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 fly-off. The unpublicized tests began on July 5, 2018 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 U.S. 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 they’ve been trying to get rid of for over two decades. The now-former Pentagon weapons testing director, J. Michael Gilmore, said in 2016 that a 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.
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.
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.
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 Air Force, especially for the F-35 squadrons, which it also does for foreign air forces .