Pentagon F-35 vs A-10 Close Air Support Evaluation Hits Next Phase

Kris Osborn

Warrior Maven Video Above - Army Wants F-35 as Pentagon Tests F-35 vs A-10

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

The Pentagon-led F-35 vs. A-10 Close Air Support assessment is nearing its next phase of evaluation, following an initial “first wave” of tests in July of this year -- designed to test which of the two aircraft might be best suited to confront heavy enemy fire when performing high-risk CAS missions.

“Mission performance is under evaluation,” Vice Adm. Mat Winter, Program Executive Officer, F-35 program, told reporters earlier this year.

Pre- Initial Operational Test & Evaluation test phases, are currently underway at Edwards AFB and Naval Air Station China Lake, officials said.

“Mission performance is being evaluated in the presence of a robust set of ground threats and, to ensure a fair and comparable evaluation of each system’s performance, both aircraft are allowed to configure their best weapons loadouts and employ their best tactics for the mission scenario” a statement from the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation said.

Long-revered by ground troops as a “flying-tank,” the combat proven A-10 has been indispensable to ground-war victory. Its titanium hull, 30mm cannon, durability, built-in redundancy and weapons range has enabled the aircraft to sustain large amounts of small arms fire and combat damage - and keep flying.

At the same time, as newer threats emerge and the high-tech F-35 matures into combat, many US military weapons developers and combatant commanders believe the JSF can bring an improved, new-generation of CAS support to ground troops. Thus - the ongoing Office of the Secretary of Defense comparison.

Upon initial examination, some might regard a stealthy, 5th-Gen F-35 as ill-equipped or at least not-suited for close air support. However, a closer look does seem to uncover a handful of advantages.

Long-range, computer-enabled F-35 sensors could enable the aircraft to see and destroy enemy ground targets with precision from much higher altitudes and much farther ranges than an A-10 could; the speed of an F-35, when compared to an A-10, would potentially make it better able to maneuver, elude enemy fire and get into position for attack; like the A-10s 30mm gun, the F-35 has its own 25mm cannon mounted on its left wing which could attack ground forces; given its sensor configuration, with things like a 360-degree Distributed Aperture System with cameras, the F-35 brings a drone-like ISR component to air-ground war. This could help targeting, terrain analysis and much-needed precision attacks as US soldiers fight up close with maneuvering enemy ground forces.

An F-35 might be better positioned to respond quickly to enemy force movement; in the event that enemy air threats emerge in a firefight, an F-35 could address them in a way an A-10 could not, obviously; an F-35 would be much better positioned to locate enemy long-range fires points of combat significance and destroy hostile artillery, mortar or long-range-fires launching points. Finally, while the A-10 has a surprising wide envelope of weapons, an F-35 could travel with a wider range of air-ground attack weapons - armed with advanced targeting technology.

Also, fighter-jet close air support is by no means unprecedented. F-22s were used against ISIS, F-15s were used against insurgents in Iraq - and the F-35 recently had its combat debut in Afghanistan.

There are, however, some unknowns likely to be informing the current analysis. How much small arms fire could an F-35 withstand? Could it draw upon its “hovering” technology to loiter near high-value target areas? To what extent could it keep flying in the event that major components, such as engines or fuselage components, were destroyed in war? How much could A-10 weapons and targeting technology be upgraded?

Regardless of the conclusions arrived upon by the ongoing assessment, it is likely both the A-10 and F-35 will perform CAS missions in the immediate years ahead.

While the Army's reverence for the A-10 is a long-established fact, the service does also seem to like the F-35 for Close Air Support as well.

“When you are in a firefight, the first thing infantry wants to do it get on that radio to adjust fire for mortars and locate targets with close air support with planes or helicopters. You want fires. The F-35 has increased survivability and it will play a decisive role in the support of ground combat,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters at the Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium in October.

--Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has a Masters in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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Comments (11)
No. 1-8
RT Colorado
RT Colorado

The real decision that needs to be made is "Can the Air Force recruit and retain enough personnel to maintain both aircraft ?" . The idea that one aircraft can fill multiple roles has been a post the military has been shackled to for decades. Every time the services decide they can get along with one aircraft to fill multiple roles they end up realizing that the concept just doesn't fly. If the A-10 is not survivable in the future combat environment you can bet your last dollar that none of the aircraft being currently considered as potential ground support aircraft will survive either. If stealth suffers from exposure it's to ground fire and MANPADS that'll lock onto them as they fly low and slow to fulfill the ground support role. The F-35 is a fine aircraft and we'll get years of great service out of it, but hitching a thoroughbred up to a wagon dos neither any good.


To say a F-35 has better survivability than A-10 is ridiculous. One engine versus two, and an A-10 can carry about 4 times the weapons load of an F-35, even with unstealthy wing pylon mounted weapons. This is not even worthy of an argument.


