BRRRRRT! The A-10 Thunderbolt II
BRRRRRT! The A-10 Thunderbolt II
She will never win a beauty contest, she is not loud, nor is she flashy. She is, however the best Close Air Support platform in the world and beloved by those she protects. So much thought went into her design that now, after 43 years of service, we can call it visionary. I have even heard the term, “Insane Engineering”. The A-10 Thunderbolt II, nicknamed the Warthog, or Hog, for short, has faced retirement twice but has won both times.
In the late 1960s, improvements on the World War II era, A-1 Skyraider were desired. For dedicated Close Air Support (CAS) the new aircraft needed more firepower (massive, actually), short takeoff performance, greater loiter time, slow speed maneuverability, survivability and low cost. Northrop and Fairchild Republic were the two contractors selected to build the YA-9 and YA-10, respectively. If you think the A-10 is ugly, look up the YA-9. Fairchild Republic won the flyoff and rolled the first production aircraft out of Hagerstown, Maryland in 1976. By the end of the run in 1984, 715 Hogs had been built. It remains the only United States Air Force aircraft dedicated solely to CAS. It also has a secondary capability to provide Forward Air Control and is designated the OA-10.
At the same time, a Request for Proposals was made for a massive 30 Millimeter rotary cannon firing 4,000 rounds per minute. General Electric won that bid and designed the GAU-8/A Avenger Rotary Cannon. The weapon and the ammunition drum are so large that the aircraft was essentially built around the gun, which is mounted on the centerline of the aircraft. If it is removed from the aircraft, a tail stand is needed due to the loss of weight. Designed to destroy tanks, the ammunition shells are built with depleted Uranium in the penetrator. Uranium is very dense, twice that of iron and actually self sharpens after contact making it ideal for piercing armor but bad for the environment. The spent shell casings, up to 1,174, are returned to the drum to maintain ballast. The sound of the cannon bursts has become a buzz word, “BRRRT”, and airshow attendees always take pictures in front of it. They may not know what this plane is, but they like that big gun in the nose. Here’s a fun fact: firing the cannon offsets 50% of the forward kinetic energy of the plane in flight. Bursts are kept short but they are effective as the Avenger spits out approximately 112 rounds per two second “Combat Burst”.
Visionary Design Features
The A-10A was designed to operate from forward areas if the Cold War in Europe got hot. Off-the-shelf parts were used to make spare parts easily obtainable and inexpensive. The A-10 was going to fly low and slow so it was built tough. It can keep flying with one engine, half a tail and half of one wing missing. It can also withstand projectiles up to 23mm.
Because the GAU-8 is placed on the centerline of the A-10, the nose gear is displaced to the right. Pilots say they only notice in turns by the different radii. The main gears are interchangeable from right to left and they do not retract entirely into the airframe. This permits a gear up landing to be less devastating to the aircraft. All three gears also retract forward to benefit from ram air should the gear require manual deployment.
The cockpit is mounted high on the fuselage and close to the nose giving the pilot a good view of the battlespace. The pilot and important aircraft systems are surrounded with titanium armor for protection from ground fire. This is known as the “Titanium Bathtub”. The canopy is also reinforced for small arms fire.
The wings are straight, offering stability, great slow speed maneuverability and short takeoff and landing capability. The wings also have 8 hardpoints for a total of 11 across the span to support 16,000 pounds of ordnance. The wing leading edges are not load bearing and can be repaired quickly with a variety of materials. The outer wings have large top and bottom ailerons which also function as decelerons. Sixteen chaff dispensers are also located in the wings and landing gear pods, more than any other aircraft.
The engines are high bypass TF-34 turbofans made by General Electric derived from those used on the Bombardier Challenger 600 business jet. They are not designed for speed but are very efficient. Cruising speed is approximately 300 knots with a range of over 2500 miles or hours of loiter time. They are mounted high on the fuselage protecting them from ground debris at unimproved airfields and are powerful enough to lift the Hog off a short field with a full ordnance load. They can also remain running while being serviced safely by a ground crew.
The twin tails offer redundancy, stability and some protection for the engines. They also mask the exhaust for some protection against infrared homing radar seekers. They are also interchangeable on the right and the left.
The A-10 has redundant hydraulic systems. If one is damaged, the other one takes over. If both are damaged, the pilot can fly the aircraft with manual controls back to base or to safety.
All four fuel tanks are in the center of the fuselage. They are protected by polyurethane foam, are self sealing, and redundant with components inside each tank. The fuel flow can be stopped between tanks if any part of the system is compromised. In the event of a total failure, two sump tanks can fuel the engines for another 230 miles.
