The American F-35 and A-10 aircraft are being prepared for a “fly-off” competition to determine which is better at close-air support. This could determine the future of the venerable A-10, which has fought off efforts to withdraw the plane from service. The A-10 abides thanks to friends on Capitol Hill and a very impressive combat record.
The “fly-off,” announced in August and slated to take place in 2018 is the latest hurdle for the F-35, which is intended to not only replace the A-10, but the F-16, AV-8B, and F/A-18C in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps inventories. One of the biggest questions surrounding the F-35 has been its ability to carry out the close-air support mission. The showdown will not take place until 2018 because the ground support capabilities of the F-35 are not yet in service.
Supporters of the A-10 point to the plane’s track record from Desert Storm (1991), the Balkans (1999), and the War on Terror (2001-2015). During Desert Storm the A-10 flew 8,100 sorties, destroyed 900 tanks, and 1,200 artillery pieces. A-10 pilots shot down two Iraqi helicopters as well. Later in the 1990s, A-10s also flew over the Balkans during the NATO interventions. In the War on Terror, the A-10 was again there for the ground troops.
During the War on Terror, the A-10s flew a number of close-air support missions, and one famously was brought back after being shot up during the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003). However, F-16s began to also pick up the burden of close-air support missions, using bombs guided by either laser spot tracking or GPS. The F-35 is intended to deliver precision-guided weapons from higher altitudes than the A-10 flies at. However, there have been some friendly-fire incidents involving those high-altitude drops.
The A-10 has the GAU-8 30-millimeter cannon with 1,350 rounds that fires 4200 rounds per minute, and can carry eight tons of bombs. The F-35 has the 25-millimeter GAU-22 cannon that holds 180 rounds and which fires 3300 rounds a minute. The F-35 can carry nine tons of weapons. – Harold C. Hutchison