“Upon initial examination, some might regard a stealthy, 5th-Gen F-35 as ill-equipped or at least not-suited for close air support. However, a closer look does seem to uncover a handful of advantages.” For close air support aircraft the fundamental elements are:

  1. Long on station time
  2. Multiple (at least two) engines due to lots of ground-fire and close proximity to the ground
  3. Organic gun that can carry a lot of ammunition for repeated attacks
  4. Great visibility from the cockpit (great visual access to ground) which works tactically with the communications with the ground troops
  5. Extremely maneuverable to be able to: a. avoid danger (tracers, etc.) b. re-attack in 90 seconds to two minutes
  6. Ideally, two units are working in concert with each other 180° out of sync with the others orbit so fire can be maintained, and constant visual on the target with ground units can be maintained.
    These details and wisdom began development in WWI, improved in WWII, and became a science by the end of the Vietnam War, and today is well understood and written into the A-10 Specification, which is the CAS Bible for aircraft.
    All of this ‘higher speed’ and ‘greater altitude’ for CAS engagement is antithetical to supporting troops on the ground. There can be a case made for trying to minimize collateral damage with smart munitions being within range, but farther from the target can work against you. The REASON CAS is there is the troops on the ground. Being seen and heard is a good thing for those whom you are trying to support, and troubles and demotivates those who are under threat. The A-10 will continue to make dry runs even when out of ammunition due to the Fear Factor of its very presence. Speed and altitude do not help in these situations. This mindset communicated in the article is the same one that could not figure out that an F-16 on burner doing a low altitude flyby over Benghazi could have saved the lives of those present, because those attacking on the ground would have never seen it was not armed, but assumed much different. Combat is not just force-on-force. KNOW your Sun Tzu (/ˈsuːnˈdzuː/), or stay out of this business.

It has been said that CAS is a capability not a platform. The problem with that statement is the CAS Specification that describes the capabilities of the A-10 thunderbolt II "Warthog" is very specific and precise in description of capability for reason supported by decades of 'trial and error', and evaluation of effectiveness in the field in ACTUAL USE. The current effort to replace the A-10s mission with something that was NOT DESIGNED to that specification of capabilities, then it can only attempt to [badly] emulate some of the A-10s capabilities, not replace them. If the A-10 Specification is not adhered to in the design, construction and replacement of the next CAS platform . . . our troops in the field will pay for it with their BLOOD! THAT is why the A-10 thunderbolt II "Warthog" was designed as a single mission aircraft, and has grown into so many other things. Ask any pilot what he/she wants orbiting the location when they are being rescued, and you will find that most (if not all) would much prefer an A-10 thunderbolt II "Warthog".


F-35 with 125 rounds of 25mm, OR an A10 with 1,100 of 30mm. You are ambushed and taking heavy fire... you can choose have a cool looking shiny night vision and FLIR equipped .357 six shooter that you need to return to base to reload every time OR a .50 cal browning belt fed with 500 rounds with the same restriction. Huh, which would I choose? lol

John S30
John S30

The Air Force has an unhealthy obsession with reducing aircraft types. Getting down on the deck in the range of ground fire is best done an armored twin engine aircraft. Look at the battle damage A-10’s have come home with that would have downed a F-35. The A-10 communication and sensor tech is very old but can be replaced at a reasonable cost. Also the operating cost for an A-10 is much less.


All the pro A10 arguments fly in the face of realities of 21st century warfare. Guns are a 14th century weapon, and guns on airplanes are an obsolete 20th century weapon that exposes the aircraft to murderous ground fire that it cannot avoid because a gun requires that the shooter be within visual range, very short range (a mile or two at most), at low altitude, below the clouds, and holding on the target for a lengthy burst. All of that just makes it way too easy to shoot down with either AA guns or SAMs.

An F-35 has none of those limitations. It can fire from on high - up to 50,000 ft, above the clouds, and up to 45 miles away even with precision guided gravity bombs, and much farther with missiles. It need not hold on a target. It is perfectly capable of engaging multiple targets at the same time. It has vastly superior defensive systems than the A-10. And the F-35, contrary to common misperception, enjoys longer loiter time than the A-10, including three times the range and four times the speed ... meaning the F-35 can get to a ground force in trouble far quicker than an A-10, stay longer as necessary, and support multiple units of ground forces at differing locations on the battlefield.


OK, I have read many of the comments and they are excellent and we'll informed. However, I am afraid that one pilot trying to fulfill a mission as important as CAS. I can guarantee that an old A6-Tram, two heads-better than one, would lead the competition. F35 should do airshows, static displays. A10 would be a great VFR CAS aircraft. (Is it true, that the A10 is the only a/c to have a bird strike from behind?) All great pilots, some are still my friends. But A10 is the best CAS aircraft we have today, sorry F35 should stay VFR and send missles if the computer OKs It. God I miss the f14, A6s, I also pray the F22s can maintain air superiority if we get in a tough one.SF