After a week of concentrated study of its close air support (CAS) role, the US Air Force essentially has decided to stick with plans to gradually retire the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II and hand the CAS mission to the Lockheed Martin F-35.
The service plans to enshrine the close air support mission in dedicated squadrons that will transition from the A-10 to the Lockheed F-16 and Boeing F-15 until the F-35 comes online in sufficient numbers to take over CAS, Gen Herbert Carlisle, chief of USAF Air Combat Command says on 6 March during a discussion with reporters at the Pentagon following a weeklong multi-service discussion of CAS.
It also will establish a permanent “CAS integration group” with representatives of all the military services to study and perpetuate the CAS mission in different scenarios.
Once the F-35 reaches its full potential within the next decade, the service is considering purchasing a relatively inexpensive replacement for the A-10 to perform CAS against enemies that lack sophisticated air defenses, Carlisle says.
An aircraft like the Textron AirLand Scorpion jet could fit that bill, Carlisle says.
“It could. That’s not something that is outside the realm,” he says after being asked about the Scorpion. “We have gone out and looked at other platforms to see if they could meet the low-end CAS capability at a reasonable cost per flying hour,” he says. “We are keeping our eyes and our opportunities open.”
The Marine Corps’ F-35B will achieve initial operational capability this year, followed by the USAF’s F-35A in 2016. Initially neither will be fully capable of taking over the CAS mission.
“In many ways it won’t have the capabilities of our current platforms like the ability to do really advanced CAS” that will be necessary in contests against near-peer competitors like Russia or China, Carlisle says.
Later F-35 blocks will incorporate improved synthetic aperture radar, electro-optical targeting systems and the ability to deploy the small diameter bomb (SDB) II, a weapon that is commonly used on CAS missions, Carlisle says. All of those capabilities will be included in the Block 4 configuration of the F-35.
"We don’t know what’s going to happen next. We may need more capacity at the low end," Carlisle says.