General: F-35 Will Initially Lag Older Aircraft in Close Air Support

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon’s newest and most expensive weapons program, will only offer limited close air support when it begins operational flights in the Air Force next year, a top general said.

“In many ways, it won’t have the some of the capabilities of our current platforms,” Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of the service’s Air Combat Command, acknowledged during a briefing with reporters on Friday at the Pentagon.

His comments came as lawmakers have begun debating the Defense Department’s fiscal 2016 budget request, which resurrects a controversial proposal to retire the A-10 attack aircraft. The Cold War-era plane, known as the Warthog, is designed to support ground troops with a 30mm, seven-barrel Gatling gun, called the GAU-8/A Avenger.

Air Force officials are pushing to divest the A-10, largely due to automatic budget cuts, despite recently deploying the aircraft to the Middle East to fight militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The low, slow-flying gunship was also recently sent back to Europe in a show of support to the Ukraine, which is battling pro-Russian separatists.

Lawmakers have previously rejected the service’s proposal to send the Warthog to the bone yard, in part because the F-35, which is designed to replace the A-10 and other aircraft, can’t yet perform the close air support mission.

Lockheed Martin Corp., the Pentagon’s biggest contractor, is developing three versions of the stealthy, fifth-generation fighter under a $400 billion acquisition program to build a total of 2,443 aircraft.

The F-35B, the Marine Corps’ jump-set variant, is scheduled to enter so-called initial operational capability, or IOC, later this year, followed by the F-35A, the Air Force’s conventional version, in the latter half of 2016, followed by the F-35C, the Navy’s aircraft carrier variant, in 2019.

Carlisle said the F-35A won’t initially be able to perform “advanced” close air support “because those are systems that are going to be coming onto the airplane in later blocks.”

The technologies the aircraft will initially lack include the large area, high-definition synthetic aperture radar known as “BIG SAR,” which is needed to get the best functionality out of the electro-optical targeting system, as well as a pinpoint glide bomb known as the Small Diameter Bomb II, or SDB-II, the general said.

Carlisle said the systems are slated to be integrated into the aircraft as part of a Block 4 software upgrade, the first version of which isn’t scheduled to arrive until 2021. “All of those are things that are going to be coming on in Block 4,” he said.

Even the F-35’s 25mm, four-barrel GAU-22 gun won’t be ready for at least a couple of more years.

So which weapons will the airplane initially carry? The Marine Corps’ F-35B will enter service with Block 2B software, which lets pilots fire a pair of AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missiles, AMRAAMs, or drop a pair of satellite-guided bombs or laser-guided weapons — not exactly the armament of choice for close-in missions.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Lance

    So even the JSF wont be ready for combat till after 2022. And yet the Obama Zombies in the DoD want to gut our fighter and CAS fleets, in order for there pet project like MHS JSF and AAPV. Shows how corrupt and out of reality brass in Washington DC are. We need fire these rich corrupt generals and get real leaders back to there jobs ASAP!

    Time for real weapons like a new fighter and tanks that we need not crap like new handguns and another M-113 replacement we don’t need, and a fighter which may never be fully operational.

  • CharleyA

    Seems that the PR types are finally advising the brass not to make obviously false assertions - or maybe the brass is finally realizing that their absolute power in their fiefdoms does not translate into real world credibility.

  • paamf

    No shite sherlock! I’m thinking somewhere between a Neuport and Stuka and it’s a toss up with the Stuka.

    • @GreensboroVet

      I’ll take the Stuka. It’s German made and we all know its works.

  • BlackOwl18E

    As if this is anything we don’t already know…

    A defense analyst named Janine Davidson wrote an article that pretty much gutted the USAF argument to kill the A-10:…

    • Dfens

      Which is it this time, “the next program will be better” or “buy more 40 year old F-18’s”? As if anything could be as f’ed up as either of those options.

  • Sev

    For the price spent on the f35 so far, how many f22s could we have built?

    How many dedicated air superiority, CAS, and naval aircraft assets could we have bought instead that do everything the f35 is supposed to do only much better and far more cheaply?

    Send in the stealth bombers and fighters to clear the way for CAS aircraft and navy ships. I mean how many of these do it all but worse F-35s could we afford to lose in a sustained conflict with an advanced enemy anyway?

    • Mitchell Fuller

      It’s not only the loss rate, it is also the readiness rate. If you have 50 aircraft on the books but the readiness rate is 50% you really have only 25 aircraft.

