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F-35 and A-10 to Square off in Close Air Support Tests

The Defense Department plans to test the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet against the Cold War-era A-10 attack aircraft in close air support tests, according to multiple news reports.

During a conference last week in Arlington, Virginia, Curt Cook, an air warfare specialist for the Pentagon's office of the director of operational test and evaluation said the so-called comparative tests will take place in late 2017 or 2018, according to Politico and Defense Daily.

As Valerie Insinna, a reporter for the trade publication Defense Daily, has reported, the office wants to better assess limitations of the existing fifth-generation stealth fighter made by Lockheed Martin Corp.:

"You figure out really quickly what the new capabilities are that you're fielding and how well they perform in comparison to your existing capability, but you also understand if there are any gaps that are being left open by the new system," he said during a panel on close air support at the 32nd Annual International Test and Evaluation Symposium in Arlington, Va.


"DOTE wants to evaluate the effectiveness of the plane through proportional measures -- such as what fraction of weapons hit the desired target -- and continuous measures, like how long it takes the forward air controller to pass information to ground troops, and how long it takes troops to act after receiving that direction, Cook said."
While the Air Force may be cool to the idea -- indeed, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh on Monday called it "a silly exercise" -- it's a good one, considering the F-35 is designed to replace not only the Warthog, but also the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F/A-18 Hornet and the AV-8B Harrier jump jet.

We've reached out to Cook's office to get more details about the test plans and will provide more information about what we hear back.

The Marine Corps last month announced it was ready to begin operational flights with the F-35B jump-jet variant -- albeit with a less lethal version of the aircraft. (The Air Force will follow suit in 2016 and the Navy in 2018 or 2019.)

Around that time, Marine Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the service's deputy commandant for aviation, acknowledged that Marines will have to "make do" with a less lethal version of the airplane. For example, the early operational F-35Bs won't include a new night-vision helmet, Small Diameter Bomb II or GAU-22/A four-barrel 25mm Gatling gun -- or the ability to stream video or simultaneously fuse sensor data from four aircraft.

Many of the weapons improvements will be included as part of a future software upgrade, known as 3F, which is slated for fully operational F-35Bs in late 2017. Even so, Davis defended the aircraft from criticisms that it can't outperform an F-16 in a dogfight or an A-10 in providing close air support to ground troops.

"I love the F-16, I think it's a great airplane," he said. But in a dogfight, he'd rather be in a new Joint Strike Fighter than a legacy Fighting Falcon, he added.

And even though the F-35B isn't slated to receive its cannon until 2017, the plane performed close air support missions during testing using the GPS and laser-guided bombs, Davis said.

"We used the kind of profiles we're using out there in Syria and they did very, very well," he said. "And unlike in Syria, we actually had some high-threat conditions out there, as well, where they did the close air support, did it very effectively in a medium- and a high-threat scenario."

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