The F-35 program is the most expensive weapon system project in history, and also one of the most controversial. There are a lot of questions around it, and one of the major ones is whether a single type is being asked to do too many things. The F-35 is supposed to replace large parts of the US fighter fleet, including the F-16, F/A-18 Harrier and A-10. It’s the last one that has sparked the most arguments, because there are real questions about how well it can do the A-10’s highly specialized job.
It’s hard to imagine two more different aircrafts, really. The F-35 is an advanced, stealthy fast jet that carries a small load of precision-guided weapons. It’s unarmored and relies on its low radar visibility for protection. The A-10 was designed in the late 1960s and even then wasn’t exactly cutting-edge technology. In fact one goal for the program was to make the plane as simple and basic as possible, to reduce maintenance requirements and give a high availability rate even when flying from dispersed airstrips. Essentially, it’s a slow but agile bomb truck, capable of carrying a massive load of almost every tactical air to surface weapon in the US arsenal. It was also, famously, designed around its GAU-8A 30mm cannon. In fact, that’s not quite accurate – it was designed around the gun’s ammunition system. The A-10 has a truly enormous ammunition capacity – up to 1,350 rounds. Even at 3,900 rounds a minute, that gives it a significant gun capability. The F-35’s 25mm gun only has 180 rounds.
The F-35 can carry some highly effective ground attack weapons, including Paveway guided bombs and the Brimstone missile, so there’s no doubt of its ability to hit targets. The problem is that it can’t hit very many before it has to break off and rearm. Technically, it can carry almost as heavy a load as the A-10 – 15,000 pounds of weapons, compared to 16,000 pounds – but even with external pylons, which take away its stealth advantages, it has a lot fewer hardpoints to hang them from.
However, the real questions are about the F-35’s survival ability in a CAS environment. Its advocates are saying that its stealth design will let it operate in hostile environments, whereas the slow, almost defenseless A-10 can only operate in friendly airspace. In reality, this isn’t exactly true. The A-10 was designed specifically to fly into the multi-layered air defense zone above a Soviet tank division, which wasn’t a safe place to be. Losses were expected to be heavy, but with its armor, multiple backup systems and low-level agility, it had a better chance of surviving than any other aircraft.
The F-35 is a lot faster than the A-10 and harder to detect on radar; it can stand off and attack with long-ranged weapons. But, if it does have to come in close and support friendly troops with gun and rocket runs – and that’s what close air support is all about – it’s going to lose a lot of its protection. It can be detected, and targeted, on radar at shorter ranges, and it’s completely vulnerable to visually aimed guns. If it is hit, then the damage that an A-10 would shrug off is likely to be terminal to the more fragile fast jet.
Now the USAF is planning a flyoff to decide if the F-35 really can replace the venerable Warthog. This is something the fast jet lobby has been resisting for a while, but Congress has imposed a testing requirement and banned the Air Force from retiring the A-10 until the F-35 has been proven as a replacement.
It’s likely the tests will show that the F-35 can do the job, because that’s what the Air Force is looking for, and service chiefs tend to get what they want – the Navy’s gunfire support debacle, when the battleships were “replaced” by a destroyer that now has almost no gun capability at all, is the perfect example. History tends to win in the end, though. Every time a major air force gets rid of its dedicated close support aircraft, it ends up buying a new one when it gets fed up losing fast jets to random machine gun bullets. I don’t see this time being any different.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.