Decision-makers on Capitol Hill have lost sight of the full mission set of the F-35, and instead have focused on its inability to fully replicate the A-10 in the close air support realm, the head of the Joint Strike Fighter program said Tuesday this week.
The F-35 cannot do close air support as well as the A-10, acknowledged Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program executive officer. It doesn't have the time on station in a battle, or a gun as venerable as the Warthog's GAU-8 Avenger that's a part of the Warthog. But it flies other missions, and it will improve, he Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program executive officer said.
"We are just in the middle of the movie on [the F-35] now," Bogdan told reporters following a House Armed Services hearing Tuesday. "It will be a flying close air support airplane, but it does so many other things though that other airplanes can't do. People are losing sight of that."
The F-35 is still young in its development, with just 124 jets flying of the planned 2,443. The jet is projected to replace the Air Force's A-10, which the service is trying to retire. It would also replace Air Force F-15s and F-16s and . for the AIr Force, along with legacy fighters in the Navy and Marine Corps. The aircraft will go through multiple software upgrades and other changes before they reaching full operating capability in 2017.
The F-35's progression is talked about in "blocks" – different software suites that will control the capability of the aircraft. Most aircraft are flying a current version of 2A, which has is limited in its ability to employ weapons and provide situational awareness. The Marine Corps will reach their initial operating capability later this year on block 2B. later this year,with tThe Air Force will following next year suit with block 3i, which next year. The Air Force's software suite is the exact same as 2B but uses the Marine Corps, just used on updated hardware. The Navy will reach initial operating capability with a later software suite, 3F.
Service and program officers admit that the block 2B and 3I versions of the F-35 will be limited in their its ability to do close air support. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's head of test and evaluation, testified said explained to the House Armed Services Committee in testimony on Tuesday that the difference between the block 2B's ability and that of the A-10 is dramatic:
- An F-35B, assuming a 250-mile flight into a close air support mission, would have just 20 to 30 minutes time on station to provide close air support, and would only be able to employ two air-to-surface weapons while in a standoff position outside of an engagement zone. By comparison, an A-10 would have 90 minutes one and a half hours of time in an engagement zone and could employ four air-to-surface weapons, along with its internal gun.
- Because the F-35's software is limited in its ability to identify targets, the pilot would have to be in constant voice contact with a forward air controller. An A-10 could autonomously acquire and identify targets, and pass along information digitally.
- The F-35's ability to receive a "nine line" – the critical targeting information sent by a joint terminal attack controller to a pilot – has so far been inaccurate, Gilmore said. The A-10, along with the AV-8B Harrier and F-16, receive digital nine line codes.
- The F-35's fuel burn is about 180 percent faster much faster than the A-10 about 180 percent higher and 60 percent higher than the F-16. This means mission planners would need more tanker support for an F-35 to stay on the target longer.
The A-10, the whose 's primary mission of which is close air support, and it does outperform the F-35 at the moment, Bogdan said.
"When you have an airplane that does a single mission, you can bet if you build that airplane only to do that mission, it's going to be able to do that mission very, very well," Bogdan said. "And the A-10 does its mission very, very well."
But the F-35 program is still in its infancy, and there will be greater close air support capabilities in the near future, Bogdan said.
The follow-on software update following block 3I, called 3F, is in flight testing and will bring a bigger increase in the F-35's capability. The software is expected to be fielded in 2017, when the Air Force will reach its full operating capability and the Navy is expected to reach initial operating capability on its carrier variant.
If everything in block 3F is realized, "I think it will be safe to say you'll have much better situational awareness in an F-35 than you would in an A-10," Gilmore told lawmakers.
These capabilities include the ability to carry weapons externally, which will increase the F-35's its payload to include its internal gun, six GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and along with four air-to-air missiles. The jet will have increased use of on-board sensors and data from other aircraft, such as an advanced data link and a Link 16 network connection with allied aircraft, that will give a pilot better awareness of his surroundings and targets than current F-35s and the A-10.
"When we are done with 3F in 2017, the F-35 will be a very, very capable close air support airframe," Bogdan said. "It will be able to find, fix, track and target things that move and don't move on the ground and be able to put precision weapons on them, or shoot it with a gun, day, night and in the weather. That's a pretty darn good capability."
Even with the upgrades, the F-35 will still be unable to carry the amount of ordnance that an A-10 can, will have while still offering less loiter time and will need to do stay "standoff" position out of danger, instead of flying closer to the fight.
"The aircraft has some vulnerabilities that you would have to expect a high performance aircraft to have. And the A-10 can take hits that an F-35 couldn't take," Gilmore said. "But, I don't think that the plan for having the F-35 conduct CAS is equivalent in all operational aspects to the way the A-10 [would]."
The F-35 would stay away from the danger of from anti-aircraft fire, while the armored A-10 could fly closer, Gilmore said.
Even in the future, however, there will still be times when a pilot needs to be able to get up close to provide accurate support, said Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a former A-10 pilot and squadron commander.
"There are times and there will still be times in the future when you must get down and dirty with the guys on the ground who are often on the run, unable to give you their coordinates and you have to be able to visually see the good guys and the bad guys," McSally said. "You cannot stand off in all CAS scenarios, even in the future."