The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is finally going up against the battle-proven A-10 close air support attack plane for the long-promised close air support fly-off. The unpublicized tests began on July 5, and will conclude on July 12, according to a copy of the testing schedule reviewed by the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight. But the tests, as designed, are unlikely to reveal anything of real value about the F-35’s ability to support ground troops in realistic combat situations—which the F-35, as the presumptive replacement for the A-10, must be able to demonstrate.
A close air support test should involve large numbers of ground troops in a highly fluid combat simulation in varied terrain, across many days. It should test the pilot’s ability to spot targets from the air in a chaotic and ever-changing situation. The test should also include a means of testing the program’s ability to fly several sorties a day, because combat doesn’t pause to wait for airplanes to become available.
But the Air Force scheduled just four days’ worth of tests at desert ranges in California and Arizona. And, according to sources closely associated with the fly-off, not a single event includes ground troops, or any kind of fluid combat situation, which means these tests are hardly representative of the missions a close air support aircraft has to perform.
These tests put Air Force leadership in a difficult position.
They want their largest and highest-priority weapons buy, the troubled $400 billion F-35 multi-mission fighter, to quickly replace the A-10 close air support attack plane they’ve been trying to get rid of for over two decades. The now-former Pentagon weapons testing director, Dr. J. Michael Gilmore, said in 2016 that a close air support fly-off would be the only way to determine how well the F-35 could perform the close air support role compared to the A-10—or whether the F-35 could perform that role at all. The testing office and the various service testing agencies had already meticulously planned comparative tests to pit the F-35 against the A-10, F-16, and the F-18, because the F-35 program is contractually required to show better mission effectiveness than each of the legacy aircraft it is to replace.
Many Air Force leaders strenuously objected to the fly-off, claiming that the F-35 would perform the mission differently so it wouldn’t be fair to compare its performance to the A-10. These tests are only happening now—albeit in an inadequate form—because Congress mandated them nearly three years ago. The Senate established strict criteria and specific scenarios for the tests. These include demonstrating the F-35’s ability to visually identify friendly forces and the enemy target in both day and night scenarios, to loiter over the target for an extended time, and to destroy targets without a joint terminal attack controller directing the strike.
The Congressionally approved plan includes a schedule for tests and funding for elaborate tactical test ranges with combat-realistic, hard-to-find targets defended by carefully simulated missile and gun defenses, and appropriate ground-control teams for the close-support portion of the test scenarios. Testing to date has revealed the F-35 is incapable of performing most of the functions required for an acceptable close-support aircraft, and it seems unlikely the criteria outlined by Congress and testing officials would have produced the results Air Force leaders wanted.
The Air Force Solution: Designed to Mislead
Air Force leaders came up with a simple solution to this dilemma. 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.
According to sources closely involved with the A-10 versus F-35 fly-off, who wished to remain anonymous out of concerns about retaliation, this testing program was designed without ever consulting the Air Force’s resident experts on close air support, A-10 pilots and joint terminal attack ground controllers. The Air Force’s 422 Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base maintains an A-10 test division. But no one from the operational test unit contributed to the design of these tests. Even more egregiously, no Army or Marine representatives participated. Since the services fighting on the ground have a primary interest in effective close air support, excluding them from this process borders on negligence. This testing event should have been designed by the Joint Strike Fighter Operational Test Team, which is charged with designing all tests for the F-35. Rather than going through the proper channels, design of these tests was outsourced to a consultant from Tactical Air Support Inc., a company with a contract to provide adversary aircraft to serve as air-combat training opponents for the U.S. Air Force, especially for the F-35 squadrons, which it also does for foreign air forces. In other words, the test was designed by someone with a vested financial interest in the F-35 program, rather than by people whose primary interest is its performance in combat.
The testing schedule shows four days of actual testing: one at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma’s open-desert bombing training range, in southern Arizona, and three at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake’s electronic combat range, an open-desert facility in California primarily used for electronic countermeasure research.
Day One at Yuma
The first day's test—July 5, at Yuma—scheduled one F-35 two-ship flight and two A-10 pairs. Each flight was to spend one hour making attack passes at highly visible, bombed-out vehicle hulks and shipping containers simulating buildings (plus one highly visible, remote-controlled moving-vehicle target), all in flat, open terrain near a large simulated airfield target. Each A-10 carried two laser-guided 500-pound bombs, two captive-carry Maverick guided missiles, a pod of marking rockets, and only 400 30 mm cannon rounds. The F-35s carried a single 500-pound laser-guided bomb and 181 25 mm rounds, the most each plane could carry. For the last 20 minutes of each one-hour target-range session, altitude was restricted to 10,000 feet, an alleged evaluation of each plane’s ability to operate beneath low cloud cover.
