By Kris Osborn
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 30mm 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 AFB, told Scout Warrior in an interview last year.
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 combat 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 30mm 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 air platforms built for speed, maneuverability, air-to-air dogfighting and air-to-air weapons, the A-10 is specifically engineered around its gun, a 30mm cannon aligned directly beneath the fuselage. The gun is also called a GAU-8/A Gatling gun.
“The 30mm cannon has 7 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 30mm cannon is able to fire 70-rounds a second.
Haden explained the gun alignment as being straight along the fuselage line without an upward “can't” like many other aircraft have. Also, the windows in the A-10 are also wider to allow 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, Haden said. 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 the returned 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, the A-10 can fly beneath the weather at altitudes of 100 feet. This gives pilots and ability to see enemy targets with the naked eye, giving them the ability to drop bombs, fire rockets and open fire with the 30mm cannon in close proximity to friendly forces.
“We shoot really close to people. We do it 50-meters away from people. 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,” Haden explained.
The aircraft’s bombs, rockets and cannon attack enemies up close or from miles sway, depending on the target and slant range of the aircraft, Haden added.
“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 able 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 to include Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM GPS-guided bombs; its arsenal includes GBU 38s, GBU 31s, GBU 54s, Mk 82s, Mk 84s, AGM-65s (Maverick missiles), 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-fuselage pylon station, Air Force statements said.
A-10 Avionics Technology
Pilots flying attack missions in the aircraft communicate with other aircraft and ground forces using radios and a data-link known at LINK 16. Pilots can also text message 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.
A-10 pilots also wear a high-tech helmet which enables them to look at targeting video on a helmet display.
“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 wound up in a fast-moving, dynamic combat circumstance wherein U.S. military were attacking Taliban fighters in the Afghan mountains.
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During the mission in March of 2002, 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. 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,” he said.
The Future of the A-10
The Air Force 2018 budget plans to fund all 283 A-10 attack planes, fully confirming earlier service statements that the Warthog would live well into the future, a report in Business Insider said.
Air Force is beginning to work on how fast, lethal, durable and capable a new “A-10”-like aircraft would need to be in order to provide U.S. military ground troops with effective close-air support for decades to come.
Senior service officials are now exploring “draft requirements” concepts – and evaluating the kind of avionics, engineering, weapons, armor and technical redundancy the aircraft would need, Air Force officials told Scout Warrior.
Many of the core technical attributes and combat advantages of the A-10 will be preserved and expanded upon with the new effort, officials said.
The performance of the A-10 Warthog in the ongoing bombing campaign against ISIS, coupled with the Air Forces’ subsequent decision to delay the aircraft’s planned retirement – has led the service to begin the process of developing a new, longer-term A-10 type platform.
Following an announcement from Pentagon leaders that the A-10 will not begin retiring but rather will serve until at least 2022, Air Force and DoD officials are now hoping to keep a close-air-support aircraft for many years beyond the previously projected timeframe.
Given the emerging global threat environment, it would make sense that the Air Force would seek to preserve an aircraft such as the A-10. While the aircraft has been extremely successful attacking ISIS targets such as fuel convoys and other assets, the A-10 is also the kind of plane that can carry and deliver a wide-ranging arsenal of bombs to include larger laser-guided and precision weapons.
This kind of firepower, coupled with its 30mm cannon, titantium armor plates and built-in redundancy for close-air-support, makes the A-10 a valuable platform for potential larger-scale mechanized, force-on-force type warfare as well. The A-10 has a unique and valuable niche role to perform in the widest possible range of combat scenarios to include counterinsurgency, supporting troops on the ground in close proximity and bringing firepower, protection and infantry support to a large-scale war.
Air Force officials have told Scout Warrior that the current approach involves a three-pronged effort; the Air Force may consider simply upgrading the existing fleet of A-10s in a substantial way in order to extend its service life, acquire an off-the-shelf existing aircraft or develop a new close air support platform through a developmental effort.
