Air Force Gen. Herbert. J. "Hawk" Carlisle said Tuesday the raging debate over whether the A-10 or the F-35 is better equipped to perform close air support was totally missing the point on the future of the mission.
"What we've got to talk about is how you do UCAS (unconventional close air support) better," rather than which aircraft can do it better, the head of Air Combat Command said. "The discussion of what platform is going to replace the A-10 is ludicrous. We have to talk about how to do it better, and we do it better with technology."
Carlisle vented his frustration in a speech and in a later round-table with reporters at the Air and Space Conference sponsored by the Air Force Association and held at National Harbor, Maryland.
Instead of a platform-versus-platform debate, Carlisle said he'd rather focus on issues such as "how do we fuse the sensor suite on the aircraft when it checks in with the JTAC (joint terminal attack controller) so that we eliminate friendly fire in the future."
The Air Force has been pushing to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt, better known as the Warthog, to save money amid an era of automatic spending caps. But Congress has repeatedly renewed funding for the 40-year-old aircraft.
Supporters of the A-10, including Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, have scoffed at the F-35's ability to replace the A-10 in the close air support mission. "I will not support the divestment of the A-10 until an equally or more capable close air support aircraft achieves full operational capability," Ayotte said recently in a statement.
The Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation has been planning to pit the F-35 against the A-10 and possibly other aircraft in a fly-off to see which aircraft performs best in close air support.
OT&E Director Michael Gilmore told reporters last month that, "the comparison tests on the close-air support mission will reveal how well the F-35 performs and whether there are gaps, or improvements in capability, compared to the A-10."
In a session with reporters, Carlisle called the A-10 "a fantastic airplane doing fantastic work down range" in Iraq.
"One of the questions I get is if you're going to retire the A-10s why are you still using them in the fight? Well, that's an easy answer. I don't have enough capacity. I've got to use every single thing I've got. I don't have enough capacity" to handle the missions in Iraq and Syria without the A-10s, the general said.
However, Carlisle said, "It's about how we do CAS, not what platform is replacing what platform." In addition, the A-10 was not suited for operating against more sophisticated air defenses being developed by Russia, China and other potential adversaries, he said.
"The A-10, it's more difficult for that airplane to operate in a contested environment," Carlisle said. "We would lose, which none of us want to accept, we would lose a good portion of those airplanes potentially in a contested environment."
The F-35 Lightning II's advantage was stealth, Carlisle said. "The F-35, it does very well. Its ability, stealth-wise, to penetrate contested airspace unobserved gives it an advantage over everybody else."