Testing the A-10 Against the F-35 –Honest Evaluation?

by Stephen Bryen


Back in the early 1980’s Frank Carlucci, then Deputy Secretary of Defense was faced with a “competition” between the venerable Colt M1911A1 handgun and a 9mm Beretta. The M1911A1 was in service for some 70 years and the Pentagon leadership wanted a newer design handgun that was easier to use and more likely to hit the target when fired.  The M1911A was a .45 caliber gun, had a strong kick and was hard to hold on accurately on a target.  The Beretta, a much lighter 9mm gun, was easier to fire, had little kick back and thus was more likely to strike its target, even though it did not have the stopping power of the M1911A.  The goal was a new sidearm for the US military services, so the gun was a “joint service” acquisition.
But it was the Army, that bought the most guns, that was asked to test the gun.  And test them they did: running hundreds of rounds sequentially through the guns.  Both guns failed, at somewhere around 700 rounds.  The army concluded that the Beretta offered no reliability benefits and recommending sticking with the M1911A and other similar sidearms long in service. 


Of course the test hardly had anything to do with the virtues of the guns at all, since military sidearms are rarely used but in especially extreme circumstances (e.g., a downed pilot fighting off an enemy) where someone might fire a handgun, but otherwise if they were soldiers they relied on their M16’s and other rapid fire weapons.  The idea of shooting off more than a few rounds at any one time rarely happened. 


Carlucci fended off the so-called “test” and in the end went with the Beretta because of its accuracy and lighter weight. It also was good timing, with women increasingly filling military ranks a lighter weapon was much preferred (although the Army until very recently never lightened up body armor, a real problem for women in combat zones).
I remember the Carlucci sidearm experience because it taught me –as a Pentagon senior official in those days– that you had to keep your eyes open when weapons and equipment were “tested.”  Rigging a test was not usual then or now. 


Now another “test” this one demanded by the Congress is in the works, this time between the F-35 and the old A-10 Thunderbolt II.  Of course these airplanes are true apples and oranges, but the Air Force really wants to replace the A-10’s with the F-35, so now they have to “test” one against the other.
The F-35 is a super-expensive stealthy aircraft primarily an air superiority tactical fighter aircraft.  The A-10 is a 40 plus year old aircraft primarily designed to destroy enemy armor and adapted to the close support role where it has performed very well.  The A-10 is one of the “vintage” aircraft still in service; the only older plane flying around also performing a sort-of close support role is the humongous B-52 bomber.  The B-52 has a great advantage in loiter time over target compared to the A-10 and the F-35, but it is very vulnerable (even with countermeasures) to ground to air missiles and quite expensive to operate.  But the Air Force loves it, so put aside any thought that it might be retired.  The B-52, flying since the 1960’s is likely to be still flying in the 2060’s. 

