Top Gun? The A-10 and the F-35 Will Finally Face Off
Policy + Politics

Top Gun? The A-10 and the F-35 Will Finally Face Off

Lockheed Martin

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.

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“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.

Related: 5 Attack Planes That Could Replace the A-10 Warthog

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.

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“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.