A-10 Versus F-35: What a Head-to-Head Showdown Won't Answer

Recently, Rep. Martha McSally suggested that the Air Force conduct a fly-off between the F-35 and the A-10 to see which did better at providing Close Air Support (CAS). But effective CAS is about more than just the capabilities of the aircraft involved. It requires an Air Force community with intimate knowledge of the Army’s maneuver tactics, mindset and intent.

The A-10 community has this knowledge. But that understanding will be lost if and when the Air Force retires the A-10 weapons system—unless its leadership takes a different course of action than the one currently planned.

Sizing up the Equipment

The A-10 was designed specifically to provide CAS. It can carry a great deal of ordnance; its thirty-millimeter cannon can fire at greater range and with more accuracy than any other fighter, and it can loiter over a target area longer than any other fourth-generation platform. That capability, paired with pilots who are intimately familiar with the faculties, movement, mindsets and limitations of the Army, puts the A-10 weapons system heads above all others in the CAS environment.

Unfortunately, limited numbers of A-10s have forced other aircraft to step into the role. Over the last decade, A-10s have accounted for just 24 percent of all CAS sorties flown in Afghanistan.

Though not ideally suited for CAS, other aircraft have played the role admirably. F-16s and F-15Es flew thousands of CAS sorties over Iraq in 2004–05, dropping munitions on more than two hundred targets in that year alone. Many of those strikes occurred when there was little to no safe separation between the enemy and friendly forces, yet they delivered those munitions flawlessly.

Unlike the F-35, the A-10 was not designed to operate in a modern-day, high threat CAS environment, where Stealth and sensor fusion technologies are critical. But not all future operations will be played out in such an environment, so for the sake of sizing up the two aircraft, let’s compare them in the context of a low-threat scenario.

The F-35’s internal munitions bay, coupled with racks of ordnance mounted externally, will dwarf the ordnance capacity of an F-16, and hold its own with the A-10 and F-15E. Its outsized fuel capacity will likely give it more time over a target area than the A-10. Its internal targeting system and precision guided ammunition capability is excellent now and will eventually meet or exceed the capability and accuracy of any other CAS platform in the world. Moreover, the F-35’s air-to-surface cockpit visibility is very good and—should the need arise—its twenty-five-millimeter cannon can get the job done.

Bottom line: The F-35 may never be perceived as the “premier” close air support fighter, but in a low threat environment it will perform every current CAS role at least as well as any other fourth-generation fighter, with the exception of the A-10. And it is one of only two fighters in or entering any service inventory that has the faculties and survivability required to fulfill that role in a denied environment.

Culture Matters

CAS is more than a matter of equipment. One of the most underrated aspects of the A-10 system is the community of pilots who fly it. Every man or woman who enters the operational world of the “Hog” is taught not just how to employ ordnance in the Close Air Support fight, but to embrace the culture and environment that go with it.

As the F-16s and F-15Es have proved in Iraq, any aircraft capable of delivering ordnance can operate effectively in a low-threat, slow-moving insurgency environment. But employing ordnance effectively in support of a rapidly moving, sizable force-on-force environment is something completely different. There the organization, language, nomenclature, formations, mindsets, tactics and silhouettes of both friend and foe have to be resident in the pilots.

Much like the air-superiority community of the F-15C, the single mission of the A-10 has allowed its community to embrace the Army and focus their efforts on the mission of supporting them. Those faculties can’t be developed overnight—it’s impossible to build a culture that will embrace the Army within a squadron that plays multiple roles in combat.

In the early 2000s, much of the opposition to the F-35 came from the Army. The generals feared that, with the retirement of the A-10, the Air Force would move away from its commitment to the CAS mission. Not only was the Army well satisfied with the A-10, it really didn’t want the job shifted to F-35s tasked with multiple missions (interdiction, suppression of enemy air defenses, air superiority and special weapons) on top of CAS. Those other missions, Army brass felt, would drive its need for CAS to the bottom of the list.

To answer that concern, the Air Force altered its F-35 purchase plans to include enough short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B variants to replace the A-10 and keep CAS as a high priority. Following through with that plan would have sustained the CAS community. Unfortunately, the Air Force later reversed the F-35B decision and resumed looking to retire the A-10.

It’s All About the Community

Keeping the A-10 in the inventory solely because of its exceptional CAS faculties isn’t a viable argument. Other air-to-surface-capable aircraft have performed well in low-threat employment situations, and there is little question the F-35 will meet or exceed those jets in a low- or high-threat environment.

But the A-10 system is more than just a capable aircraft. It’s a weapons system built on a community that has been the cornerstone of the Air Force’s commitment of support to the Army for the last four decades. If the Air Force shifts the CAS mission to the F-35A, whatever part of the A-10 community that survives the initial transition will die the same, slow death suffered by other Air Force missions that supported the Army. Consider the fate of the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center mission, which dissolved into the ether when the EC-130 was retired.

The argument that future CAS engagements will almost all occur in denied environments, requiring the stealth and fusion of the F-35, also isn’t viable. Projected trends in global demographics, assessments of future operating environments, intelligence estimates and common sense all point to the likely need for CAS in low-threat/low-intensity environments for many years to come.

All 1,753 operational F-35As will be needed to train for—and face—the threats posed by China, Russia and North Korea. It would be foolish to use an F-35 in an environment where an equally effective, but less costly platform like the A-10 thrives.

Rather than demand a hardware-centric fly-off, lawmakers should recognize and value the capability inherent in the weapons system and culture that surrounds the A-10. They are second to none. The Army needs the expertise, culture and community surrounding the A-10 to remain a vibrant part of the Air Force for the foreseeable future.

About the Author

John Venable Senior Research Fellow For Defense Policy
Center for National Defense

Originally published in The National Interest