikely that the F-35 fleet would be able to fly often enough to make up for the deficit.

When it came to hitting targets, the pilots flying the A-10s did a better job than their counterparts flying the F-35s did. The report discusses measured location errors, or the distance a GPS-guided weapon impacts from the intended target. “Tactics typically caused A-10C pilots to fly closer to the target than F-35A pilots,” the report states, citing this as an explanation for the difference in bombing accuracy while employing GPS-guided weapons even though few live weapons were actually dropped during the tests. A-10 pilots are able to fly closer to the target because their aircraft is built with armor protection and redundant systems that allow the A-10 to take some hits and still bring the pilot back to safety. The only way for an F-35 pilot to survive is to fly high above the danger and rely on stealth to hide from it. And accuracy certainly matters in close air support when ground troops are involved. In drawing their conclusions, the report concedes that A-10 pilots fly closer to the ground and therefore closer to potential ground fire, which acknowledges the aircraft’s ability to absorb some damage and still fly home — another critical, and mission-specific, role for which it was designed while the F-35 was not.

It is also unlikely that the F-35 fleet would be able to fly often enough to make up for the deficit.

The report teases an interesting conclusion considering all the hype around the F-35’s celebrated data-sharing capabilities. The pilots flying the A-10s for the tests reported a “significantly lower workload” — meaning they had fewer tasks to complete — while conducting airborne forward air controller missions than the pilots flying the F-35As. During these missions, a pilot flying in one aircraft will locate the target and then relay all the information necessary to a pilot flying in another who will actually take the shot. Boosters of the F-35 program like to talk about how the aircraft’s advanced sensors and ability to instantly share information increase the total force’s ability to gain a common picture of the battlespace. The revelation that it takes more effort for a pilot flying the F-35 to coordinate with another pilot suggests reality may not be living up to the hype. Unfortunately, the entire section of the testing report after this revelation is redacted, so it is unclear how significant the issue may be.

Many of the pilots involved with the tests drew an interesting conclusion that clearly demonstrates the importance of both the A-10 and mission-specific aircraft in general. Pilots flying in both the F-35 and A-10 in the tests repeatedly said A-10s performing the attack role with F-35s providing cover would be a powerful combination. “This would combine the strengths of both platforms while mitigating their limitations to improve the likelihood of mission success,” the report states.

While there is much we don’t know about the tests due to the lack of available information, the report makes clear the F-35 did not distinguish itself as a vastly superior weapon to fill the A-10’s three roles.

Undue Secrecy

Pentagon officials worked hard to suppress the results of the flyoff tests between the F-35 and A-10. POGO filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the report the day after Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall acknowledged its existence during a House Armed Services hearing on April 27, 2022, more than three full years after the tests concluded. POGO’s original FOIA request went unanswered. The Air Force relented in releasing the report only after POGO’s legal team filed a FOIA lawsuit in federal court.

POGO has been following this story for years. Our military advocates, to include the author, lobbied lawmakers for several years to mandate a flyoff test between the F-35 and A-10. Our lobbying work to preserve the fleet until there is a dedicated attack aircraft replacement will continue until the last A-10 is sent to the boneyard, or an adequate replacement is fielded. A-10 advocates flooded Capitol Hill in the spring of 2023 to convince lawmakers to do the right thing for the ground troops who will fight in future conflicts by making sure they have the tools necessary to be successful on the battlefield — which includes effective air support.

The author met with more than 20 congressional offices in 2023 alone to talk specifically about the A-10 and the three missions it performs. In all of those meetings, not a single person said they had seen the flyoff report. Many were unaware that the competitive tests had even taken place. Taxpayers, to say nothing of the troops themselves, should be asking why Air Force leaders have worked to suppress highly relevant information that should shape important decisions being made about the future of U.S. combat operations.

Conclusion

Lawmakers should make decisions based on the data and not on the talking points of Air Force leaders. In the case of the A-10, members of Congress are in the process of making an irrevocable mistake based on little more than the clearly biased and incomplete words of Air Force officials. The ability of the F-35 to replace the A-10 has never been demonstrated. Further, Air Force leaders have yet to take even preliminary steps to prepare their F-35 pilots to perform the most important combat role with which they have been entrusted. 

Lawmakers should make decisions based on the data and not on the talking points of Air Force leaders.

Despite the rhetoric about future wars and fancy technology, almost every war comes down to our ground troops fighting the enemy’s ground troops in close proximity. The soldiers and Marines who will fight those wars deserve to have the tools they will need to survive and prevail. Until a dedicated attack aircraft program can take over, the A-10 remains the best available tool to support the troops. As proof of the A-10’s continued relevance, the Air Force sent A-10s from Arizona’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to the Middle East within days of the beginning of the war between Israel and Hamas to help deter that conflict from escalating.

At the very least, Congress must immediately delay any more A-10 retirements until members can be better informed about the consequences of doing so, and it must force Department of Defense leaders to reconcile the fact that they are giving up the close air support mission in favor of an aircraft that works less than half the time. The best course of action would be to fully fund the A-10 fleet in order to maintain it long enough for another dedicated attack program to take its place. Funding for such a program could be found in part by reducing the planned F-35 fleet. The troops deserve nothing less.

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