Here’s an idea — combine the planes rather than swap them
by DAVID AXE
The U.S. military’s controversial, budget-busting F-35 stealth fighter was not supposed to be part of the U.S. Air Force’s recent search-and-rescue tests.
But it got involved, anyway — and by accident.
And that’s when Air Force testers discovered something they did not expect. They claim the sluggish, fragile F-35 excels at one of the most arduous air-combat missions, one currently assigned to the rugged, heavily-armed A-10 Warthog attack jet.
That mission — providing top cover for rescue helicopters infiltrating enemy territory to save shot-down pilots.
Moreover, the F-35 and the A-10, a more than 30-year-old plane that the F-35 was supposed to replace, could actually work together to retrieve downed pilots in the most dire circumstances.
That’s the surprising news in the May 2016 issue of Combat Aircraft magazine, which has focused its coverage on the small cadre of test and training pilots whose job it is to figure out what the F-35’s natural strengths and weaknesses are — and determine how to emphasize the former and downplay the latter.
In 2013, the Air Force announced it would quickly retire all 300 of its low-flying, twin-engine A-10s in order to save around $1 billion a year and perhaps slightly speed up its planned acquisition of more than 1,700 F-35s.
The A-10 is a brute-simple, thickly-armored plane specializing in blasting enemy troops with its bombs, missiles and powerful 30-millimeter cannon. Because it can fly low and slow, absorb ground fire and dish out plenty of punishment of its own, the Air Force assigns A-10s to escort helicopters flying deep behind enemy lines to pick up shot-down pilots.
Combat search and rescue, it’s called. CSAR. And it’s practitioners are called “Sandies.” Sandy 1, 2, 3 or 4, depending on their level of experience. The Warthog is, at present, arguably the best CSAR plane in the world. And its pilots are the best Sandies.
But in 2014 and 2015, Air Force leaders still believed they would be allowed to get rid of the A-10s and replace them with much lighter, faster and less heavily-armed, single-engine F-35s, which at least have the virtue of being reasonably stealthy.
Traditionally, the flying branch has craved the latest technology — whatever its cost or limitations. The U.S. Congress takes a different view, and for several years running has blocked the Air Force’s plans to retire the A-10 any time soon.
But for a time, the Air Force thought it needed a new CSAR plane. The 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada began trying out F-15Es and F-16s in the CSAR role and, according to Combat Aircraft’s Steve Davies, found that both could do the job, each in its own way.
But then the surprise. The squadron’s F-35s got involved.
“The F-35 was not a formal part of the test,” Davies wrote, “but became involved only when the squadron commander needed an A-10 ‘Sandy 1’ pilot and the only one available was a current F-35 pilot.”
“In the middle of the test, we threw a couple of F-35s into the fray,” Lt. Col. Joshua Wood, the 422nd TES’s commander, told Davies. The lead F-35 pilot, flying an older F-35A with rudimentary Block 1B software, wound up coordinating the entire mock rescue.
And excelling. “No kidding, he shows up and within five minutes on station he’s quarterbacked the whole thing,” Wood recalled. “They’ve rescued the survivor and everyone goes home.” Wood attributed the test success to the former A-10 pilot’s deep experience as a Sandy 1 — and to the F-35’s high-tech sensors.
“I’m not worried about the future of … CSAR,” Wood said, “because if I were looking at a scale of how important the platform is versus how important the training of the pilot is, I would say 75 percent is the pilot.”
But Wood stressed to Davies that the F-35 does CSAR differently than the A-10 does. Warthog pilots fly low and slow, keeping their eyes on the ground, both to take advantage of their plane’s toughness and excellent handling and to stay below enemy radar coverage. And hoping they don’t catch a “golden BB” — a single lucky gunshot that hits some critical system and destroys their jet.
Relying on their plane’s ability to dodge radar-detection, F-35 pilots can fly high, out of the range of golden BBs. Which is good, because the F-35 is comparatively fragile. Fortunately, the lofty vantage also gives pilots a wider view of the battlefield for the stealth fighter’s sophisticated radar, electronic receivers and cameras.
So in Wood’s assessment, the F-35 not only can do CSAR, it can do it very well — provided the pilot possesses the right training and experience. In that sense, according to Wood the stealth fighter can adequately replace the A-10, despite Congress’ reservations.
Better yet, if the Air Force must keep its A-10s, it could combine them with new F-35s to perform combat search-and-rescue possibly better than ever before. Wood, an F-35 pilot, told Davies about trials his squadron has conducted that have mixed Warthogs and the stealth fighters.
The F-35s fly high. The A-10s stay low. “We work well together,” Wood said, “with the A-10s usually below 20,000 feet and us above them, giving them the [situational awareness] that we can pass over the [data] links.”
To be clear, the Air Force still wants to retire the A-10. But Congress could continue to block the move. And since they’ve recently been upgraded with new avionics and new wings, the Warthogs could conceivably remain in service for decades.
Therefore it’s entirely possible that Wood’s tests could be a preview of a time when, rather than one jet replacing the other, the F-35 and the A-10 actually worth together on some of the most dangerous missions.
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