Opponents of U.S. Air Force efforts to retire its A-10 have said the 40-year-old close-air support plane can outperform the Pentagon’s most advanced aircraft.
It turns out the lumbering old plane, nicknamed the Warthog, will get a chance to prove it.
The Air Force’s top general and the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester confirmed Thursday that Lockheed Martin Corp.’s new F-35 fighter, equipped with its most modern software, will be tested against the A-10 in 2018 in a comparative evaluation of their capabilities for close-air support, as well as other missions such as air-to-air combat.
Doubts had been raised this week when General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, scoffed at a reporter’s question about an unspecified future fly-off of the old plane, which Congress has protected from Pentagon retirement plans, and the F-35.
“That would be a silly exercise,” Welsh said. “I don’t know anything about that.”
On Thursday, Welsh issued a statement saying he fully supports the long-anticipated comparative evaluation “because we already have formal comparison testing” planned and thought the question referred to some additional test.
The “initial operational test and evaluation” that includes the A-10 fly-off will be the Pentagon’s key exercise to demonstrate that the F-35 is effective for combat, can be maintained -- and is eligible for full production, the most lucrative phase of a weapons program.
Meeting with a small group of reporters Thursday to outline the testing, Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational testing, said, “I take General Welsh at his word” that he supports the fly-off.
The F-35 conducts close-air support differently, Gilmore said. The “A-10 flies low, slow and has a big gun,” he said, while the F-35 will have “very capable” electronics and sensors to meld data from various sources into a ground picture for its pilot.
Gilmore said that even if the A-10 outperformed the F-35 in some close-air support missions, the new plane would still be likely to get a rating of “operationally effective.”
“You’d have to look at all the results of all the missions and all the testing,” he said. “No weapon system that we’ve ever tested has been stellar across the board. My effectiveness call would be based on the overall results of the tests.”