    • timbrwolf

      Unfortunately that is an entirely different issue. Stealth is now becoming obsolete due to improvements in thermal guided systems, and China’s new radar systems.

  • Cataldo

    I hope it’s a good new, perhaps the DoD knows they need less CAS in the future :), less wars and more softpower ? We need more peace now than ever.

  • Franklin

    If the political knuckelheads won’t build a true CAS aircraft like an upgraded A10 then maybe we can buy something cheap from China or Brazil? I think we should robotize a few A10’s and stick politcians in them so they can experiance what a real close air support aircraft is really about, or maybe embed them with ground troops waiting for the F35 to show up?

  • retired462

    All talk about the A-10’s future should stop until a suitable replacement is OPERATIONAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • oblatt22

    The reality is that if you look at Lockheed’s own work schedule the F-35 is only half way through development and its taking twice as long as predicted.

    2021 really means late 2028 and even then the aircraft wont have the defensive aids or radar software to do anything more then fly out and fly back under escort from real combat aircraft.

    Its hardly surprising that we are seeing Chinese investment in Lockheed. They are doing such a good job for China.

    • William_C1

      I’m going to guess you can’t come up with a source for all of this just as with anything else you write.

  • Charles

    Considering: how far behind schedule the F-35 (any variant) is; that it cannot meet even the several times reduced missions requirements; It still has no gun to speak of; has the performance of a generation 3 fighter at a 6th generation cost; cannot carry a combat load of any substance - and will not be able to until 2022 at the *earliest*; and, that the USAF deliberately manipulated the mission effectiveness/fratricide facts in its article in USA Today - it is really hard to take its word for much of anything.

    That the USAF’s “leadership” is still intent on sending the A-10 to the boneyard despite its less-than-competent program management; it being busted for lying about the planes performance; the lack of any credible replacement; the appalling operational cost; and no one has yet to be court-martialled despite the service suffering from a severe credibility gap - demonstrates much of whats wrong with today’s civilian and military leadership.

    • William_C1

      Regarding schedule are we bemoaning the original schedule or the schedule since the program was restructured? Considering the buffer time built into the latter scheldule things aren’t looking too bad.

      Several times reduced mission requirements? If mission requirements refers to KPPs the only change was the addition of 50 feet to the short take-off requirement for a loaded F-35B.

      No gun? It’s there. Software is still in progress but the gun is there. Performance of a 3rd generation fighter? Is the F/A-18 3rd generation now? It performs much like that. 6th generation costs? No idea what that is supposed to mean as the costs are a dynamic that is constantly changing and nobody has even seen a 6th generation fighter.

      So JDAM, SDB I, JSOW, and the GBU-12/49 aren’t anything worthwhile? Good to know.

  • kevin

    Dump the F-22 and the A-10 for the now more expensive incomplete F-35 because of money. Well Obama wasn’t worried about spending the money when he gave away $ billion to the Russian military’s machine when he purchased their helicopters in Afhaganistan. This is as stupid as when the great minds thought that guns weren’t needed on the F-4’s during the Nam War! The Pentagon needs brains with balls when our president has none!

  • PolicyWonk

    So - here we have the USAF admitting that the F-35 will lag in acquiring CAS support, which is why its logical to them to retire the only aircraft dedicated to the CAS mission.

    Seriously - you can’t make this stuff up!

  • blight_

    It’s amazing how this brings out the “Obama”s.

    The F-35 is an overly optimistic program from hell. The X-35 managed integration of all three missions into a common airframe, but when it came time to scale up for production (including those internal bays), weight issues triggered a cascade of developmental delays.

    • steve

      Want to know who is blowing your money? it’s Congress.

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    You can’t find a thread that doesn’t have a certain number of complaints from those who look under the bed each morning for the new dust bunnies that Obama sneakily installed during the night.

    The F-35 remains the poster child for all that’s wrong in how Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex does business. And the Congress is almost as culpable for letting it happen.

    • William_C1

      Congress is why you have one fighter set to fulfill so many roles. That wasn’t the result of big bad industry.

    • john

      Almost culpable? Try guilty as hell.

  • crackedlenses

    Uhhhhh, OK.

    Frankly, I never expected the F-35 to be a dedicated CAS platform, so this news doesn’t faze me, nor does it affect my overall support for its adoption.

