Air Force finally reveals a little bit about how the F-35 stacks up in providing close air support

After rounds of FOIA requests and even litigation, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) received a copy of the A-10C and F-35A close air support fly-off t...

After rounds of FOIA requests and even litigation, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) received a copy of the A-10C and F-35A close air support fly-off test report. The test was to compare how both aircraft stack up in providing all-important close air support to ground troops. After analyzing the heavily redacted document, POGO analysts found that despite what the Air Force had been saying, it appears the F-35 may not be well-suited for providing that support. For more, the  Federal Drive with Tom Temin  Executive Producer Eric White spoke with Dan Grazier, Senior Defense Policy Fellow at POGO.

Interview Transcript:  

Dan Grazier Overall, we really just wanted to find out if the F-35 really could replace the capabilities that are currently provided by the A-10. And our history with this goes way back.

Eric White Don’t we know it.

Dan Grazier Goes back more than a decade just with this test. So this was before I started working at POGO in 2015, where my predecessor had spent time on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to mandate this comparative test starting back 2013-2014 timeframe. And I kind of picked up that effort and carried it forward a little bit. And then we finally did get that provision included in the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. And then the tests happened the next year. Well, the next two years really kind of unfolded between 2018 and 2019. But then there was nothing. We knew the test happened, but nobody ever produced any of the results from it. And you just had Air Force officials spitting out talking points about how much better the F-35 is than the A-10. And we just said, Ok, we’ll show us the receipts. We know these tests happen. But for years, nobody even acknowledged that there was a report and there was actually reason for that. It was because the report wasn’t written until about three or four years after the test had happened. And then, yes, it did take a [Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)] requests that was ignored and then a lawsuit in federal court to actually shake out what we did get, which was a heavily redacted version of the report that was written in, I think it was February 2022.

Eric White All right. So we’ll get into what the report itself actually said in a second. But let’s set the groundwork here. What were these kind of tests? Were they just seeing the capabilities of both of them? And what was there, a race? What did they do?

Dan Grazier Right. So the designers of the test set up a series of scenarios where the pilots flying the respective aircraft would have to take instructions from a ground controller about a target location and then all that information to be really up to the pilot. Had to correlate that and then had to try to attack the target. And so I forget exactly how many actual test runs there were. But each aircraft was supposed to fly the exact same scenario, kind of back to back just to see which aircraft performed better, attack times. They tested a whole bunch of different parameters. And it was those test results that we were really interested to see.

Eric White And so let’s get to the results now. So what did what did it say and what capabilities? Was there a little bit of give and take, or was it kind of one sided?

Dan Grazier Well, so the the report that we did finally receive, after we filed suit, was heavily redacted. I would say at least 90% of the information in the report was blacked out. But what was left did actually tell a story. So, one, the main purpose of the test was to see if the F-35 was actually better than the A-10 provided in the attack role. So there’s three missions that go along with that. There is close air support, which I think most people are pretty familiar with. There was airborne forward air control, which is basically instead of having a controller on the ground, you have another aircraft that locates the target and then passes that information to another aircraft  that’s actually the shooter. And then there’s combat search and rescue, which is, if you have a pilot that ejects ends up on the ground behind enemy territory, then you have an aircraft that flies cover trying to protect that pilot until rescue forces could come in and pick him up. So those are three really key mission capabilities that right now are provided by the A-10. And we wanted to make sure that the F-35, which was supposed to replace the A-10, can actually perform those missions. And the one thing that was really obvious right off the bat when I got a copy of the report was if the F-35 was better, was vastly superior to the A-10, it should have been in big, bold, clear letters right in the first paragraph of the report. And that wasn’t there because that first paragraph is not redacted. So with all the other information, it’s pretty clear that the evaluators found a lot of shortcomings in the F-35 in these roles. And one of the ways that we know that is essentially the last page of the report is a list of recommendations for how to improve the F-35 performance in those roles. There were eight bullet points. All the text was blacked out, but there was not a similar list of recommendations for the A-10. So clearly there were a lot of shortcomings that were identified.

Eric White And so do you have a feeling, what was the reasoning given to you when there was resistance in releasing this report? Was it did they say security as usual, or was there something else at play here in your instincts?

