A Look at F-35 Close Air Support Tactics Development

All three variants of the F-35 fly in May of 2014 near Eglin Air Force Base. The Air Force intends to use the F-35 in close air support operations. (US Air Force)

All three variants of the F-35 fly past Eglin Air Force base in May 2014. The Air Force intends to use the F-35 in close air support operations. (US Air Force)

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — a stealthy, high-tech, fifth-generation strike fighter — may also become a major player in close-air support (CAS) missions. Last week, we talked with the US Air Force general who is leading the testing and preparation for the CAS mission.

Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: the military aviation community is divided as to whether the F-35 can be an effective CAS platform. A lot comes down to the relative merits of fast-jet CAS versus the kind of low-to-the-ground, persistent CAS practiced by the A-10 or AC-130. (We wrote more about this in January.) Neither side is willing to give ground — perhaps understandably, because the question can truly be answered only when ground troops, under fire, call for help.

Some members of Congress, including incoming Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., argue that jets such as the F-15 or B-1 bomber are simply too high and move too fast to be effective. Members of the A-10 community point out that the Warthog can go “low and slow” in a way that something like the F-35 will never be able to do, avoiding potential friendly fire incidents like the one that occurred this summer. That’s an argument backed up by the Tactical Air Control Party Association, which supports keeping the A-10 around to protect ground forces.

But right or wrong, the Air Force is still planning to make the F-35 a key part of its CAS operations. Which means someone needs to develop those tactics before the jet goes operational sometime in the second half of 2016.

Maj. Gen. Jay Silveria is the commander of the US Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis. (US Air Force)

Maj. Gen. Jay Silveria is the commander of the US Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis. (US Air Force)

Helping to drive that work is Maj. Gen. Jay Silveria, who commands the USAF Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Silveria, the highest-ranking officer yet checked out on the F-35, sat down with a small group of reporters on Dec. 5 to talk about flying the jet and how his team is testing and developing tactics for the fifth-generation fighter.

At one point, Silveria was asked about whether the jet will likely rely on its gun or its precision guided munitions (PGMs) more for CAS operations.

Silveria said, “I think, so far, it looks like the PGMs will be more useful in the CAS role, but we have not really completed all of the operational testing on the CAS.”

(Side note: This is where the A-10 community points to a 2009 Pentagon document that defines “danger close” range for forces standing on the ground, the range at which there is an increased chance of friendly fire. That range is 200 meters for a GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, a weapon the F-35 will carry. For the A-10’s gun, “danger close” is listed at 90 meters. The argument that follows is that relying on bombs increases the chance of friendly fire.)

Silveria went on to a lengthy discussion about CAS and the F-35. Here’s a transcription, cleaned up a bit for clarity:

Q: Are you seeing any concerns about using the F-35 for CAS?

A. [The F-35] is going to be able to do the CAS mission effectively. We’ve already executed on the ranges at night and at day, able to receive targets from terminal air controllers on the ground and able to attack and prosecute targets within timeframes that are well acceptable in a battlefield situation. So we’ve already seen that. Which means, if we’re already seeing it now, I know it’s going to get better.

The beauty of fusion is — it brings all the data together and it fuses it, but what that really does for you is time. I didn’t have to process it between my ears, but the airplane can now fuse it all together. And much [more quickly], the data fusion is available on a target, it can be targeted, a munition can delivered much, much quicker than in a 4th-gen where you would have to interpret the data, move it to another sensor, move it to a targeting system, then determine a target. The fusion makes it much quicker. So if we’re doing it now, the fusion is going to only make it much quicker.

Q: How much time do you gain from fusion?

A. That’s a harder question… Here’s a better way to describe it: in this airplane, in the F-35, I’ve done some CAS in the daytime with an A-10 weapons school instructor who is an F-35 instructor now. He gets me pointed in the general direction of a target on the ground and I use my helmet. I put my helmet over there, and with one-switch actualization all my sensors now look at that spot. Just like that, instantly.

Now, in a 4th-gen plane, I would have to get a sensor worked over to there. I would have to get information off of that sensor. I would have to move that information somewhere else in the airplane and then I would target it. So when I put my helmet over there and I went one-switch actualization, all of my sensors went to that spot and everything in the airplane said, “OK, we’re ready to go.” So all I had to do was get in a weapons solution and release on that spot I found on the ground. Whereas if I was in an F-16, if I got a sensor on there, whether I got a targeting pod or something else, I would have to take that information and then turn it into a target in the system.

We’re talking about minutes. Which matters a lot. Seconds are going to count in a close air support situation, so it’s much faster.

Q: Is your assumption that most CAS will be done with an external weapons load?

A. We’re not necessarily making assumptions in the CAS on the weapons load. We are developing tactics on how best to prosecute a target on the ground. But clearly when we write those tactics, external payloads, we’ve had the tradeoff discussion here; external payloads come with a tradeoff of LO [low observability], of weight, etc.

It depends on the scenario. If you’re in a scenario, say early in a conflict where you expect air to air threat and surface to air threat, then you are going to use and rely on your internal carriage and your LO capabilities of the airplane. And the fact your weapons load is less because it doesn’t have external, you’re gaining that tin the early parts of a conflict. Then in the scenario I described the surface to air threats or air to air threats are held back and contained, so now an air component commander doesn’t necessarily need the LO capability of the airplane and then may decide to configure it differently in that situation. So I think what the airplane will do will then provide that LO when you need it and when you don’t obviously you can do something different.

We’re not there yet. We’re not developing [tactics] on the external load.

Is there anything super-surprising in there? Not particularly. But as someone who is checked out on the F-35 and flies it somewhat regularly, Silveria is worth a close listen.

Aaron Mehta

Aaron Mehta

Air Warfare Correspondent at Defense News
Aaron covers the Air Force for Defense News. In his spare time, he tweets about the Air Force for Defense News. Follow him @AaronMehta
Aaron Mehta