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A-10 Warthog: The Air Force’s Motivations for Retiring the ‘Flying Tank’

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Despite its history and impressive performance, the A-10 has been targeted for retirement by the Air Force for several years as part of their divestment plans.

For many years, the Air Force, Congress, and ground-war experts have been grappling with the best approach to handling the future of the A-10.

Renowned as a “flying tank” due to its titanium hull and formidable 30mm cannon, the iconic A-10 Warthog has earned the admiration of ground forces for its capability to deliver highly-lethal close air support, adapt to rapidly evolving combat scenarios, and safeguard soldiers’ lives in the face of enemy fire.

A-10 Has Distinct Advantages

The A-10 exhibits exceptional capabilities by operating at lower speeds, flying beneath the clouds at just 300 knots and at very low altitudes as low as 100 feet. This unique attribute allows pilots to visually identify enemy targets and engage them in close proximity to friendly forces using a variety of weapons including bombs, rockets, and the powerful 30-millimeter cannon.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the A-10 is its remarkable resilience, enabling it to continue flying even after sustaining damage from enemy attacks. The aircraft is equipped with redundant electronics and controls, along with a rugged engine, which contribute to its ability to remain airborne in the face of enemy fire. The placement of the engines high on the aircraft allows for landings in challenging and hostile environments.

There are numerous well-known accounts of A-10 aircraft coming to the aid of ground units, enduring intense enemy fire, and successfully returning to base. In some instances, the A-10 has demonstrated its extraordinary durability by safely landing despite significant damage, including instances where a wing has been lost.

That Big Gun

Unlike other aircraft that prioritize speed, maneuverability, and air-to-air combat, the A-10 is purposefully designed around its formidable weapon: the 30-millimeter GAU-8/A cannon. Positioned directly beneath the fuselage, this cannon is armed with an impressive ammunition capacity of 1,150 rounds and can unleash a devastating rate of fire, capable of shooting seventy rounds per second.

The strategic placement of the 30mm cannon allows for a direct and effective “straight-on” attack capability. In addition to the powerful cannon, the A-10 is equipped with a diverse array of weapons, including GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). Its extensive arsenal encompasses GBU 38s, GBU 31s, GBU 54s, Mk 82s, Mk 84s, AGM-65s, AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, rockets, as well as illumination flares, jammer pods, and other countermeasures to enhance protection.

Remarkably, the A-10 has the capacity to carry an impressive payload of 16,000 pounds of mixed ordnance. With the capability to accommodate eight under-wing attachments and three under the fuselage, the aircraft offers a versatile and powerful combination of weaponry to support its close air support missions.

An Uncertain Future

Despite its storied history and impressive performance, the A-10 has faced the prospect of being retired by the Air Force for several years. However, this decision has sparked pushback from ground forces, some Air Force developers, and members of Congress, who argue that there is simply no comparable replacement for the A-10 in its role.

Advocates for the A-10, particularly land forces or “ground-pounders,” strongly advocate for its continued service. This has led to ongoing debates and discussions on the matter. While some Air Force developers contend that fixed-wing aircraft, including the F-35, can assume the Close Air Support (CAS) mission, there have been assessments and competitions between the F-35 and A-10 to determine the most suitable aircraft for this role.

Factors such as the F-35’s ability to withstand ground fire, particularly small arms, have been considered. Supporters of the F-35 argue that its stealth and speed would enable it to rapidly respond to ground troops’ support needs. Additionally, the F-35’s advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, combined with its long-range sensors, would allow it to track, target, and neutralize enemy ground forces.

While the extent of the F-35’s ability to loiter or hover at lower altitudes may be uncertain, it is acknowledged that the A-10’s non-stealthy nature could make it vulnerable to enemy air defenses. However, in scenarios where enemy fighters lack advanced air defenses, the A-10’s maneuverability in the face of small-arms fire could prove valuable. In CAS operations, the F-35 could engage enemy ground forces using precision air-to-ground weapons and its 25mm cannon from safer stand-off distances. The level of CAS support that fixed-wing aircraft can provide depends on the presence of air supremacy.

The ongoing discussion surrounding the retirement of the A-10 hinges on weighing the unique capabilities and advantages of the A-10, including its ability to withstand damage and effectively provide close air support, against the potential strengths and advantages offered by the F-35 in the evolving operational landscape.

A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II flies over Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, Feb. 17, 2022. The A-10 Demonstration Team’s jet has a heritage paint job to pay tribute to the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing’s contributions in the Vietnam War, including special dedication to personnel who were killed in action or became prisoners of war. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jacob T. Stephens)
An A-10 Thunderbolt II takes off to provide close-air support to ground troops in Iraq April 25 from Al Asad Air Base, Iraq. The 438th Air Expeditionary Group A-10s perform 10 sorties daily, with 900 sorties in this last four months. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Cecilio M. Ricardo Jr.)

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, F-15s based on the ground would rapidly respond when the source of incoming enemy mortar fire was identified at U.S. forward-operating bases. These jets would quickly scramble in an attempt to locate and engage the launch point of the insurgent mortar fire. Additionally, while the F-22 is primarily known for its air supremacy capabilities, it has also carried out successful Close Air Support (CAS) missions against ISIS during its combat deployment in Iraq in 2014.

The A-10 employs advanced targeting systems such as the “Lightning” and “Sniper” pods, equipped with infrared and electro-optical sensors, to locate targets for the pilot. Pilots flying attack missions in the A-10 communicate with other aircraft and ground forces using radios and the LINK 16 data link, enabling them to exchange text messages and share information across platforms.

The cockpit of the A-10 is designed with the Common Avionics Architecture System (CASS), which features dynamic digital map displays and various screens presenting critical data such as altitude, elevation, surrounding terrain, and target information.

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