Its top speed is a paltry 439 mph, over 100 mph slower than the behemoth Boeing 747 jumbo jet, which weighs 710,040 pounds more. The wingspan stands at 57 feet, it has awkwardly large jet turbines atop its tail section, and its profile looks more like a balsa wood toy glider than a mechanism of warfare. All this, and it’s almost half a century old. Yet the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II is still one of the most feared and revered aircraft in the world. The “Warthog”, as it’s kindly known by those it supports, is known on the other side of the battlefield as the indomitable “Devil’s Cross”. In the history of military aircraft, it has one of the longest service records and a legendary reputation as the best close air support system in the world.
What It’s All About
In the ’60s, the US Air Force needed a better close air support weapon, one that could take ground fire from small arms and anti-aircraft weaponry and still perform its duties. The hell that was the Vietnam War proved that troops on the ground needed the protection of a capable aircraft, since jet fighters proved to be too fast to accurately survey the situation on the ground and slower helicopters didn’t have the firepower or protection to effectively eradicate their targets and survive. The new aircraft needed to be outfitted with heavy-hitting ordnance while possessing slower airspeed capability, extended mid-air loiter time, excellent maneuverability and superb protection for its pilot.
In response to this need, the Air Force started the A-X (Attack Experimental) program in 1966, in search of a dedicated close air support aircraft. The USAF asked defense contractor Pierre Sprey to come up with the specifications for the proposed aircraft. Implementing lessons learned in the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War in June of 1967 (where the Israel Defense Forces won a decisive victory over the Arab coalition thanks to a merciless air assault on armored tanks), the requirements for the new aircraft were very specific.
In the spec’s final form in 1970, the proposal stated that the aircraft had to be designed for use around a 30mm rotary cannon, a max airspeed of 460 mph, a minimum takeoff distance of 4,000 feet, a 16,000-pound payload, a 285-mile operating radius, and an insanely low cost of $1.4 million per unit. In parallel to this A-X plane proposal, there was one issued for the cannon, and it, too, was very specific, requiring a rate of fire of 4,000 rounds per minute. The Air Force had a clear objective to build the world’s first dedicated close air support aircraft.
A total of 21 companies received the RFP (Request for Proposal) and six companies submitted for the October 8, 1970 deadline: Boeing Vertol, Cessna, Fairchild Republic, General Dynamics, Lockheed and Northrop. The Air Force selected Northrop and Fairchild Republic to build prototypes for testing. For the 30mm rotary cannon, both General Electric and Philco-Ford were chosen for the preliminary building and testing of the GAU-8 Avenger.
The Northrop prototype was named YA-9, and the Fairchild version was given the YA-10 designation. After initial flight trials, the YA-10 was chosen by the Air Force for official production on January 18, 1973. Fairchild Republic’s A-10’s first official flight took place less than two years later in October of 1975, and the first planes were delivered to the Air Force in March of 1976.
A-10s were instrumental in the success of Operation Desert Storm. They flew 8,100 sorties and finished with a mission capable rate of 95.7 percent, nearly unheard of in combat. Due to their high rate of reliability and durability, A-10s were rarely grounded. Pound for pound, the A-10 was the violent workhorse of Desert Storm combat aircraft, with the highest ordnance capacity and the unique ability to fly missions, receive quick repairs and turn around to return to the battlefield in a short period of time. During Operation Desert Storm, A-10 Squadrons destroyed 987 tanks, 926 artillery units, 501 armored personnel carriers and 1,106 trucks.
The 30mm GAU-8/A Avenger Gatling-style cannon fires at an alarming 4,000 rounds per minute (without mechanical complications). And what’s more even impressive is the ammunition — aluminum-jacketed rounds wrapped around a depleted uranium core, which cut through tank armor like a hot knife through butter. The rounds have twice the range, twice the speed and three times the mass of other air-carried cannons.
Once the pilot pulls the trigger, the big cannon starts its seven-barrel spin and fires 50 rounds during the first second and 65-70 rounds each following second. It’s not just destructive, it’s also accurate — with an unbelievable 80 percent of the rounds hit within a 40 foot radius at a 4,000-foot range. All it takes is a 1-to-2-second burst to obliterate tanks, armored cars, bunkers and buildings.
The A-10’s huge wings and ailerons aren’t just ideal for ordnance payload, but also for short takeoffs and landings, giving it the ability to operate in varied conditions and smaller airfields, patches of land and even roadways. It can also be easily serviced, refueled and re-armed. Many parts are interchangeable from one side to the other, including the engines, main landing gear, and vertical stabilizers — making it easy to swap out parts from one plane to another.
The A-10 has also been known to take massive hits from armor-piercing ordnance and still fly; it has even gone so far as to lose half a wing, one of its two engines and one of its two tail fins and still make it home. The A-10 has what’s known as a double redundant hydraulic system and a backup mechanical system, in case of full hydraulic failure. The A-10 goes into manual reversion mode where pitch (front-to-rear angle) and yaw (side-to-side angle) controls engage automatically and roll is controlled by the pilot.
The pilot benefits from a 1,200-pound titanium-armored bathtub that can handle 23mm artillery fire and even larger rounds at some angles. Interior surfaces of the bathtub where the pilot is directly exposed (as opposed to covered by equipment and instrumentation) gets a multilayer spall shield that protects the pilot from shell fragments.
Its Place in History
The A-10 is clearly a flying weapon whose warfare expectations have been more than fulfilled. Thousands of Allied ground forces can attest that the Warthog has saved their lives by making decisive kills, and in many cases causing enemy forces to abandon their tanks and posts without a fight. Yet, higher ranks within the military want to mothball it, citing the need to reduce costs, and they have, in some ways, succeeded. By the end of the Gulf War, there were 18 squadrons of A-10s. Now there are a mere 8.
Military generals prefer to use the pricey F-35 Lightning and F/A-22 in air support roles and they claim that the A-10 is expensive to maintain and will soon be obsolete. But, the A-10s cost a fraction of the price of these fighters and they have been proven over decades of hardened combat. Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says that it is the “finest close air support system in the world” and should continue to fly.
In 2014, Northrop Grumman was awarded $24 million worth of work orders to keep the A-10 flying until the year 2028. Contracts were finalized in November of last year for the A-10 Thunderbolt Life Cycle Program Support. Companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman can compete for work orders for the A-10 in order to modernize them and keep them in good condition to protect our ground forces. However unlikely, this Warthog flies on.