After claiming last year that the F-35 would assume the close air support role once the A-10 was retired, U.S. Air Force officials this week showed signs that they are rethinking that strategy.
"My requirements guys are in the process of building a draft-requirements document for a follow-on CAS airplane," Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, said at an Air Force Association breakfast attended by Phillip Swarts of Air Force Times. "It's interesting work that at some point we'll be able to talk [about] with you a little bit more.
"I have seen a draft of it, it's out for coordination. It'll go to the chief sometime this spring, and then we'll fold that into the larger study we're doing on the future of the combat air forces."
Aviation experts, aficionados, lawmakers, ground troops, and even Air Force pilots pushed back hard against the notion that the F-35 would be as effective as the A-10 has been and continues to be in the close air support role. Critics complained that Air Force leaders were sacrificing warfighting capability in their desire to field the Joint Strike Fighter -- an airplane that is a tech marvel on paper but that has experienced many setbacks during the test phase that have made it wildly over budget and massively behind schedule. Now Air Force officials appear to be bowing to the pressure.
"The question is, exactly where is the sweet spot … between what's available now and what would the optimum CAS replacement be," he said. "We're working along that continuum to see exactly where the requirement is that you can afford in the numbers we need to be able to do the mission."
Holmes mentioned that perhaps the future trainer -- known as T-X -- could be morphed into a CAS platform but warned that it would be premature to add that requirement at this time.
"We're really careful with the T-X requirement because if we add requirements to T-X now, then it could become unaffordable and we can't replace the trainer role that we need it to replace," Holmes said. "There is an option down the road that you might take the airframe that's designed for T-X and use it for some other use, we have some money in our budget that will let us do the studies to do that."
But the most definitive admission of the folly of trying to force the F-35 into the CAS role came from Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein last month. "I would never look at you and tell you, 'Hey, the replacement, one-for-one, for the A-10 is the F-35,'" Goldfein said.