Finally, the A-10 has an onboard Auxiliary Power Unit negating the need for a ground power cart. This is one more way the Hog was designed with remote operation in mind.
As mentioned, the A-10 was designed for the Cold War in Europe. The first active squadron was with the 354th Fighter Wing at Myrtle Beach, SC. All Hogs were painted in European Green until the early 1990s. Fortunately, they were never used actively but remained a deterrent.
All new aircraft have problems and the A-10A’s Achilles Heel was the wings. Fatigue cracking started to show early in the service life. Repairs were made on the production line but not to the whole fleet. Some airframes were retired early rather than being repaired. Inspections were frequent and wing cracks addressed when needed. Eventually a program would replace the wings on a majority of the remaining A-10s.
The Gulf War
Just prior to the Gulf War, the Air Force was discussing the retirement of the A-10 as the F-16 could perform the same mission, sort of, and could carry an equal amount of wing ordnance. The A-10 made her combat debut in 1991 destroying over 900 tanks, 1,200 artillery pieces, 2,000 other vehicles, and 2 helicopters on 8,100 missions with a mission capable rate greater than 95 percent. Four A-10s were lost to Surface to Air Missiles and 2 written off due to damage. Still others came back with heavy damage that would have downed other planes to fly again. The Air Force shelved plans to retire the Hog.
In the mid 1990s, A-10s were deployed to Bosnia for CAS missions, search and destroy, and search and rescue escort. These details lasted until 1999. One strafing mission convinced a group of Serbs to return stolen heavy armor to a warehouse rather than being a 30mm target. The Hog fleet, by this time is now painted in overall gray “Compass Ghost”.
Iraqi Freedom to Syria
The role was smaller this time as A-10s participated in less CAS missions than the top numbers of the F-16. A handful of missions were to drop informational leaflets. It is worth noting that the upgraded A-10C made her debut in 2007 with the 104th Fighter Squadron, a unit local to me out of Baltimore. More on the A-10C later.
In 2011, A-10s participated in attacks on Libyan ground forces. In 2015, after an ISIL attack in Paris, A-10s and AC-130s destroyed a convoy of oil tanker trucks in Syria to cut off a source of funding for the group. A-10s have deployed to Eastern Europe to deter Russian intervention in the Ukraine in 2016 and to Afghanistan as late as 2018. Recently, units from Kansas City and Idaho stopped in Maryland before deploying somewhere overseas.
The A-10 has been updated continuously throughout her lifespan. One of the earliest was Pave Penny in 1978. It is a laser receiver pod below the cockpit on the right side to detect laser designators from the ground and has only recently been replaced. Also in 1978, tests of the Avenger cannon found that exhaust gases were choking out the engines. An air scoop was added and an automatic dispensing of windshield fluid cleaned up the gas buildup on the windscreen.
The Low-Altitude Safety and Targeting Enhancement (LASTE) provided an autopilot, a ground collision warning system and computerized weapon aiming. The biggest upgrade occurred in 2005 when newly constructed wings (242 planes) accompanied the Precision Engagement modification to create the A-10C. Cockpit displays were updated, an improved fire control system, electronic countermeasures, Link-16 and satellite communications, hands on throttle and stick, lightning and sniper pod integration, and the ability to deliver smart and GPS guided weapons. Surprisingly, this upgrade made the A-10C an all weather aircraft as it never was truly all weather but could fly at 100 feet. The upgrades were completed across the fleet by 2011. In 2010, A-10 pilots received the Helmet Mounted Integrated Targeting system making the Hog even deadlier with a look and target weapons system.
In 2015 the Air Force again discussed retiring the A-10 in favor of the F-35 and saving $3.7 Billion. Members of Congress fought it and the Army, who loves it, joined the fight. The Air Force ultimately said they did not have the numbers they expected in F-35s so the A-10 will stay. For how long, no one knows but for now, the word is “indefinitely”.
At risk is retiring a uniquely qualified CAS platform with no follow on aircraft. These fast, electric jets are great from a standoff distance but no aircraft is better at protecting the troops on the ground in close contact. 282 Hogs remain in service with the U.S. Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units. The bond and morale between the soldiers and the A-10 and her Hog pilots are strong. Only one aircraft can go low and get dirty, taking fire and unleashing it in return. The Hog is an airborne tank in the sky and an extension of the infantry. When we look at the conflicts of the last two decades, can we really afford to not have the A-10?