Dan Grazier Well, so the redactions are marked and they’re they’re coded. And so all the redactions were for national security purposes. So the official line is that they’re trying to protect national security concerns. The real reason, I think, is a lot more nuanced than that. I think it’s these tests did not fit within the narrative that Air Force officials had been using to retire the A-10. It didn’t bolster their argument. And so they really didn’t want anything that could possibly contradict their talking points. And I’ll give you a really good example of that. So the main argument against the A-10 is that it can’t survive in a modern threat environment. There’s a lot of debate about that because we have A-10 pilots who have come back and have talked about how they had to limp back their A-10 that did get shot up, because they do fly low and close to the ground. And the pilots landed safely because the aircraft is designed to do that. Like an F-35 takes one hit and the F-35 is going down. Now, we saw in South Carolina just a couple of weeks ago that what looks like a an electrical glitch led to a pilot, an F-35 pilot having a punch out just because a computer needed to restart or something like that. We have to wait till the investigation to get all those details. So in the test in the authors of the of this A-10, F-35 close air support fly off report, they kind of make the point a couple of times in the unredacted parts of it that they didn’t even test in a high threat environment. There’s a lot of problems with that. But I thought that was really telling. Like if they just make the natural assumption that the A-10 can’t survive and the F-35 can. Well, why don’t we just test that? They can do that. They can set up tests where they have a whole lot of simulated enemy air defense systems. And let’s see what it is, because now it’s just a talking point. That’s all it is. It’s not been proven. It certainly wasn’t proven in these tests. And they just say, oh, we didn’t need to do it because the F-35 is an obvious advantage in this. Well, ok, just prove it. And they didn’t do that. So there’s still a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Eric White Dan Grazier is with the Project on Government Oversight. And also a point about is that the length of time it took for them to actually make the report itself. Was there maybe some hope in a loss of interest or things getting lost in the bureaucracy there or in the paperwork? Did your antenna go up on that as well?

Dan Grazier Oh, it absolutely did, because normally a testing report from operational test or written within 90 days of the of the end of the tests. No, because there’s a lot of things that go on in testing or just observations that people make. I mean they scribble notes and everything. But you want those memories fresh so you can accurately report what happened. And so I think all the officials just kind of dragged their feet. Quite frankly, I think that there must have been some kind of pressure someplace to actually get them to draft this report. Because when we started asking questions after the test had concluded about, hey, where’s this report? And the only response that we could ever get was, oh, well, we’re going to include all that in the bigger F-35 initial operational test and evaluation report, which when I first started asking about these back in 2018, we anticipated [Initial Operational Test & Evaluation (IOT&E)] for the F-35 program to last another probably five years. And I was right, because here it’s the end of 2023, and we still haven’t seen that report. But this was a fly off between the A-10 and the F-35. This was largely separate from the other operational testing for the F-35 program. This was a specific mandate from Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act in 2017 that was made after the initial operational test and evaluation program had already been signed off on. It had begun by that point. And so we just started saying, hey, this should be a separate report, because this is a separate testing event beyond initial operational test and evaluation. So, yeah, I think they were dragging their feet because, again, this shattered their narrative. They’ve been trying to make this case for a long time that the A-10 is no longer relevant and considering modern combat. And there’s plenty of debate to be had about that. So they didn’t want any receipts, especially they frankly didn’t want me out here being able to report about what happened during these tests.

Eric White Yeah. Making the case from the Air Force point of view. Kind of, officials are probably between a rock and a hard place trying to make these claims. And obviously these tests, there’s a lot of complications that come in who’s piling them, who’s evaluating them over the course. And you’ve been reporting on this for so long of the F-35 history. And we’ll probably still be reporting on this when we and you are long retired. It seems as if because it’s just been going on so long. Where do things stand at the moment and where does this lie in the timeline of the F-35?

Dan Grazier Well, there’s actually kind of two timelines involved here. So this fly off tests that happened in 2018 and 2019 kind of fell towards the beginning of the initial operational test evaluation process for the F-35 program. Now, testing has been going on for a long time before that. But the real formal like kind of final IOT&E part, this kind of fell right in the middle of that. That process is going on for four years. And it only just ended this summer when the Joint Strike Fighter program officials were finally able to cobble together somewhat of a working verified simulator to test the 64 missions that they needed, the really high end, this is what we’re paying extra for missions. So that only happened this past summer. So I kind of expect, honestly, any day now for the IOT&E report to come out. Which would be kind of funny because, again, IOT&E for the F-35 program just ended a couple of months ago. And if it comes and if the report for that comes out here before the end of the year, then that kind of really raises some more questions about this comparative fly off report and why it took three or four years to emerge. So that’s one timeline. The other timeline, that’s a little more critical, and this is the Congress is on the cusp of authorizing the retirement of two A-10 squadrons. So when this budget goes through, if it goes through as as drafted right now, two squadrons out of Davis-Monthan and Arizona, A-10 squadrons are going to be retired. So it’s going to greatly shrink the fleet. It’s going to make it kind of difficult to maintain the rest of the eight tens that are still in service.

