F-35 Chief Questions Need for Head-to-Head Showdown With A-10

By Allyson Versprille

A decision by the Pentagon’s top weapons tester to have the F-35 and the A-10 face off in a future combat air exercise caught F-35 program leaders by surprise.

“I won’t tell you it was unexpected, but I will tell you that the original plan to test this aircraft did not include that until recently,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer, said Sept. 9 at the ComDef industry conference in Washington, D.C.

As part of the required operational testing and realistic combat exercises that are mandated of all major weapon systems, the fifth-generation F-35 will have to prove its mettle against the Cold War-era A-10 close-air support aircraft. The decision by the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation J. Michael Gilmore to require the head-to-head competition comes amid a raging political battle over the Air Force’s move to schedule the retirement of the venerable A-10 over the next five years as F-35s begin to enter service.

Bogdan characterized such comparative tests as “meaningless” and questioned why evaluators chose to add the tests relatively late in the game.

“Comparative testing is not new to the department. We do it in certain instances and in certain places,” Bogdan said.

The F-35 operational test plan did not include a test against the A-10 until only months ago, Bogdan said. “It just wasn’t in there. It doesn’t mean the community didn’t plan on doing that. But the plans I had in front of me last year, the year before that, and the year before that didn’t include that specific F-35 versus A-10 testing.”

Despite his strong misgivings against comparative testing, Bogdan said he will be prepared for whatever the operational testers require. “I serve the war fighter. I will go do that,” he said.

He called it a “myth” that legacy combat aircraft like the F-16 and the A-10 could compete on a level playing field against the F-35. “The F-16 and A-10 are awesome airplanes, have been for generations,” said Bogdan. “But they will not survive in a future battle space. They can’t do some of the missions that the F-35 has been designed to do.”

A combat rehearsal that pits the Air Force version of the F-35 against the A-10 “falls into the meaningless category,” he insisted. “The idea that we are going to go test the F-35 in a close-air support role is a good thing. We want to know how it performs in that environment. But what we really want to know are its deficiencies in doing the missions the services and international partners need, not to see how good it does compared to the A-10.”

It’s not a fair comparison, Bogdan argued, because close-air support missions are diverse and a specialized airplane like the A-10 is too slow and lacks the range to do what more advanced systems like the F-35 can do. “Any comparison to any other airplanes might not be the best use of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “I would much prefer to see the airplane tested in a realistic environment, on the missions it’s supposed to do, not on the mission set of another airplane.”

In situations when air support is needed quickly and combat airplanes are far away, “I wouldn’t pick up the phone and dial A-10,” he said.

“You really have to balance what you look for,” he added. “In today’s budget environments, I’m all for putting the F-35 through its paces. But measure it against what the services need, not some arbitrary measure of what it does compared to another airplanes.”

Bogdan said the F-35 program overall is making significant progress.

“We are into the phase of rapidly accelerating and growing,” he said. “This is becoming a big and forceful program.”

The plan is to complete development by October 2017, at a cost of about $50 billion since 2001. Cost projections show prices will be coming down as production ramps up, he said. In the coming years, Lockheed Martin is expected to start delivering 120 airplanes per year. By 2019, nearly 500 will be in the fleet in the United States, Europe and Asia Pacific.

The trouble spots right now are the logistics and maintenance software that still requires fixes, and making sure there are enough airplanes to train pilots. 

The next major event on the schedule is August 2017, when the Air Force wants to declare the F-35A operational. Other top priorities are to deliver jets to Israel by the end of 2016, deploy a Marine Corps F-35B squadron to the Pacific next year and to prepare for the Navy to declare the F-35C operational by 2019.

“We haven’t missed a major milestone since 2011” when the program was restructured, he noted. The F-35 might have a troubled past “but it’s the past,” he said. “Every airplane lot has cost less than the previous batch." The projected cost of operating the fleet has dropped by about 13 percent since 2012. “We expect that trend to continue.”

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Tactical Aircraft, Test and Evaluation

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