One of the most iconic airplanes in the U.S. Air Force’s flying inventory is the A-10 Thunderbolt, also affectionately known as the “Warthog.” Designed to mow down rows of invading Soviet tanks during an anticipated World War III, the A-10 has served in most of America’s post–Cold War conflicts, from the Balkans to Afghanistan. A new Pentagon contract to manufacture new wingsets promises to keep a minimum of 280 aircraft flying into the foreseeable future, even as questions persist whether the A-10 can survive over modern battlefields.
In 1967, the U.S. Air Force initiated the A-X program, designed to field a new generation close air support (CAS) aircraft. This was the first for the air force, which had traditionally used fighters and light bombers (including the A-10’s namesake, the P-47 Thunderbolt) in the CAS role. Although the Air Force’s current stable of fighters, including the famous “100 series” planes favored speed above all else, A-X traded speed for survivability, maneuverability at low speeds, loiter time and, most importantly, lethality. After a flyoff against the Northrop A-9, the Fairchild A-10 was picked and the first jets delivered in 1974.
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The A-10 Thunderbolt is unlike any “fighter” before or since, with survivability features designed to keep it flying during an attack run and make it back to base. The plane featured redundant engineering features designed to keep the plane flying though parts of it were shot away. The two General Electric TF-34 non-afterburning turbofans were moved behind the wing, in order to reduce the plane’s infrared signature and protect it from Soviet air defenses such as the SA-7 Grail shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile system. The A-10 pilot sits in a titanium “bathtub” protecting him or her from antiaircraft guns up to twenty-three millimeters—the primary armament of the ZSU-23-4 mobile air defense system. The flight-control systems and engines are also encased in titanium plate.
The A-10 is also designed to be flexible and maneuverable, both in the air and on the ground. The aircraft design stresses maneuverability at slow speeds, allowing the pilot to fly extremely low “nape of the earth” missions to mask its approach to the enemy and to avoid enemy antiaircraft fire. The A-10 is also designed to operate from short, unimproved airstrips in the event regular air base airstrips are put out of action.
The Thunderbolt II’s best attribute is its armament. The aircraft has eleven external hardpoints for carrying electronic countermeasures, fuel tanks, bombs and missiles. The A-10 can carry up to twenty-four five-hundred- pound bombs, four two-thousand-pound bombs or six AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles. This enables the A-10 to carry out a number of frontline missions, from close air support to suppression of enemy air defense, and strike key enemy targets such as fuel storage depots, radar installations and field headquarters.
The weapon that sets the A-10 apart from the rest of the aircraft world is the nose-mounted GAU-8/A cannon. The large, seven-barreled Gatling gun can fire armor piercing rounds at up to 4,200 rounds per minute, saturating a target area with lethal cannon fire. The GAU-8/A is mounted two degrees nose down and to the left, so that the firing barrel is always on the centerline.
The GAU-8/A was an effective weapon for strafing Soviet armor units advancing in a single file formation, particularly with specially developed tank-killing depleted-uranium ammunition. Even armor-piercing ammunition without depleted uranium could penetrate ZSU-23-4 mobile air-defense systems, BTR-70 wheeled armored personnel carriers and and BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles that made up advancing Soviet motor-rifle regiments, all of which could be opened by the GAU-8/A like cans of sardines.
In wartime the A-10 was meant to operate alongside U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters in a so-called Joint Air Attack Team (JAAT) to kill advancing Soviet armor. JAAT doctrine called for Apaches to suppress enemy air defenses, identifying and killing threats to the A-10. A-10s would then swoop down at a thirty-degree angle, hosing down Soviet forces with their Gatling guns. In hindsight, this would not often have worked, as Soviet forces would have advanced too quickly for the interservice teamwork to stop the enemy in time.
The A-10’s first war was the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Warthogs were used to kill Iraqi armor units. 132 A-10s flew 7,983 combat missions during the course of the war, killing 987 tanks, 926 artillery pieces, 1,355 armored vehicles, ten aircraft on the ground and even two flying helicopters shot down with the GAU-8A.
After the Gulf War the Air Force planned to do away with the A-10, replacing it with the F-16, but the A-10’s success over the battlefield won it a constituency in Congress. In 1999, A-10s flew over Kosovo in NATO’s Operation Allied Force, and after 9/11 A-10s flew over both Iraq and Afghanistan. A-10s flying from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey have flown missions against ISIS since at least 2014, and in January 2018, A-10s returned to the skies over Afghanistan after a hiatus of several years.
The Air Force has tried to retire the A-10 for more than a quarter century. The service has consistently argued that the A-10 cannot survive on the modern battlefield and that A-10 funds are better invested in newer planes such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon—and, now, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Under pressure from the A-10’s fans in Congress and the military, the U.S. Air Force is keeping the planes, for now anyway, seeking to manufacture new wings for more than a hundred A-10s. This will ensure that at least 280 aircraft will have the structural improvements necessary to keep a viable force of A-10s in the Air Force’s inventory.
Is the A-10 viable over today’s battlefields? Against low-tech enemies with poor air-defense weapons such as ISIS or the Taliban, the A-10 is still a capable platform. Against other, more modern threats such as Russian or Chinese air defenses the A-10 cannot survive on its own. One solution could be to pair the A-10 with air-defense suppression drones. Once drones have neutralized the air-defense threat, A-10s could conduct standoff attacks, loitering at a safe distance while identifying enemy targets and eliminating them with weapons such as newer versions of the Maverick missile or the Small Diameter Bomb. Strafing runs with the GAU-8/A would be less common, but the guns would still see some use against undefended, massed targets.
The A-10 is one of the most successful weapons of the post–Cold War era, and has won legions of fans both in and outside the armed services. The temptation is to keep the aircraft flying as long as possible. The trick is to keep the plane around only as long as it is relevant to the modern battlefield. If the A-10 can fight and win for the next generation, so be it. If not, it needs to be retired and a better plane—or solution—takes its place. There is no room for sentiment in the battlefield’s lethal skies.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
Image: Wikimedia Commons