Troopers call in A-10 Support

Now the Air Force has told Congress that despite a re-winging program for the heavily overused A-10s, the Air Force cannot promise it won’t “retire” or scrap a number of A-10 squadrons, as early as 2025 (that is, in six or seven years).  They would probably scrap them all if they could, and since the re-winging job which used to be done by Boeing is now out for bid, with Boeing out of the equation, it isn’t clear whether it is worth anyone’s while to do the job for the Air Force, or even if they want to, if they can qualify for the work.  So, apropo the Air Force there are still ways to maneuver and see the A-10 in the scrap yard or in a museum, where many already can be seen on display stands.
The A-10 was originally built as a tank buster for NATO –meaning that it had a very large gatling gun capable of blowing the tops off tanks rolling across the lowlands between the Hesse-Thuringian border and Frankfurt am Main known as the Fulda Gap.  This was the corridor where a Soviet armor attack on Western Europe could have happened during the Cold War.  The A-10 would be fighting in unison with fighter and bomber aircraft and so would have had topside protection.  The A-10 also was designed with self-sealing fuel tanks against small arms fire and a titanium armor bathtub protecting the pilot and the onboard weapons’ officer. The aircraft was never thought of as an independent attack aircraft.
Because the Cold War never resulted in a general war, how to use the A-10 evolved.  The A-10  became operational too late for the Vietnam war, and it really showed its stuff in the two Persian Gulf wars and in Afghanistan.  It turned out that once an enemy air defenses were suppressed, the A-10 was a great counter insurgency and close support weapon and still good at destroying enemy tanks and other vehicles.  Three A-10’s were shot down in Operation Desert Shield in 1991, fewer than the losses of “advanced” combat aircraft such as the F-16, F-18 and Harrier.  Two were hit by missiles (SA-16SA-13) and one by ground fire.  In Operation Iraqi Freedom starting in 2003 A-10s had a mission capable rate of 85 percent in the war and fired 311,597 rounds of 30 mm ammunition. A single A-10 was shot down near Baghdad International Airport by Iraqi fire late in the campaign. A-10s flew 32 percent of combat sorties in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The sorties ranged from 27,800 to 34,500 annually between 2009 and 2012. In the first half of 2013, they flew 11,189 sorties in Afghanistan.”  Approximately 70 A-10s suffered some minor damage, but these were put back in service.
Thus the combat experience of the A-10 shows that against even an enemy with ground to air missiles, the aircraft is still able to perform its mission with few losses and it can take ground fire and return home in most cases.
Replacing the A-10 with the F-35 raises some substantial issues and they are not just the massive operating cost differential. (The F-35 costs more than $42,000 per hour and has a low operational availability rate, less than 50% at present; the A-10 costs $6,000 or less per hour and in combat has an operational rate exceeding 85%.) While the F-35 can be equipped with stand-off missiles (but not too many) and has a vastly superior targeting capability compared to the more primitive A-10, it really cannot approach close to a target because flying low and slow would completely compromise any stealth advantage inherent in the F-35.  And if the F-35 misses with the few shots it has, it needs to go home.  In fact, the F-35 doesn’t compare to the B-52 as a standoff platform because the B-52 can carry 20 times more weapons which it can unload on a designated target.  It would not be of much use having the F-35 suppress moving enemy armor, trucks and ground equipment or mobile missile defenses from 50 or 100 miles away.  Even with very fast missiles, too much time would elapse in closing out the target.
Which immediately raises another important issue.  In close support operations, it is the fighting force in the field that calls in support against a target they identify.  In firefights they are very close to the enemy.  It is very important that the actual location of the enemy is accurately conveyed so as to avoid a friendly-fire incident.  This can be done either by calling in coordinates, illuminating the target as with flares, or designating the target with a laser.  The farther away you are from the target the greater chance the target will not be in the same exact location when your weapon strikes.  The shorter the time to target the better because the greater chance the enemy will be hit and the less likely there will be spillover on friendly forces.  Battlefield situations can change fast.
The F-35 was not built as a loitering weapon but as an air superiority weapon capable of penetrating enemy air defenses and destroying them and other high value targets.  If it performs as advertised it should be capable of exploiting its stealth characteristics and do a job that would be more costly (in terms of possible combat losses) for conventional fighter aircraft.  Of course the success of any stealth platform depends on two factors: the ability for radars and other sensors to accurately identify incoming aircraft and launch missiles or other weapons to counter them; and the use of electronic jamming against beyond visual range weapons. Jamming systems today are very sophisticated and use both threat libraries and heuristics to identify and blind their targets.
All of which begs the question of what kind of test can be designed to assess the F-35 against the A-10 in the close support combat role?  The best test would be to only look at actual close support operations where the aircraft was asked to provide immediate help to a combat team in need of assistance.  These are already well documented for many aircraft types and especially the A-10, and the amount of time between request and response is a vital measure of the usefulness of any platform.  In addition, if the target is moving, then the aircraft must be close enough to anticipate where the target will be when the designated weapon actually hits.  If there is a miss, the aircraft has to be able to carry out a follow-up attack perhaps with adjusted coordinates.  But the F-35 can’t hang around very long and is likely to be heading home after the first shot.  The A-10, however is hovering where its target is, and get uses its bombs and big gun to liquidate the enemy.
In addition, the A-10 does not need to use expensive smart weapons on typical terrorist or guerrilla targets.  Its massive gun is more effective and more terrifying to the enemy.
Congress should insist on seeing the test scenario design before it is executed including the simulation planned of the combat environment.  For example, if the proposed combat environment is loaded with airborne hostiles, it would be more logical to use standard fighter aircraft or F-35’s to clear out the airspace and then use the A-10 to attack the enemy, whether the enemy is in a tank or a pickup truck or on foot.  Having top cover is SOP (standard operating procedure) where the environment is dense with enemy hostile aircraft or sophisticated air defenses.  The test design should not use a dense environment as a way of discounting the effectiveness of the A-10.  In fact, the A-10 and the F-35 should be judged by their accuracy, lethality and ability to stay over the target, meaning availability to ground forces.
Will the Pentagon sponsor an honest test or will it just overvalue the F-35 and pretend it is something it isn’t?  Right now most would bet the test will be like the one Frank Carlucci faced on choosing a new sidearm.