By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is looking at Textron Inc's Scorpion and other aircraft to address future needs for low-end air support missions given its plans to retire the aging fleet of A-10 Warthog planes in coming years, a top general said Friday.
Later versions of Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jet would be the primary warplane used for close air support in future conflicts with higher-end adversaries, General Herbert Carlisle, who heads Air Combat Command, told reporters.
But growing threats in the Middle East and other areas - coupled with huge budget pressures - were forcing military officials to also look at a low-cost successor for the A-10 for less challenging or more "permissive" environments, he said.
He said no decisions had been made on a possible acquisition program, but the Air Force had looked at the Scorpion plane developed by Textron using its own funds and others to address lower-end threats instead of using stealthy and costly F-35s.
"That's not something that's outside the realm," Carlisle said when asked about the Scorpion aircraft. "We've done some research. We're just keeping our opportunities open."
Carlisle spoke to reporters after a weeklong "summit" involving the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Special Operations Commands and other Pentagon officials as they reviewed current close air support missions and future needs.
Carlisle said the meetings were part of the Air Force's regular reviews of key missions, not a response to the ongoing fight with Congress about retiring the A-10 fleet.
He said the meetings had helped identify some gaps in current training, and how the military services should prepare for future battles in more "contested environments" with adversaries armed with massive air defenses.
Carlisle said it was critical to think about future needs, regardless of what happened with Congress, because the A-10s would have to be retired eventually after years of hard service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further upgrades to keep the A-10 fleet flying longer did not make sense, given its age and use level.
He said officials agreed to better coordinate military exercises, look at more simulated training, work with the service research laboratories on new weapons, and also use contractor-owned planes to augment training.
Officials also agreed to set up a new joint integration group for close air support, likely at Nellis Air Force Base, that would include officials from the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and others, he said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Andrea Ricci)