F-35 pilot Major John Wilson said the obvious in an interview with Danish aviation reporters; the F-35 will never be as good as the A-10 at close air support. This 100 percent factual, non-news statement set off a string stupid news stories. Tomorrow’s headline: a dump truck will never be as good of a sports car as a Ferrari.
"An A-10 is always going to be better at CAS than an F-35. That's because the A-10 was designed specifically for that mission. But any other mission on the planet besides CAS, the F-35 wins, period... Once we can carry weapons and we some of the restrictions are removed the F-35 will be just as capable as an F-16 at CAS."
How is this statement a surprise to anyone?
You can watch the whole interview with Major John Wilson here, and for the most part it is a very honest and factual exchange, worth breaking down here on Foxtrot Alpha, but there is no major news. Yet the A-10 funding debate remains so controversial, and somehow so misunderstood, that his statement that a multi-role stealth fighter will never be as good at close air support as purpose built, heavily armored, huge cannon toting, slow and low flying, straight-winged attack aircraft, the A-10 Warthog, somehow seemed like a damning revelation to some. Frustrating.
To be fair to the F-35, like the F-16 before it, it was never meant to do the A-10's exact job, so the fact that it can't do the A-10's exact job should not be a mark against the design at all. Instead, the fact that the USAF wants to get rid of the A-10, while hoping the public and Congress are too stupid to understand its unique capabilities, under the auspices that they need the tiny amount of money saved by retiring it to fund and provide manpower for the F-35, is what drew the A-10 and the F-35 into a common controversy. In reality, if the F-35 and the A-10 were left to coexist together, they would compliment one another very well on the modern battlefield.
Now, Wilson's statement that a $100M+ dollar super-fighter that was designed decades after the F-16 will only be as good as the F-16 in the close air support role "once we can carry weapons and when some of the restrictions are removed" is a whole other story entirely.
The pilot also states that the F-35 will never be as good as an air-to-air fighter as the F-22, and that the F-35 is needed because it costs too much to develop and sustain multiple platforms instead of just one. This is where his logic, although common among many flight suit wearing USAF personnel, breaks down as it totally throws out the high-low capability mix option, along with its proven flexibility and economics. As for his statement that different platforms cost more to develop and sustain than one extremely complicated one, there are highly respected studies that clearly state otherwise.
Maybe for international customers, the jack of all trades, master of none F-35 is a good deal, but for the USAF, who already has a 5th generation fighter that was built to kick down the enemy's air defenses, building another has been an expensive jobs program, a handout to industry and an unneeded luxury.
If you have enough F-22s to achieve air supremacy, and further develop that fighter with tech similar to what the F-35 benefits from, along with a new generation of munitions, why do you need an F-35 at all? Instead, upgraded F-16s and A-10s that cost a fraction of the price to acquire (we already own them and new F-16s can be bought for about a third of an F-35), operate and sustain, should be able go about their business once the F-22, standoff weaponry, unmanned systems and stealth bombers, of which the USAF is soon ordering about 100, have largely done their job.
Another point Major Wilson discusses is that many types of aircraft have provided CAS over the battlefield for the last couple of decades, not just the A-10, and that lives on the ground have been saved by a multitude of CAS providers. He is totally right. But this is partially due to the USAF's 'equal opportunity CAS employer' mindset that has focused more on giving every aircraft community with an attack capability a piece of the fight, rather than on which platforms are the most capable at the mission.
You could as easily argue that the USAF should have rapidly invested more heavily in the A-10, including building up its pilot cadre as a long and protracted counter-insurgency fight was clearly eminent in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This would have given their most capable force for the mission at hand a more persistent presence in the fight. Even procuring cheaper and better suited platforms for the counter insurgency fight than burning through precious fast-jet airframe hours and using heavy bombers for CAS that cost close to $100k an hour to operate would have been a more cost and tactically effective solution than throwing almost the entire USAF tactical fleet at the problem.
Major Wilson also states that the lack of rearward visibility in the F-35 is something he can deal with as a trade for the jet's ability to penetrate contested airspace. This is a poor and unnecessary trade-off and it is not clear if the jet's much touted Distributed Aperture System can overcome such a deficiency.
If anything can be learned from Vietnam and much more recent air combat drills with crafty foreign forces, things don't always go as planned, technology fails, the bad guys add cheap asymmetric capabilities, and a true modern peer state enemy is probably more capable than most anything our forces are being trained against today.
As a result, not being able to 'check your six' while zooming around deep in enemy territory is a high price to pay without realizing any gain in return. Such a design trade-off is simply another symptom of the Joint Strike Fighter's broken concept to begin with, resulting in a compromised design which can be traced back to the inclusion of the USMC's short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) requirement in the original Joint Strike Fighter tender.
I hope I am wrong on this and the F-35's rearward visibility flaw will never be exploited in actual combat, but it sure is a known weakness of many fighters that the US has successfully trained against for many decades.
As far as Major Wison's closing statements, comparing the F-35 and F-16 and stating how good the jet will be in comparison when it comes to getting into contested areas, he is correct. Yet that assumes that there is no alternative to break down the enemy's air defenses than the F-35, which there are, as we discussed above. More so, whether you like it or not, the task of taking on the enemy deep in denied airspace is a mission set that will be best assumed by unmanned combat air vehicles in the coming decades.
A big thanks to Christian Sundsdal over at Krigeren for sending this over!
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com