Several weeks ago, the Project On Government Oversight announced its cautious optimism upon learning the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) planned to conduct a close air support (CAS) fly-off between the proven A-10 and the yet-to-be proven F-35.
The cautious aspect of that optimism has been shown to be warranted. Under questioning by Representative Martha McSally (R-AZ), a former A-10 pilot, F-35 program executive officer Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan (USAF) dismissed the idea of a comparative test as irrelevant. The exchange occurred during a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on updates to the Joint Strike Fighter program.
General Bogdan’s remarks echo earlier comments by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, who described the proposed test as a “silly exercise.”
Dr. Michael Gilmore, Director of Operational Test & Evaluation, said in late August, “The comparison tests on the close-air support mission will reveal how well the F-35 performs and whether there are gaps, or improvements in capability, compared to the A-10.”
When asked by Rep. McSally to comment about the comparative tests, Lt. Gen. Bogdan acknowledged the F-35 would not do as well as the A-10 in such a test. He smugly compared the test to a decathlete competing against a champion sprinter in a 100 meter race. “I don’t have to run that race to know who is going to win it,” he said.
“What I prefer to do is test the F-35 in its close air support role as the Air Force sees the requirements for that mission for the F-35,” the General said.
The test envisioned by the Air Force would be conducted in the manner it wants to conduct close air support missions in the future, not in the way decades of experience has proven it must be conducted in order to be effective on the battlefield.
The Air Force wants these missions to be conducted from high altitudes using digital communications and precision munitions. In other words, it wants to accomplish the mission only through high-tech means from a distance, rather than getting low to the ground where pilots and ground controllers are able to coordinate in a way which has been used to great effect for decades.
In a recent documentary, an A-10 pilot talked about the sensors available to help them correlate targets on the ground to ensure a precision strike. But in nearly the same breath, he described their shortcomings as well. “That will never replace just looking right, outside of my cockpit and looking at the battlespace. What am I seeing out there, big-picture?” That level of situational awareness only develops when a pilot is able to fly low and slow over the battlefield. That will be lost by F-35 pilots who will be restricted to much higher altitudes and speed.
They will be forced there because, as Michael Gilmore said while testifying at an earlier hearing, “The (F-35) has some vulnerabilities that you would expect a high performance aircraft to have. The A-10 is going to be able to, can take, hits an F-35 couldn’t take.”
The United States has already been through this process before and learned painful and expensive lessons by ignoring proven methods of designing effective weapons systems.
Pierre Sprey, a veteran of many bureaucratic battles while designing effective aircraft, says the correct approach to this process is to first understand the mission the system is to perform: you’ve “got to start with what really happens in combat,” Sprey said in a recent interview.
Sprey, one of the principle designers of the A-10, said an effective close air support aircraft is one that can “be able to get in close enough to see [friendly troops on the ground] and what they’re opposing and what their dangers are, how they’re about to be ambushed, what tanks they’re facing, what machine gun nests they’re facing.”
“You come flashing by there at 500 miles an hour, you’re hopeless and useless,” Sprey said, referring to traditional fighters designed for air-to-air combat.
He and the rest of the A-10 design team began that process by interviewing many veteran pilots with experience flying CAS missions. They then matched technology with the way the aircraft would actually be used. This was a radical approach then, and now. What Lt. Gen. Bogdan admitted in his testimony was the F-35 has been engineered to incorporate favored technology. The technology is dictating how troops will be able to fight rather than battlefield experience shaping the technology incorporated in the aircraft.
Rep. McSally sees dangers ahead with such an approach. “I think us envisioning that we’re never going to have close air support where guys are on the run, they’re out of ammo, they’re doing a mirror flash into your eye, they don’t have time to do stand-off CAS because of the conflict circumstances, if we think that’s never going to happen again, I think we’re lying to ourselves.”
The debate about the proposed tests will continue for some time. The F-35 is still years away from having the ability to go through these tests because the software needed to employ the necessary weapons will not be complete until 2017 at the earliest.
In the intervening years, it is essential for Congress to continue reaffirming annually its commitment to the troops on the ground by mandating a completely intact A-10 force until another platform is proven to perform this vital mission at least as well as the Warthog.