  • david

    Anyone who thinks the f-35 will be even 50% of the CAS the A-10 is on crack. CAS aircraft get damaged by ground fire all the time. With the A-10 u just put a quick patch on it and good as new. The bullet hole in a F-35 will takes days if not weeks to repair in order to maintain the F-35 stealthy signature. Hell u can’t even get a super hornet to go below 10k when they do CAS.

    • GI dude

      The go-fasters wont even drop an iron bomb closer than 1000 meters from the bad guys with troops-in-contact because they are so scared of fratricide. Had it happen more than once in Iraq. I’d ask: “What was that supposed to do?” AF would say: “Scare them” …. the troops screaming at me over the radio begged to differ! 120mm tubes and 155mm guns would put steel right on their little towel-covered noggins!

    • citanon

      The a10 is less resistant to manpad damage than an f18 or even f16. If used against a truly competent enemy its loss rate would be eye watering. Just look at what happened to su25s in eastern Ukraine.

      • majr0d

        The SU25’s performance in Ukraine is informative but there are key differences and missing information.

        Is SEAD being attempted? If so, how good are the Ukrainians at doing it? They have a military that has been functioning on pennies for a decade and their ability to conduct operations has been seriously compromised.

        How many sorties are the SU25’s executing as well as the quality of execution?

      • balais

        Against any competent enemy with overlapping, modern air defense systems, our losses of all aircraft would be significantly higher.

        The SU25 losses in Ukraine highlight the weaknesses of their armed forces, which is in the quality of tactics and planning. These weaknesses have been obvious from the perspective on the ground as well.

    • UK Grant

      ” The bullet hole in a F-35 will takes days if not weeks to repair in order to maintain the F-35 stealthy signature”

      depends on where the bullet hits. The F-35 uses fuel to cool the air frame (to reduce IR signature). So a hit anywhere other than the edges or extremities will set the plane on fire!! (i.e. the F-35 is as good as toast).

      Doubt that they can build a new one in weeks - finding the money alone will take months.

  • Kostas

    The problem for an effective CAS is not the F35. The problem is that we do not have a good CAS munition. The ideal CAS munition should have:
    - a small lethal radius to prevent any fratricide, because (by the definition of CAS) friendly forces will be close by. Therefore, HE 250lbs bomb are NOT suitable for that role
    - a range outside the MANPADs range. Therefore guns are suboptimal
    - high velocity for rapid effects, because of the rapidly changing battle conditions. Therefore long range gliding bombs are out of the question
    There is a readily available munition that meets the above requirements, the:

  • GI dude

    Maybe they could rig it with some duct tape and cinder blocks to drop until they get a few more hundreds of billions of dollars!

  • GI dude

    Can the entire F-35 boondoggle, hire China to build us 400,000 F-51’s for the same price!

  • oblatt22

    two weeks ago the F-35 was a great replacement fro the A-10, the F-35B was designed specifically for marine CAS.

    Today in typical F-35 style the spec has been lowered and it cant realistically do the job.

    Man I remember when the F-35 was a fighter too. Back before it was realized that it couldn’t pull 4Gs had terrible transonic performance, had poor weapons load, and couldn’t give a 1950s fighter a run for its money.

  • Richard Brown

    I have 23 years working on Air Force aircraft.The F-35 is another fly by wire aircraft that don’t work. Are we going to tell the boots on the ground to keep their heads down for X years till we can help them.I retired back in the 90’s.I was in nam and the first gulf war,it was the older planes the keep flying not the bullshit $$$ fly by wire.In 2022 the old planes will still be flying when the F-35 is in the bone yard.

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    Kostas (or William C1, or anyone) can the APKWS or similar rockets be carried internally to preserve stealth, and lock on after launch? Do they offer enough range for the F-35 to stay out of 14.5 and 23mm range, if the target is so defended?

  • OMG

    About American deindustrialization

    For example:

    Heavy Press Program

    The Heavy Press Program was a Cold War-era program of the United States Air Force to build the largest forging presses and extrusion presses in the world. These machines greatly enhanced the US defense industry’s capacity to forge large complex components out of light alloys such as magnesium and aluminium. The program began in 1950 and concluded in 1957 after construction of four forging presses and six extruders, at an overall cost of $279 million. Eight of them are still in operation today, manufacturing structural parts for military and commercial aircraft. They still hold the records for size in North America, though they have since been surpassed by presses in Japan, France, Russia and China.

