The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may have been the subject of more postulation than any other military aircraft in history. After years of cost overruns, delays, and issues, the fighter platform that America has long touted as the most advanced on the planet is finally nearing a stage when its comparisons to tried and true combat aircraft can leave the drawing board and start being based on legitimate side by side comparisons.

In April, the F-35 will undergo an evaluation of the platform’s ability to function as a close air support and reconnaissance aircraft – both integral facets of the Pentagon’s plans to utilize the 5th generation fighter as a replacement for a litany of existing platforms that are rapidly aging out of service; primary among them: the legendary A-10 Thunderbolt. The Air Force has been trying to retire the forty+ year old platform for some time, but to date, no aircraft has come close to demonstrating the same fire and maneuver capabilities boasted by the Warthog, let alone it’s ability to take a beating and remain airborne.

Capt. Kim Campbell stands next to her A-10 that received significant ground fire on an air support mission, and still brought her home safely. (U.S. Air Force)

The F-35 will not do close air support mission the same way the A-10 does. It will do it very differently. The A-10 was designed to be low, and slow, and close to the targets it was engaging, relatively speaking,” Frank Kendall III, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told the Senate panel in 2016. “We will not use the F-35 in the same way as the A-10.”

“We’re going to let the F-35 pilots take advantage of the systems on that aircraft … and see how well the missions are carried out in terms of the ability to strike targets in a timely manner and accurately, and then report on that,” Kendall said.

If the F-35 hopes to dethrone the A-10 as the close air support aircraft of the future, it certainly has its work cut out for it, and according to Air Force officials, a showdown between the two aircraft is currently in the works – and may finally happen as soon as next month.

An F-35B Lightning II takes off on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship Wasp. (U.S. Marine Corps)

Congress has directed the [Defense Department] to do comparison testing, we call it,” Vice Admiral Mat Winter, who heads the F-35 Joint Program Office, told reporters last week. “I wouldn’t call it a flyoff; it’s a comparison testing of the A-10 and the F-35.”

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“I have not seen the scope of increment two, so I cannot go on record to say that it’s in increment two,” Winter said. “It will be in either increment two or in the formal [IOT&E], and it will be executed.”

The A-10 recently got a new lease on life in the form of a contract to re-wing America’s fleet of over 700 Warthogs, guaranteeing their survival for years to come, but it could be said that the platform is already living on borrowed time, and the U.S. military is in dire need of establishing a worthy successor.

Delivering fires to troops engaged in close proximity to the enemy is a contact sport and we are committed to the F-35 as a critical component of this joint and combined team,” Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force’s Chief of Staff, said two years ago, when murmurs about a faceoff between the two aircraft first began.

Feature images courtesy of the Department of Defense