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Why the A-10 Should Not Retire Anytime Soon

Wild Blue Yonder / Maxwell AFB, AL --

Background

With its iconic “brrrrrt” sound and painted-on teeth, it is easy to distinguish the A-10 Thunderbolt II (affectionately referred to as the Warthog)—the plane built around a gun. Despite the love from its fans and high accuracy for close air support (CAS), there is still continuous debate as to whether to retire the A-10.

For starters, the plane is quite old. Created in 1977, the A-10 has seen its share of upgrades. Just one year after being created, it was upgraded with the Pave Penny laser pod, which can “sense reflected laser radiation from a laser designator.”1 Other upgrades include Global Position System navigation systems, multifunction display, and precision engagement upgrades. Each of these keeps the A-10 up to date with current technology, so why are there plans to retire it?

It is because it is still considered outdated and is “the oldest and least-ready aircraft” to modernize.2 However, the benefits of keeping the A-10 around outweigh the negatives.

Training Requirements

The A-10 Warthog pilot-training requirements dominate CAS in rigor. As seen in the table below, A-10 pilots train about twice as often yearly compared to F-15 and F-35A pilots. As for advanced training, the A-10 pilots are training almost three times as often when compared to their fighter jet counterparts. A-10 pilots also quadruple the amount of training time for forward air control (Airborne) compared to F-16.3 This extensive amount of training is what makes the A-10 the first plane to think of when it comes to CAS.

Table 1. Close air support pilot training requirements and mission priority by aircraft type

Close air support pilot training requirements and mission priority by aircraft type
CAS
Close air support pilot training requirements and mission priority by aircraft type
Photo By: Dr. Ernest Rockwell
VIRIN: 200509-F-YT915-001

Design

The design of the A-10 does not compare to any other plane. This plane is designed to survive. The A-10 has two General Electric TF-34 non-afterburning turbofans that are located behind the wing, which reduces the plane’s infrared signature.4 Furthermore, the engineering is designed to let the A-10 sustain significant damage and still be able to return to base. The wings can be shot and have parts blown away with the plane remaining flyable. The cockpit is also secure, because the pilot sits in a titanium “bathtub” that protects the pilot from “anti-aircraft guns up to twenty-three millimeters,” and the flight control systems are also encased in titanium.5 Pictured below is Capt Kim Campbell’s A-10 after being damaged during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The hydraulics were shot out, and she decided to continue to fly using manual reversion instead of ejecting—proving the A-10’s durability.

apt Kim Campbell’s A-10 after being damaged during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The hydraulics were shot out, and she decided to continue to fly using manual reversion instead of ejecting—proving the A-10’s durability.
Combat damage
apt Kim Campbell’s A-10 after being damaged during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The hydraulics were shot out, and she decided to continue to fly using manual reversion instead of ejecting—proving the A-10’s durability.
Photo By: Dr. Ernest Rockwell
VIRIN: 200509-F-YT915-002

(US Air Force Photo)

Figure 1. Combat damage

GAU-8 Avenger Rotary Cannon

The A-10’s primary weapon is its GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon. Firing a mixture of 30-mm high explosive incendiary (HEI) and 30-mm armor-piercing incendiary (API) ammunition, this seven-barrel gatling gun is responsible for the famous “brrrrrt” sound and can easily pierce tanks. This mixture is called the combat mix ammunition, and the ratio of API to HEI rounds in this mixture is 4:1.6 Additionally, the GAU-8 Avenger on the A-10 is special because only the A-10 can fire at a high rate of 3,900 rounds per minute—delivering more ammunition to a source in less time. As seen in the specifications below, the accuracy is high, with 80 percent of rounds fired at 4,000 ft hitting within a 20-ft radius.

Table 2. GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon specifications

GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon specifications
GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon specifications
GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon specifications
Photo By: Dr. Ernest Rockwell
VIRIN: 200509-F-YT915-003

(Source: John Pike, “GAU-8 Avenger,” Federation of American Scientists, 16 January 2000, https://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ac/equip/gau-8.htm.)

Lower and Slower

What allows the A-10 to be accurate with its GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon is the plane’s ability to fly low and slow, which is essential to CAS. The A-10 can fly at speeds lower than 300 and below weather altitudes of 100 ft.7 Advantages of this include getting closer to targets, which increases accuracy; seeing enemy targets; and carefully taking out enemies near friendly forces.

Conclusion

There are alternatives to using the A-10, but the Warthog still prevails through its many planned retirements because of its training requirements, design, weaponry, and ability to fly low and slow. The opinion by and large is that the A-10 is outdated, but this plane constantly proves why it has been around this long. No other plane is built like the A-10 or can do everything the A-10 does, and the US Air Force does not have any plans to bring any other plane to that standard. That is why no other plane would be able to truly replace the A-10.

Cadet Sabine Gloeckner

Cadet Gloeckner just finished her AS200 year at West Virginia University’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 915. Her father was a TCAP, so she grew up wanting to fly an A-10. Her hobbies include painting murals, playing Minecraft, and Arnold Air Society.


Notes

1 Military Advantage, “A-10 Thunderbolt II,” Military.com, 2020, https://www.military.com/.

2 Oriana Pawlyk, “Bye-Bye to BRRRRT: Air Force Wants to Retire 44 A-10 Warthogs,” 10 February 2020, https://www.military.com/.

3 Alex Lockie, “Here’s Exactly What the A-10 Does, and Why the Air Force Would Be Crazy to Retire It,” 10 August 2016, https://www.businessinsider.com/.

4 Kyle Mizokami, “Why the A-10 Thunderbolt Might be America’s Best Weapon of War,” National Interest, 6 April 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/.

5 Ibid.

6 John Pike, “GAU-8 Avenger,” Federation of American Scientists, 16 January 2000, https://fas.org/.

7 Kris Osborn, “Why No Nation on Earth Wants to Fight the A-10 Warthog in a War,” National Interest, 9 November 2017, https://nationalinterest.org/.

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