    The Heavy Press Program was motivated by experiences from World War II. Germany held the largest heavy die forging presses during the war, and translated this advantage into high performance jet fighters. The Soviet Union captured the largest German press to survive the war, with a capacity of 33,000 ton, and were suspected to have seized the designs for an even larger 55,000 ton press. The next two largest units were captured by the United States and brought across the Atlantic, but they were half the size at 16,500 ton. As cold war fears developed, American strategists worried that this would give the Soviet Air Force a crucial advantage and designed the Heavy Press Program to help win the arms race.

    Seventeen presses were originally planned with an expected cost of $389 million, but the project was scaled back to 10 presses in 1953.

    Air Force Lieutenant General K. B. Wolfe was the primary advocate for the Heavy Press Program. Alexander Zeitlin was another prominent figure of the program.

    The Heavy Press Program was run by the U.S. government in the 1950s, to give us the ability to forge metals like magnesium into large but light component parts, primarily for aircraft and rockets. At the program’s end in 1957, a total of 4 enormous presses and 6 extruders had been built and eight of these monsters are still in use today.

    Heavy forging and extrusion presses allow for complex parts to be forged from lightweight materials. Without these machines, the high-tech, lightweight aircraft we now take for granted would not be possible. In the 1950s, the United States undertook a plan to build 17 heavy presses across the country. This program was created in response to the Soviet Union’s possession of what was then the world’s largest heavy press. Fearing that this would give the Soviet air force a great advantage, the American government financed the creation of bigger and better presses than those possessed by the Soviets. Although the program was eventually scaled back to ten presses, this still allowed for America to become a leader in producing both civilian and military aircraft. Eight of the 10 presses are still in operation today.

    The American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the 50,000-ton Alcoa and Wyman-Gordon presses as Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmarks. The Alcoa press weighs 8,000 tons and is 87 feet (26.5 meters) tall. The die table is 26 feet by 12 feet (7.9 by 3.7 meters), and the maximum stroke is 6 feet (1.82 meters).

    Mesta Machinery

    Mesta Machinery was a leading industrial machinery manufacturer based in the Pittsburgh area town of West Homestead, Pennsylvania. It was founded in 1898 by George Mesta when he merged his machine shop with another. Mesta “machines” can be found in factories throughout the world and as of 1984 had equipment in 500 steel mills. Mesta was the 488th largest American company in 1958 and the 414th largest in 1959

    World War II

    Mesta’s West Homestead plant was a center for World War II production. It earned the coveted Army-Navy E Award and was only one of seven factories to earn six stars. Mesta specialized in manufacturing 16 inch naval guns, ship-propeller shafts, artillery carriages and “Long Toms” 155-mm cannons that hurled 100-pound shells 15 miles. Iversen personally oversaw the production of “Little David” a 36-inch bore mortar that was put into production for the canceled Japanese invasion. During the war, Iversen transformed Mesta into one of the nation’s top ordinance suppliers, personally working 18-hour shifts on the factory floor. His accounting department also ran two 8 hour shifts per day.

    Mesta, and later Iverson operated the Hays Army Ammunition Plant from the 1940s through the 1960s.

    Post war success

    The company manufactured a 9-story forging press for ALCOA in 1954 that was still in operation in the 1980s. The press manufactures aluminum for 747 and DC-10 jetliners.


    Mesta filed for bankruptcy in February 1983, and most of its West Homestead works was sold off in June 1983.The company’s last assets were sold in April, 1988.

    China is already far ahead of U.S.

    China has started the building of an 80,000-ton press forge

    • UK Grant

      “China has started the building of an 80,000-ton press forge”

      That had been completed in 2008, right? Russia is also far ahead of the US.

  • rat

    When the -22 entered service, it could do everything it was supposed to do. The finest air supremacy aircraft, literally, ever. It could even double in brass and replace the 117 in some missions. They pull the plug on it and ram this POS down the citizens throats that can’t even do what its designed to do for another 7 or 8 years.

    And what exactly was the USAF going to do once the rid themselves of the A-10? Hmmmm?

  • Fordownr

    Even if it COULD do everything it’s been hearled to be capable of, the brass will never let their new toy below 5000 feet. Can’t have their expensive new plane get taken out by ground fire now can we?…..