The first day’s attack scenarios called for “permissive” anti-aircraft defenses consisting of simulated shoulder-fired missiles and light anti-aircraft guns. A permissive environment is one in which there are few or no threats capable of shooting down an aircraft. Despite the “permissive” description, these are the anti-aircraft weapons that close air support planes will typically encounter while supporting our troops in battle against near-peer maneuvering enemy forces. However, the simulated defenses at Yuma had no precision instrumentation to track aircraft flight paths, gun aiming, or missile launch and homing. As a result, no quantitative data regarding the actual performance of the A-10 and F-35 will have been gathered. 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.
A close look at the first day’s test scenarios reveals numerous ways in which they were designed to favor the F-35 over the A-10, including the following:
- 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.
- 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.
- Testing both planes’ critical ability to support troops under low cloud cover by imposing a 10,000-foot ceiling is irresponsibly unrealistic and clearly intended to mask the unmaneuverable and thin-skinned F-35’s inability to operate under the far lower 1,000-foot ceilings so common in Europe, Southeast Asia, Korea, Africa, and South America. The armored A-10 was specifically designed to be able to maneuver and survive the kind of ground fire expected during attacks under 1,000-foot ceilings. A-10s have demonstrated this on numerous occasions in Afghanistan, even in dangerous mountainous terrain.
- 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. At the same time, the 30 mm 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. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, the A-10 always carries a full complement of guided bombs instead of unguided ones.
- The absence of specialized testing equipment to determine the accuracy of anti-aircraft gun-aiming against the evasive maneuvering flight path of the attacking plane makes it impossible to gain useful insights about relative hits on the F-35 versus the A-10—and invites the use of highly biased, speculative figures to favor a predetermined outcome. Similarly, for the shoulder-fired small surface-to-air missiles, there was not instrumentation of the precise missile launch or guidance control, no precise tracking of the attacking aircraft’s trajectory, and no validated shoulder-fired missile simulation to determine the relative success of the A-10 and F-35 in defeating or surviving shoulder-fired missiles.
- Using only uncamouflaged targets—usually painted dark military green and placed in flat, open, light-colored desert terrain and thus easily seen from 15,000 feet above—completely contradicts the stark realities of actual combat, in which the enemy always has a life-and-death motivation to do whatever it takes to remain unseen as long as possible. Anyone with access to Google Earth can quickly find dozens of these targets in satellite imagery.
By testing only against highly visible targets, the test completely masks the much more restricted view out of the F-35 cockpit as compared to the A-10—along with masking the surprisingly poor video and infrared image resolution of the F-35 helmet’s display compared to the high definition of the A-10’s instrument panel display when it’s coupled to the plane’s sniper and lightening pods. On a broader level, testing only against easy-to-see, static, non-reactive targets artificially confirms the Air Force’s delusional notion that future close air support can be successfully conducted by planes flying at 15,000 feet and 450 knots relying on supposedly accurate, digitally transmitted target coordinates.
Interestingly, the Congressionally approved full operational fly-off test plan, as designed in detail by the previous testing director and the service testing agencies, avoids every one of these F-35–slanted, highly unrealistic, test-scenario biases.
Days Two, Three, and Four at China Lake
The day two schedule—July 9 at China Lake—calls for four F-35Bs to conduct a mission covering two Ospreys extracting a pilot downed in enemy territory for one hour, then four A-10s covering a similar extraction. A similar set of missions under night conditions is scheduled for the late evening of day three.
On the afternoon of day three, A-10 and F-35 pairs are to spend an hour and a quarter on the China Lake target range attacking static, visible targets similar to the Yuma targets—but these are even less realistic, as they are just simulated attacks, with no weapons released. The stated reason for moving to China Lake, despite the restrictions on actually firing weapons, is to test the A-10 and F-35 against the range’s “elevated” anti-aircraft defenses, which include simulated medium-range surface-to-air missiles, as well as shoulder-fired short-range missiles and light anti-aircraft guns.
On the afternoon of the final day, a pair of A-10s and a pair of F-35s will undergo tests to gauge their ability as airborne forward air controllers, directing the strikes of at least three sections of F-18Cs, which will simulate the bombing of more uncamouflaged targets, against the same medium- and short-range air defenses. In the late evening, a pair of F-35s and a pair of A-10s will conduct night close air support against the same targets and defenses.
These tests at China Lake show many of the same efforts to skew the events in the F-35’s favor as those at Yuma, but heavily amplified by the addition of the medium air defenses, for three main reasons:
- Without instrumented test aircraft, the aircraft radar tracking at China Lake does not yield aircraft trajectories precise enough to accurately simulate a medium-range missile’s success or failure against the evasive maneuvers and countermeasures of an attacking A-10 or F-35. As in the first day of tests, this invites speculation supporting the favored outcome.
