The future flyoff between the Cold War-era A-10 ground attack aircraft and the F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighter will be "very interesting," a general said.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II is set to go up against the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in a series of weapons tests as early as next year under a stipulation in the latest National Defense Authorization Act, the annual defense policy and spending bill.
The legislation also prohibits retirement of the lumbering, low-flying, snub-nosed aircraft popularly known as the Warthog until the Air Force can prove the F-35's ability to conduct close air support missions on the battlefield.
"It'll be a very interesting test," said Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, a former F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot who directs the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program's integration office for the service.
"The A-10 was built to deal with tanks in Europe," he said. "A low, slow, big cannon on the front of it meant to destroy tanks and assist troops in contacts and do [close-air support]" a mission the aircraft has flown more recently in the Middle East against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Pleus added, "CAS is a mission, not an airplane."
The cannon the general referred to is the 30mm, seven-barrel GAU-8/A Avenger in the nose of the Warthog. The weapon can hold as many as 1,174 rounds and is configured to fire at a fixed rate of fire of 3,900 rounds per minute.
The F-35 also features a gatling gun, albeit a smaller and lighter one.
The GAU-22/A, a four-barrel version of the 25mm GAU-12/U Equalizer rotary cannon found on the Marine Corps' AV-8B Harrier II jump set, is designed to be internally mounted on the Air Force's F-35A version of the aircraft and hold 182 rounds. It's slated to be externally mounted on the Marine Corps’ F-35B jump-jet variant and the Navy’s F-35C aircraft carrier version and hold 220 rounds.
"The A-10 is a great CAS platform in a no-threat environment," Pleus said, adding it was never meant to be a fast, high-flying aircraft that could maneuver in a contested environment -- like in current parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
The test between the A-10 and F-35 will be structured and certified by the Defense Department's Operational Test and Evaluation Office, Pleus said. "That plan is something they are still developing" for the comparison testing "to start undergoing in 2018," he said.
Citing his F-16 experience, Pleus said he would bet the A-10 comes out "as the better CAS platform" in a no-threat environment against the F-35, which performs similarly to the Fighting Falcon. But "as you now start to built the threat up, the A-10s won't even enter the airspace before they get shot down -- not even within 20 miles within the target."
In that case, the F-35 would be the only aircraft left flying -- even against more current versions of fighters.
Pleus said the argument isn't over whether the A-10 has and can still perform close air support missions. The decision for Air Force leadership and lawmakers going forward, however, is how to distribute the resources to platforms that can do the mission, he said.
"Where are you getting your bang for your buck?" he said. "A single-platform A-10 that only does CAS and can't do anything else and it has to be in an uncontested environment is probably not a realistic place for us to be continuing funding...for the future."
The general continued, "If I were to develop that plan you have to show that the close air support is not just in a no-threat environment, because CAS is not always in a no-threat environment.
Pleus said, "When we get to the actual testing I think that's where you're going to see the differences."