  • Badger

    A BETTER alternative: Textron Airland Scorpion for CAS, check it out people

  • wolfden

    Operation Destroy CAS capability

    Interesting read:…

  • David

    The F-35 is not an never will be an A10. It can’t fly slow enough. It can’t take the abuse and enemy fire. When the first $100+M F35 is shot down that plane will have its flights restricted.

    What is needed is a resurrection of the A10 program…maybe even a successor, with the F35 and Apache left in the roles for which they are more appropriate.

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    It can’t be an A-10, but that really isn’t the issue. In an environment well supplied with MANPAD/SHORAD systems, would the A-10 really be less vulnerable than the F-35?
    I don’t know, but I doubt it. CAS in the future may have to be performed from 20,000 feet with a weapons load that maintains stealth. In principle the level of sensor fusion sought in the F-35 should permit that, but not for an appallingly long time.

  • UK Grant

    I have to wonder why USAF is still wasting time talking about this less-than-worthless piece of junk.

    Don’t they have better things to do? Like dreaming about its 9th generation fighter jets?

    Better start dreaming now, coz by the end of the year, even dreaming might be too much of a luxury - funeral march for the petrodollar might start as early as October this year!

    Say goodbye to the Empire of Chaos. Time is up.

  • UK Grant

    A shot of reality for clueless “patriots”

    spend 6 minutes on this short article. (if you are a slow reader, spare 12 minutes)…

    • Hollander

      Excellent article.

      Doubt that the “clueless patriots” can handle the truth. ;)

  • Cynical175

    Isn’t everybody forgetting that in a CAS role they will have to hang a lot of stuff UNDER the wings. VOILA no more stealth.

    Pleas don’t come back that suddenly the A will have established air superiority. And the F-22 hanger queen still has to prove it self in a REAL fight. Not by flying in uncontested air at 40.000 feet over Syria.

    • Brian B. Mulholland

      That’s my concern. In the future it may not be possible to deliver CAS by low altitude passes. Sensor development apparently doesn’t permit the F-35 to use the most appropriate SDB II yet (even if the cost of the latter was irrelevant) from altitude, and there seem to be no other weapons on hand that would permit an orbiting F-35 to deliver CAS from altitude while maintaining a stealthy profile.

      If the F-22 proves unable to deliver air control, we’ll have more problems than inability to provide low-and-slow CAS. IMHO, which is that of a civilian.

  • arc5radio

    It lags in everything except massive costs and making a few “fat cats” fatter.

  • Dale

    What I have been asking for years on this subject is why do we to buy/build THIS.

    If you want to argue that the the first of the F-15’s F-16’s and non super hornet F-18’s are getting old and need to be replaced, fine but all thre of those aircraft are STILL in production and what is rolling off the assembly line are vastly different aircraft, everything engines, electronics, computer hardware and software have been “new and improved any number of times and in some aspects are “newer” than the F-35 because it has taken forever. Now if the F-35 was a quantam leap ahead, what the F-100 was to the F-86 what the F-4 was to the F-100, what the F-15 was to the F-4 and what the f-22 was/is to the F-15 then I would say all this trouble may be worth it and not say we should just buy more new build 15’s 16’s and 18’s but that is NOT the case I no of no mission parameter is better by any substantial amount and plenty where it is worse sometimes a lot. We could buy new aircraft esyily intergrate them into exist squadrons/wings use existing training and logistics piplines, get them NOW not next year or more likley 5 or 10 years from now and have the added bonus be that they do not cost a GD fortune.

  • Andrew

    Initially . . .like, until it’s replaced.

  • Brin

    So sad to see. You can not have a stealth aircraft do close air support. It’s impossible. Stealth aircraft are more for high altitude work. And the fact that The F-35 still isn’t working right, give everyone, who can see it, the ammo to force the air force to keep the A-10 In service. It was built for the job, and did it very well. And doesn’t cost the taxpayers, where as the F-35 is breaking the bank, and not doing anything. Given all the problems the F-35’s having, this should make the air force pull all he A-10s out of storage, rebuild and repair them, and use them.

  • tom

    Just as Carter cancelled the B1 bomber, the F35 should have been cancelled. Reagan created the first trillion dollar national debt when he cut taxes and resurrected the unneeded B-1. The stealth fighter was already flying. If you raise defense spending or go to war like Bush did, raise taxes to support it, don’t create more of a deficit and greater National debt.