The Bridge: Why is the Air Force Phasing Out a Crucial F-35 Training?

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There’s a glaring absence in the F-35 pilot training guidance.

We recently got our hands on the Air Force’s biannual documents outlining pilot training and discovered that the Air Force is, essentially, not training F-35 Lightning II pilots on close air support missions. I’m going to explain what exactly those missions are, but all you need to know right now is that this is an inexcusable omission that will most likely have fatal consequences. The Air Force has a responsibility to help the ground troops in the Army. By failing to train their pilots on providing close air support, they’re shirking that responsibility and leaving ground troops without the assistance they desperately need.

In this edition:

  • What are close air support missions?
  • The reliable A-10 and its unworthy replacement
  • The Air Force’s vendetta
  • History will repeat itself

In the documents we obtained, we found that across the active duty, National Guard, and reserve components, F-35 pilots are not required to fly a single close air support training (also called “sorties”). Zip, nada. Not even a simulated mission.

My colleague, Senior Defense Policy Fellow Dan Grazier, recently wrote an investigation on this issue. I chatted with him to understand the impacts of the Air Force’s decision to leave close air support training out of the curriculum.

Read Dan’s investigation

But first, some context. 

What is close air support?

Close air support is when an aircraft assists in striking enemy targets that are in dangerously close proximity to ground troops. These missions are often so close that ground troops often feel the blast effect. Dan told me that in some cases, 500-pound bombs are dropping within a kilometer of the ground troops. “If you’re that soldier on the ground, and you have an aircraft flying across your front striking a target you can see... you hope that everyone involved in that mission has a lot of experience, a lot of training,” Dan said. “It is the most delicate combat role that military aviators can undertake, and if it goes wrong, it will go wrong in a really bad way.”

If it ain’t broke 

These critical missions (which are, as you can imagine, core to many military operations) are carried out best currently by A-10 pilots in the best aircraft for the job. “The A-10 is unique in aviation history because it was the first aircraft that was designed specifically to perform the close air support mission,” Dan told me. The A-10 is a single-use aircraft with a dedicated purpose, as contrasted with the multi-use F-35 (the Pentagon’s most costly weapons program boondoggle), which is so expensive in part because it’s trying, and failing, to do too much all at once.

…this ain’t fixing it 

The F-35 was sold to Congress as a direct replacement for the A-10. It was even blatantly promised that the F-35 would fill the close air support role. But the Air Force isn’t training F-35 pilots on close air support missions. Instead, F-35 pilot training is centered around missions — missions that aim to destroy enemy air power by bombing airfields, sitting aircraft, and aviation facilities. These types of trainings have been prioritized (F-35 pilots are required to fly 68 offensive counter air sorties), while other critical missions — like close air support and combat search and rescue — take a back seat.

”The Air Force has a responsibility to these other services, but they’re just focusing on the missions that will make them look best,” Dan said.

Why the Air Force is leaving ground troops in the lurch

Now, there’s some history here. Dan told me about the industrial web theory — a theory aviators developed to sell the idea of a standalone branch of the Armed Forces in 1947. That theory had them thinking they could win wars independently of ground and naval forces. “Air Force leaders traditionally think that close air support missions are a waste of aviation assets, that they’re of better use bombing the kinds of targets they think are important instead,” Dan explained.

That’s the problem with multi-role aircraft like the F-35. Because of the flexibility of what these aircraft can do, the Air Force ends up prioritizing missions their leaders deem important, instead of considering their responsibility to the Armed Forces as a whole. “With the A-10, the Air Force had no choice but to let the priority be just close air support,” Dan said. “If it’s retired without a dedicated replacement, we’re going to see the Air Force continue to distance itself from the Army and the Navy.”

This does not bode well

Close air support is truly a matter of life or death for the troops fighting on the ground. It’s critical that pilots are trained effectively on carrying out these missions — and if that’s too big of an ask for the F-35 pilots, then the A-10 should be saved from retirement so it can do what it was built to do.

“The real value of the A-10 program, which was unintended, was that it created a cadre of close air support professionals, which the Armed Forces does not have otherwise,” Dan explained. “If the A-10 program is retired without a true attack aircraft replacement program in place, and the A-10 pilots turn in their papers, get reassigned, or eventually retire the force, that institutional knowledge is going to vanish quickly.”

And this isn’t just hypothetical. After World War II, Air Force leaders deprioritized tactical aviation in favor of strategic bombing. Five years later, when the Korean War started, the Air Force had no close air support capability at all. Ground troops had to depend instead on the Navy. All that training vanished in less than five years.

If the Air Force doesn’t reprioritize close air support missions, future warfighters will needlessly suffer. It’s critical that we save these missions — and the A-10.