Think of it as the high-stakes, high-flying dogfight that everyone from military pilots to members of Congress has been waiting for.
The venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II jet will take on the high-tech F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in “comparison testing” later this year to determine which platform can best support U.S. ground forces, a top U.S. Defense Department told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
“To me, comparison testing just makes common sense,” Michael Gilmore, the director of the Pentagon’s operational test and evaluation office, said during a Capitol Hill hearing. “If you’re spending a lot of money to get improved capability, that’s the easiest way to demonstrate it is to do a rigorous comparison test.”
The U.S. Air Force has waged a years-long campaign to scrap its 1970s-era A-10 fleet in a bid to save roughly $4 billion in operating costs. Service leaders contend the A-10’s close air support functions can be performed by other planes, including the F-35.
Congress has flatly rejected the push to mothball the A-10 and has been highly critical of claims about the F-35, largely because years of cost overruns and technical delays have kept the fifth-generation warplane, which could cost taxpayers more than $1.3 trillion over its lifetime, from ever seeing real combat.
The Air Force’s fiscal year 2017 budget request indicated that the A-10, affectionately called the “Warthog” by troops, would be retired in 2022. The Air Force has also started circulating draft requirement documents for an A-10 alternative.
The battlefield comparison will pit the two jets against each other in a variety of war scenarios, including close air support and combat search and rescue.
“We’re going to do it under all the circumstances that we see [close air support] conducted, including under high-threat conditions in which we expect F-35 will have an advantage and other conditions requiring loitering on the target, low-altitude operations and so-forth,” Gilmore told lawmakers.
“There are a lot of arguments that ensue about which aircraft might be — have the advantage, the A-10 or F-35, but that's what the test is meant to show us,” he added.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ), who last month dressed down outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh over the lack of a viable substitute for the Warthog, let his preference be known at the start of Tuesday’s hearing.
The F-35 program's “record of performance has been both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance, and it's a textbook example of why this committee has placed such a high priority on reforming the broken defense acquisition system,” he said in his opening statement.