Flightglobal has a nice little piece about the USAF’s confirmation that it will not procure the F-35B, although not mainly due to capability gaps but because the USAF thinks the F-35B has a lower sortie rate than what is desired. Oddly enough the Marines think otherwise, they say the F-35B’s sortie rate will clobber those of the USAF’s A model or the Navy’s C model. As with many things JSF, confusion seems to reign supreme even amongst those at the top of the information ladder.
The real reason why the USAF should not buy the F-35B to replace the A-10 is survivability of the old school variety. If you “own” the airspace over a conflict area to the point that you insert ground forces than the A-10 can provide surgical support to those forces to a level that the F-35 is simply incapable of doing. During Operation Iraq Freedom we “owned” the airspace over and around Baghdad, having struck all fixed SAM and air defense node positions before sending in the A-10s. Yet still multiple A-10′s took heavy battle damage in their marvelous and courageous runs “downtown” to support US armored columns entering the sprawling Baghdad metropolis. Loitering A-10′s were literally called on to take out an enemy sniper’s nests in 15 story buildings using their 30mm cannon, or to plant bombs on armored targets huddled around urban overpasses. Meanwhile they would be dodging shoulder fired SAMs, small arms fire, and anti-aircraft artillery the best they could. Sometimes physics won and A-10s would get shot up badly. If this were to have happened to an F-35B the aircraft would have blown up or the pilots would have ejected. Contrarily, the A-10 pilots limped their mounts back to friendly bases for extensive repairs. In the end the A-10, a machine built to plink tanks above the prairies and forests of Europe, proved itself to be the ultimate fixed wing urban warrior.
Why would commanders risk a $150M, unarmored asset low over a city? The reality is that the F-35 will spend it’s career above 15,000ft, outside of the threat of small arms fire, most AAA, and shoulder fired heat seeking missiles. The gun pod being fielded with the F-35B and C, although capable, seems like somewhat of a waste of money as you would have to put the jet at great risk to use it and as far as I know that big F135 motor puts out a lot of heat and the jet does not have a cloaking device, yet. The A-10 was built to do it’s business in environments where reduced radar cross-section is pretty far down on the list of necessities needed in order to get the job done. Further, if there is a robust enemy fighter threat still in place there probably will not be any troops on the ground to support anyways. The whole Marine landing mission is of a totally different story and I do not doubt the F-35B’s validity toward that mission set, in fact I applaud it. I have said time and time again that the most valuable F-35 variants are the B first and the C second, the A being totally dispensable.
Although the USAF may not replace the A-10 with the F-35B there is no reason why the F-35B is still not relevant to the USAF. The aircraft can operate from tiny austere airstrips which would be a big plus in the event of a war in Pacific, where huge concrete runways are big targets and in small supply. The F-35B would allow the USAF to operate by choice from currently non-strategically important islands in the Pacific, which will greatly increase sortie generation rates and tanker dependence via greatly reduced mission lengths. Further the survivability of the aircraft themselves will be greatly enhanced as like any aircraft they are most vulnerable while sitting on the ground.
If the DoD is going to continue with the F-35 program as a whole, which they almost certainly will, the USAF should take another look at the F-35B. It would be a great capability to have under the air-sea battle concept and the emerging Pacific focused defense doctrine. But like so many other “dated” technologies, the A-10 is indispensable and a national treasure, one that offers the finest close air support capability the world has ever seen and an emerging littoral warfare capability that could see it become the weapon of choice in busting up swarms of low tech fast attack boats and mine laying craft in the muddy waters of the world.
Long live the Warthog.