“We are developing that draft requirements document. We are staffing it around the Air Force now. When it's ready, then we will compare that to what we have available, compare it to keeping the A-10, compare it to what it would take to replace it with another airplane, and we will work through that process,” Lt. Gen. James Holmes, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, told reporters last year.
Holmes went on to explain that the service was, broadly speaking, exploring ways to achieve, preserve and sustain “air superiority” in potential long-term, high-end combat engagements. He added that considerations about a close-air-support replacement aircraft figured prominently in the strategic calculus surrounding these issues.
As a result, the Air Force will be looking for the “optimal” type of close-air-support platform by weighing various considerations such as what the differences might be between existing aircraft and future developmental platforms.
Cost and affordability will also be a very large part of the equation when it comes to making determinations about an A-10 replacement, Holmes explained.
“The question is exactly where is the sweet spot as we talked about between what's available now and what the optimum CAS replacement would be. We are working along that continuum to see exactly what the requirement is that we can afford and the numbers that we need to be able to do the mission,” Holmes added.
Several industry platforms, such as Raytheon’s T-X plane and the A-29 Embraer EMB Super Tucano aircraft, are among options being looked at as things which could potentially be configured for a close-air-support plane.
Having the requisite funds to support this would be of great value to the Air Force; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers that, despite the prior plan, the service did not want to retire the A-10.
Prior plans to retire the fleet of A-10s were purely budget driven, senior Air Force leaders have consistently said.
“I don’t want to retire it,” Welsh told a Congressional Committee in early March of last year. Now, the Air Force is keeping it.
Air Force leaders had previously said that the emerging multi-role F-35 would be able to pick up the close-air-support mission. With its sensor technology, 25mm gun and maneuverability, there is little question about whether the F-35 could succeed with these kinds of missions. At the same time, there is also consensus that the A-10 provides an extremely unique set of battlefield attributes which need to be preserved for decades.
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 said they planned to begin retiring its fleet of A-10s as soon as this year. Some Air Force personnel maintained that other air assets 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-10s exemplary performance in the ongoing air attacks against ISIS – has lead the Air Force to extend the planned service life of the aircraft well into the 2020s. Despite the claim that other air assets could pick up the close air support mission, advocates for the A-10 consistently state that the platform has an unmatched ability to protect ground troops and perform the close air support mission.
Now, 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 close-air-support airplane.
Sending the close-air-support aircraft to the bone yard would save an estimated $4.2 billion over five years alone, Air Force officials previously said.
The overall costs of the program including life cycle management, sustainment and upkeep had made the A-10 budget targets for the service, however many lawmakers pushed back on the plans.
There have been many advocates for the A-10 among lawmakers who have publicly questioned the prior Air Force strategy to retire the aircraft. Last year, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. and Sen. John McCain have been among some of the most vocal supporters of the A-10.
On several previous occasions, Ayotte has challenged the Air Force decision to retire the plane.
“The A-10 has saved many American lives, and Senator Ayotte is concerned that the Air Force might prematurely eliminate the A-10 before there is a replacement aircraft—creating a dangerous close air support capability gap that could put our troops at risk,” an Ayotte official said last year. McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed the news that the A-10 might remain longer than the Air Force had planned.
“I welcome reports that the Air Force has decided to keep the A-10 aircraft flying through fiscal year 2017, ensuring our troops have the vital close-air support they need for missions around the world. Today, the A-10 fleet is playing an indispensable role in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and assisting NATO’s efforts to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe,” McCain said in a statement last year.
Also, the A-10 has been performing extremely well in ongoing attacks against ISIS, creating an operational demand for the durable aircraft and therefore reportedly informing this Air Force decision.
“With growing global chaos and turmoil on the rise, we simply cannot afford to prematurely retire the best close air support weapon in our arsenal without fielding a proper replacement. When the Obama Administration submits its 2017 budget request in the coming weeks, I hope it will follow through on its plan to keep the A-10 flying so that it can continue to protect American troops, many still serving in harm’s way,” McCain added.\
Although the continued existence of the A-10 is assured well into the next decade, the debate about what, if anything, might be able to replace it is quite likely to continue.