Thunderbolt or Lightning? That question has been a point of contention between members of Congress, infantrymen, and US Air Force brass for a long time, and now it looks like it's going to get settled in the most American way possible – fisticuffs. Okay, so not exactly, but the F-35 Lightning II will finally face off with the A-10 Thunderbolt II in a battle for close-air-support supremacy.
Stars and Stripes reports that the Department of Defense's director of operational test and evaluation, J. Michael Gilmore, confirmed the test during a recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. There will be a range of wargames, all designed to figure out which fighter will better protect allied infantry and annihilate enemy armor, something the A-10 has done effortlessly for decades.
"To me, comparison testing just makes common sense," Gilmore told the Senate. "We're going to do it under all the circumstances that we see CAS [close air support] conducted, including under high-threat conditions in which we expect F-35 will have an advantage and other conditions requiring loitering on the target, low-altitude operations and so-forth."
On top of CAS testing, Gilmore said officials would run search-and-rescue scenarios to see which aircraft came out on top. As Stars and Stripes explains, the purpose-built A-10 might have the advantage over the F-35 – it's renowned for its GAU-8 Avenger cannon, a monstrous 30-millimeter gun that fires depleted uranium shells, not to mention its ability to soak up punishment and carry a lot of weaponry – but this won't be a runaway victory. The F-35 is undeniably faster and far harder to detect, and it has a multi-role ability the A-10 will never match.
That said, the fighter has been subject to repeated problems. For one, there's the cost – this is the single most expensive weapons program in human history. There's also a greater question of capability, since the F-35 won't be fully capable of CAS until 2022.