Why we need an A-10 / F-35 fly-off


The saying “putting the cart before the horse” surely pre-dates the invention of flight, yet it couldn’t be more accurate to describe the Air Force’s shifting and flawed arguments for retiring the A-10 well ahead of schedule, and before we have a proven, tested replacement.

As an airman, I am concerned about our ability to ensure air superiority as threats increase globally and our capability and numerical advantages steadily recede.

We desperately need a fifth-generation fighter like the F-35 to provide air superiority and guarantee access to targets anywhere in the world. However, the Pentagon’s backward plan to replace the A-10 and its critical missions with the F-35 — before we even know if the F-35 can perform them — risks losing these vital capabilities permanently and puts the lives of American troops in danger.

The A-10 is uniquely designed for life-saving missions such as close-air support and combat search and rescue. The former protects troops in harm’s way while the latter involves rescuing downed pilots or other isolated personnel from enemy territory before they become prisoners of war.

The Pentagon’s confusing and inconsistent statements about the future of CAS and CSAR raise questions about how serious leadership is about preserving these missions. The Defense Department budget, released in February, begins replacing the A-10 with the F-35 on a squadron by squadron basis starting in fiscal 2018, just a little more than a year from now. Yet, in contradiction to that plan, General Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, said March 3 that the mission capability of the A-10 would not be replaced by the F-35, but with the F-16 and F-15E. All of this becomes moot when considering that the Pentagon plans to eventually replace all our remaining legacy air-to-ground fighter planes — the A-10, F-16 and F-15E — with the F-35.

Before we send a crucial mission capability to the boneyard, we must ensure we can replace it. That’s why I’ve fought to make the A-10’s retirement condition-based, not time-based.

Four A-10 squadrons have been mothballed in the past four years, and the nine remaining warfighting squadrons, of which only four are active duty, have less aircraft than before. Over the previous two years, I led the fight in the House to fully fund the remaining A-10s and prohibit any funds to be used to retire or plan to retire the current fleet.

In addition, in this year’s defense authorization bill, I successfully advocated for inclusion of a provision mandating a fly-off between the F-35 and A-10 before one more A-10 can be retired. This legislation, which included my provision, passed the House Armed Services Committee on a 60-2 vote, and passed the House with strong bipartisan support. I also worked with senators to ensure that the Senate version of the bill included similar fly-off language.

In the House’s version of the defense bill, we specifically outline what capabilities the Air Force must test in an A-10/F-35 fly-off.  For example, the testing must demonstrate how the two aircraft can perform missions in realistic combat settings, such as when pilots are required to visually identify enemy and friendly forces in close proximity, both during the day and at night. It must include armored targets, scenarios requiring continuous weapons delivery, comparisons of extended time over target, survivability from simulated direct hits, and low-altitude employment, including ‘‘shows of force’’ and strafe.

In addition, CSAR missions specifically need to test the critical rescue mission commander role that A-10s fill today, which includes locating and protecting the isolated personnel while coordinating all aspects of a potentially complex CSAR mission.

The language requires the fly-off to happen as part of the operational testing and evaluation of the F-35A. After the test results are delivered to Congress, the secretary of the Air Force must report on the risks of replacing the A-10 CAS and CSAR missions with the F-35 before any moves can be made to mothball another Warthog.

Right now, the A-10 is deployed to four theaters — in the fight against ISIS, in Europe as a response to Russian aggression, along the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea, and in the Philippines — showing the high demand for its abilities.

With American lives at stake, we don’t have room for error. We must base our decisions about critical life-saving missions on assessments of capabilities and risks, not speculation.

Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in Air Force Times.