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The F-35—A Master of None: Interview with Dan Grazier

Flickr Image of F-35 by Ron Kroetz and A-10 by US Air Force.

Pretending that the F-35 can match the role of the A-10 in terms of close air support (CAS) does a disservice to our troops, Jack Shanahan Fellow Dan Grazier said in a recent interview on the James T. Harris Show. The discussion centered on a recent congressional hearing in which Lt. Gen. Bogdan, the Joint Strike Fighter program executive officer, dismissed a fly-off between the two aircraft as irrelevant.

But, while the F-35 is supposed to replace the A-10 in CAS missions, Grazier believes it will fail to adequately fill the A-10’s shoes. Designed to be a “jack-of-all-trades,” the F-35 appears to be fulfilling the second half of the saying—becoming “a master of none.” This is because what makes an airplane a good dogfighter is very different and in some aspects directly opposed to what makes a plane good at close air support. As Grazier explains, dogfighters need to be light, maneuverable, and fast, while CAS aircraft require heavy weapon loads, the ability to absorb damage, and the ability to “fly low and slow over a battlefield.” To make one aircraft perform both missions, trade-offs are required, with a heavy reliance on technology to fill in the gaps—over 30 million lines of code so far. The Air Force seems to be counting on the fact that this new technology will allow the F-35 to conduct CAS from high altitudes and at high speed. While possible, this approach is hardly practical, as it allows no space to observe, analyze, and react to situations on the ground or provide sustained air support. During the hearing, Representative Martha McSally (R-AZ), an experienced A-10 pilot, scathingly said that “if we think that’s never going to happen again [referring to any situation that demands improvisation and sustained close air support] I think we’re lying to ourselves.”

On top of the controversy over hardware capabilities and trade-offs, Grazier raised another point that has seen little discussion, saying, “When you have a multi-role aircraft, that means you also have to create multi-role pilots.” Just as fighter jets have different hardware than close air support planes, fighter pilots have different skillsets than pilots who fly close air support missions. The amount of time and practice required to become an excellent multi-role pilot is immense, and given the F-35’s longer maintenance requirements, pilots will have fewer flight hours in which to hone their skills in even one role. Even the best plane is only as good as the pilot flying it—something that has largely been overlooked throughout the F-35’s problematic development.

A podcast of the full interview can be found here.