Key point: The A-10’s performance in the Middle East is creating an operational demand for the durable aircraft.
Known for an ability to keep flying after taking multiple rounds of enemy machine gun fire, land and operate in rugged terrain, destroy groups of enemy fighters with a 30-millimeter cannon and unleash a wide arsenal of attack weapons, the A-10 is described by pilots as a “flying tank” in the sky — able to hover over ground war and provide life-saving close air support in high-threat combat environments.
“It is built to withstand more damage than any other frame that I know of. It’s known for its ruggedness,” A-10 pilot Lt. Col. Ryan Haden, 23rd Fighter Group Deputy, Moody Air Force Base, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
The pilot of the A-10 is surrounded by multiple plates of titanium armor, designed to enable the aircraft to withstand small-arms fire and keep flying its attack missions.
“The A-10 is not agile, nimble, fast or quick,” Haden said. “It’s deliberate, measured, hefty, impactful, calculated and sound. There’s nothing flimsy or fragile about the way it is constructed or about the way that it flies.”
A-10 Thunderbolt II, affectionately known as the Warthog, has been in service since the late 1970s and served as a close air support aircraft in conflicts such as the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, among others.
Having flown combat missions in the A-10, Haden explained how the aircraft is specially designed to survive enemy ground attacks.
“There are things built-in for redundancy. If one hydraulic system fails, another one kicks in,” he said.
If the aircraft loses all of its electronics including its digital displays and targeting systems, the pilot of an A-10 can still fly, drop general-purpose bombs and shoot the 30-millimeter cannon, Haden explained.
“So when I lose all the computers and the calculations, the targeting pod and the heads up display, you can still point the aircraft using a degraded system at the target and shoot. We are actually trained for that,” he said.
Unlike other aircraft built for speed, maneuverability, air-to-air dogfighting and air-to-air weapons, the A-10 is specifically engineered around its gun, a 30-millimeter GAU-8/A cannon aligned directly beneath the fuselage.
“The 30-millimeter cannon has seven barrels. They are centered the way the aircraft fires. The firing barrel goes right down the center line. You can point the aircraft and shoot at the ground. It is designed for air-to-ground attack,” Haden explained.
Armed with 1,150 rounds, the 30-millimeter cannon is able to fire 70-rounds a second.
Haden explained the gun alignment as being straight along the fuselage line without an upward “cant” like many other aircraft have. The windows in the A-10 are wider, giving pilots a larger field of view with which to see and attack targets.
The engines of the A-10 are mounted high so that the aircraft can land in austere environments such as rugged, dirty or sandy terrain. The engines on the A-10 are General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofans.
“I’ve seen this airplane land on a desert strip with the main gear buried in a foot of sand. On most planes, this would have ripped the gear up, but the A-10 turned right around and took off,” he added.
There have been many instances where A-10 engines were shot up and the pilots did not know until returning from a mission, Haden said.
These aerodynamic configurations and engine technology allow the A-10 to fly slower and lower, in closer proximity to ground forces and enemy targets.
“The wings are straight and broadened. The engines are turbofan. They were selected and designed for their efficiency, not because of an enormous thrust. We have a very efficient engine that allows me to loiter with a much more efficient gas-burn rate,” Haden said.
Close air support
By virtue of being able to fly at slower speeds of 300 knots, the A-10 can fly beneath the clouds at altitudes of 100 feet. This gives pilots an ability to see enemy targets with the naked eye, and then drop bombs, fire rockets or shoot with the 30-millimeter cannon in close proximity to friendly forces.
“We shoot really close to people. We do it 50 meters away from people,” Haden explained. “I can sometimes see hands and people waving. If I get close enough and low enough I can see the difference between good guys and bad guys and shoot.”
“We deliver the munitions by actually going from a base position — then pointing the jet at the ground and then pulling the trigger once we reach the desired range,” he explained.
The A-10 uses both “Lightning” and “Sniper” pods engineered with infrared and electro-optical sensors to find targets for the pilot.
“The aircraft uses the same targeting pod as F-15E and F-16. However, most of the fighters can’t transition between the two targeting pods and we can, based on our software,” Haden said.
The A-10 carries a full complement of weapons, including GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions. Its arsenal includes GBU 38s, GBU 31s, GBU 54s, Mk 82s, Mk 84s, AGM-65s, AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and rockets along with illumination flares, jammer pods and other protective countermeasures.
The aircraft can carry 16,000 pounds of mixed ordnance — eight can fly under the wings and three under the fuselage.
A-10 avionics technology
Pilots flying attack missions in the Warthog communicate with other aircraft and ground forces using radios and a data-link known as LINK 16. Pilots can also text messages with other aircraft and across platforms, Haden added.
The cockpit is engineered with what is called the CASS cockpit, for Common Avionics Architecture System, which includes moving digital map displays and various screens showing pertinent information such as altitude, elevation, surrounding terrain and target data.
“I can project my targeting pod video into my eye so I can see the field of view. If something shoots at me I can target it simply by looking at it,” he explained.
During the early months of combat in Operation Enduring Freedom, in a battle known as “Operation Anaconda,” Haden’s A-10 flew to help American troops attacking Taliban fighters in the Afghan mountains.
During the March 2002 mission, Haden was able to see and destroy Taliban anti-aircraft artillery, guns and troop positions.
“We could see tracer fire going from one side of the valley to the other side of the valley,” he said. “We were unable to tell which was from good guys and which was from bad guys. Using close air support procedures in conjunction with our sensors on board, we deconstructed the tactical situation and then shot.”
The future of the A-10
Many lawmakers, observers, veterans, analysts, pilots and members of the military have been following the unfolding developments regarding the Air Force’s plans for the A-10. Citing budgetary reasons, Air Force leaders had planned to begin retiring its fleet of A-10s in 2016.
Some Air Force personnel maintained that other aircraft such as the F-16 and emerging F-35 multi-role stealth fighter would be able to fill the mission gap and perform close air support missions once the A-10 retired.
However, a chorus of concern from lawmakers — and the A-10’s exemplary performance in the ongoing air attacks against ISIS — led the Air Force to extend the planned service life of the aircraft into the 2020s.
The Air Force has a begun a three-pronged strategy to replace or sustain the A-10 which involves looking at ways to upgrade and preserve the existing aircraft, assessing what platforms might be available on the market today or designing a new plane.
The overall costs of the program including life cycle management, sustainment and upkeep had made the A-10 budget targets for the service. But in addition to pushback from lawmakers, the A-10’s performance in the Middle East is creating an operational demand for the durable aircraft.
The debate about what, if anything, might replace it is likely to continue.
This article by Kris Osborn originally appeared at War is Boring in 2017.