- The medium-range missile defenses in this test do not incorporate the currently deployed Russian and Chinese stealth-defeating long-wavelength search radars now being used to cue their shorter-wavelength medium-missile radars. That means the F-35’s stealth will be much more effective against China Lake’s simulated medium missiles than against real-world missiles, thus severely skewing the test’s survival assessments in favor of the F-35 over the A-10.
- The relevance of medium-range missile defenses to close-support scenarios is at best questionable, as previously discussed. Their significant logistical requirements and lengthy setup times make them an impediment to maneuvering units heavily engaged in combat and trying to move quickly. Medium-range missiles are far more suitable for protecting rear-area interdiction targets or the static targets seen in trench warfare. Attacking either of these target systems with close-support planes would be a waste of lives and resources.
The Way Close Support Really Works
The true challenge in performing close air support and battlefield air interdiction missions starts with locating targets. In real combat, these targets will be crewed by real people with a powerful wish to survive the war. They will be unlikely to simply park their vehicles or themselves in the open desert calmly waiting to be hit by bombs. Instead, they will work hard to either camouflage their positions, dig in, or hide their vehicles beneath trees, barns, or other cover to make it much more difficult for aircraft to find, identify, and track them. Even when troops on the ground locate targets for the close air support planes, the rules of engagement almost always require pilots to get “eyes-on” before they can drop a weapon, to avoid civilian casualties and the disastrous effects on morale of friendly fire.
Nor is just locating, transmitting, and verifying a valid set of coordinates the end of the close-support problem. Targets react, move, hide, and fire back their own urgent threats, all in a matter of seconds. Pilots must be in close enough contact with the troops they’re supporting to cancel or switch targets in the middle of a firing pass.
This brings up the most significant failing in these tests: The designers essentially created a laboratory demonstration to show how aircraft can hit non-moving targets in a sterile environment. This hardly represents the conditions when soldiers and Marines are locked in close combat with an enemy just yards away. In the worst-case, most urgent close-support scenario—the one in which these aircraft need to be tested—a small group of American soldiers are about to be overrun by a numerically superior enemy force with reinforcements too far away to help. Their only hope of survival is for an aircraft to appear overhead, raining deadly fire on the enemy soldiers, forcing them to take cover or retreat. Not one event during these four days of tests comes close to addressing or simulating this.
Equally important, that lifesaving support needs to show up, rain or shine. The fighting on the ground doesn’t stop because of a little rain. On the contrary, our enemies, in wars past and present, often choose to attack in bad weather just to offset American airpower advantages. There is no reason to believe they will not do so in future wars. Because of our desert wars, we’ve forgotten that low-hanging clouds and poor visibility are the conditions at least one day out of three in most parts of the globe that aren’t deserts, where we might have to face far bigger fights than we face today. It is a travesty to pretend that a simulated cloud layer at 10,000 feet in clear desert air in any way tests what our troops need from bad-weather support.
Air Force leaders are fond of saying the F-35’s stealth characteristics will allow it to perform close air support in situations with heavy air defenses in a way the A-10 cannot. They like to paint a picture of a close-support aircraft having to drop a bomb on a target surrounded by enemy surface-to-air missiles but strangely devoid of friendly soldiers. Such a scenario is manifestly not close air support—simply because close means close to our troops. Unlike the way this quickie test is being staged, close air support, particularly in the kind of high-intensity combat against the peer enemy Air Force leaders are so fond of describing, always involves significant friendly ground forces engaged in a combined-arms campaign. These tests won’t help determine whether or not the F-35 can hit moving targets that are actively trying to evade attack while also being accurate enough to avoid hitting friendly ground forces.
The very nature of combined-arms warfare means all arms mutually support one another so that the strength of one weapon makes up for the weakness of another. For example, an Army brigade combat team urgently needing close support will be employing artillery, mortars, rockets, and electronic countermeasure to suppress enemy air defenses in order to protect the aircraft providing them support. Additionally, if ground forces are doing their job correctly, they’ll be disrupting the enemy’s air-defense forces so much that their missile crews will be concentrating on evading attack rather than firing at our airplanes. It is difficult to aim any weapon properly when being shot at by a tank’s main gun. These ground-brigade measures to suppress air defenses, in turn, greatly increase the effectiveness of the close support that the brigade combat team needs.
Rather than telling us whether or not the F-35 can actually provide the kind of close support our ground forces need to survive and prevail, this grossly inadequate test has been designed to mislead. Air Force leaders, in lockstep with senior civilian appointees, will undoubtedly march up to Capitol Hill with results in hand, saying that they conducted the tests with great care and the F-35 performed brilliantly, thus justifying bigger buys and getting rid of the A-10 sooner.
Our troops deserve better than a surreptitious test rigged in favor of a weapon that can’t do the job and against the one that can.
The Center for Defense Information at POGO aims to secure far more effective and ethical military forces at significantly lower cost.