The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's newest and most expensive weapons program, will only offer limited close air support when it begins operational flights in the Air Force next year, a top general said.
"In many ways, it won't have the some of the capabilities of our current platforms," Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, head of the service's Air Combat Command, acknowledged during a briefing with reporters on Friday at the Pentagon.
His comments came as lawmakers have begun debating the Defense Department's fiscal 2016 budget request, which resurrects a controversial proposal to retire the A-10 attack aircraft. The Cold War-era plane, known as the Warthog, is designed to support ground troops with a 30mm, seven-barrel Gatling gun, called the GAU-8/A Avenger.
Air Force officials are pushing to divest the A-10, largely due to automatic budget cuts, despite recently deploying the aircraft to the Middle East to fight militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The low, slow-flying gunship was also recently sent back to Europe in a show of support to the Ukraine, which is battling pro-Russian separatists.
Lawmakers have previously rejected the service's proposal to send the Warthog to the bone yard, in part because the F-35, which is designed to replace the A-10 and other aircraft, can't yet perform the close air support mission.
Lockheed Martin Corp., the Pentagon's biggest contractor, is developing three versions of the stealthy, fifth-generation fighter under a $400 billion acquisition program to build a total of 2,443 aircraft.
The F-35B, the Marine Corps' jump-set variant, is scheduled to enter so-called initial operational capability, or IOC, later this year, followed by the F-35A, the Air Force's conventional version, in the latter half of 2016, followed by the F-35C, the Navy's aircraft carrier variant, in 2019.
Carlisle said the F-35A won't initially be able to perform "advanced" close air support "because those are systems that are going to be coming onto the airplane in later blocks."
The technologies the aircraft will initially lack include the large area, high-definition synthetic aperture radar known as "BIG SAR," which is needed to get the best functionality out of the electro-optical targeting system, as well as a pinpoint glide bomb known as the Small Diameter Bomb II, or SDB-II, the general said.
Carlisle said the systems are slated to be integrated into the aircraft as part of a Block 4 software upgrade, the first version of which isn't scheduled to arrive until 2021. "All of those are things that are going to be coming on in Block 4," he said.
Even the F-35's 25mm, four-barrel GAU-22 gun won't be ready for at least a couple of more years.
So which weapons will the airplane initially carry? The Marine Corps' F-35B will enter service with Block 2B software, which lets pilots fire a pair of AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missiles, AMRAAMs, or drop a pair of satellite-guided bombs or laser-guided weapons -- not exactly the armament of choice for close-in missions.