Dan Grazier And so that’s problematic, because I always have to point out this is not trying to protect the A-10 as an aircraft. This whole fight has never been about that. It’s about preserving the close air support capability that is resident in the Air Force right now. And if the A-10 retired without a dedicated attack aircraft replacement, then all of the corporate knowledge that has been built up over the last nearly 50 years now in the A-10 attack pilot community is going to vanish very quickly. And I can give you a really good example of that. During World War Two, the Army Air Forces, and it was mostly led by General Pete Quesada, developed a very effective air ground coordination measures. So after D-Day, General Quesada always set his tent right next to General Bradley’s tent. So those two could easily coordinate. And then using the P-47, they put radios that could talk to the aircraft in tanks and vehicles that were moving with the ground forces, even pulled pilots out of P-47 and put them with the ground forces so the pilots could talk to other pilots to describe what the targets were, because a pilot knows exactly what another pilot is looking for. And that was very effective means of coordination. So they became very good at that. World War Two ended in the middle of 1945. We started fighting in Korea in June of 1950. So that was actually less than five years. And in that time, the newly independent Air Force had completely decimated their tactical aviation capabilities so that when American soldiers were hastily rushed to Korea during that initial advance from the North Koreans as going moving down towards the Pusan perimeter, that’s when the army needed very effective close air support. And they didn’t have it. And it took less than five years for the Air Force to completely rid itself of that capability. That will happen again if the tens retire without a dedicated replacement. And soldiers fighting in the next war, particularly in the initial parts of it, are not going to have the air support that they need. So there’s going to be soldiers, young American soldiers, who are going to die needlessly just because the Air Force didn’t have this capability to help them win and to protect them.

Eric White Yeah. And that speaks to just the difficult task that the Air Force has in trying to find a replacement aircraft, because you’re trying to prepare for the next war and you don’t necessarily know what the needs are, or are they looking at that far ahead with the F-35 where it has to kind of upgrade while they’re evaluating it sort of deal.

Dan Grazier Well, they say they are, but especially in the attack role. So for supporting troops. The F-35 just is not the right platform for it and for a whole bunch of reasons. Like one, you don’t need a stealth aircraft to perform close air support, because by the time that you’re bringing close air support aircraft in, then presumably the F-22s and the F-35s. And at some point, I guess the NGADs and the B-21s, they’re going to have already gone in and and cleared out a lot of the air defense measures. They’re not going be able to clear everything. So you’re going to need an aircraft to support ground troops that is capable of taking some hits. But here’s the thing that a lot of people miss when they’re talking about this issue. And again, I’m talking about this from from the ground perspective. I was a tank officer in the Marine Corps. So I know, like I’ve worked with aircraft on the ground. Now where we have friendly forces maneuvering and we’re bringing aircraft in to attack targets pretty close to us. Like I felt the blast effects of big £500 bombs that have dropped that close to my position. And when ground forces are planning operations, and particularly combined arms operations with aircraft. One of the things that we think about, like almost off the top is, what do we need to do to protect the aircraft? So I can show you fire plans that I’ve created where we have an aircraft coming in. You can see it marked in the chart and then you can see the duration suppression mission, the suppression of an enemy air defense mission that precedes the aircraft coming in just to tamp down any potential threats to the aircraft. So it I mean, it’s combined arms warfare. This mutual support, where the strength of one arm covers the weakness of another arm. And but most people who talk about close air support and talk about the A-10, talk about it in a vacuum, like you’re going to just fly the A-10 in by themselves through heavily defended airspace. Well, if you do that with any aircraft, including the F-35, it’s going to get decimated. Now, just then, the nature of modern air defenses, stealth capabilities, you’re going to evaporate very quickly. And so when we’re talking about combined arms, ground troops being supported by aircraft, it’s a whole different ballgame. And you don’t honestly, I can’t really foresee a future scenario where we would put ground troops into a high, high air threat environment, because that means that there’s a lot more dangers to those ground troops than there would be to any aircraft flying over their head potentially.

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