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Welsh Dismisses F-35, A-10 CAS Contest as 'Silly Exercise'

The U.S. Air Force's top military man rejected the idea of comparing how the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet and the Cold War-era A-10 Warthog attack plane perform in close air support tests.

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, called for the so-called comparative tests in late 2017 or 2018 to evaluate how often the stealthy fifth-generation fighter's weapons hit desired targets or how long it takes the aircraft to pass information to ground troops.

During a State of the Air Force briefing Monday at the Pentagon, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh dismissed the idea.

"I think that would be a silly exercise," he said. "So I don't know anything about that. The F-35's mission in the close air support arena will be to do high-threat close air support in a contested environment that the A-10 will not be able to survive in. That will be the role of the F-35, and it will not be able to do that until it's fully mission capable in our full operational capability at age 2021 and beyond."

Welsh added, "So the idea that the F-35 is going to walk in the door next year when it becomes IOC and take over for the A-10 is just silly. It's never been our intention and we have never said that.  And so that's not a plan. I would eventually -- certainly like to have a capability that replaces the A-10 that does the low-threat CAS work in an even better way than the A-10 has been able to. I mean, we should be trying to get better as an Air Force. I'm worried about future CAS, not past CAS."

The Air Force has proposed retiring its fleet of almost 300 Warthogs by 2019 to save an estimated $4.2 billion a year and free up maintainers for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a stealthy multi-role fighter jet and the Pentagon’s most expensive acquisition program.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the proposal is largely budget-driven.

"If we had billions and billions and billions of additional dollars over and above the president's budget level -- and I will remind you we are struggling to get the president's budget level approved -- but if we had billions more, we would love to maintain the A-10," she said. "This is one of the tough choices that we had to make for the sake of moving forward and modernizing."

Yet the aging Warthog is still flying missions, from attacking Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria to participating in show-of-force exercises against Russia in Eastern Europe.

And even Welsh has hinted at his desire to develop a next-generation replacement to the A-10.

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