The A-10 Thunderbolt II, otherwise known as the A-10 Warthog, is a genuinely legendary fighter aircraft. Initially introduced in the mid-1970s, the Warthog was a product of the A-X program initiated by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in 1967. At that time, the USAF was searching for a close air support (CAS) fighter capable of knocking out lines of Soviet tanks. The A-10 was ultimately chosen for this task, not for its speed, but for its survivability, maneuverability at slower speeds, ability to loiter, and, of course, lethality.
However, the Warthog’s first wartime mission came not, thankfully, against Soviet tanks but in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War. In that conflict, the Warthog’s famed 30 millimeter GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon was used to tear through Iraqi armor units. In total, 132 A-10s flew 7,983 combat missions, taking out 987 tanks, 926 artillery pieces, 1,355 armored vehicles, ten aircraft on the ground and two helicopters in flight.
Since the Persian Gulf, the A-10 has flown in just about every other post-Cold War U.S. conflict, including Kosovo in 1999 during NATO’s Operation Allied Force, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and against ISIS since at least 2014.
In each conflict to which it is deployed, the Warthog is lauded not just for its impressive cannon, but also its numerous fail safes and redundancies. Indeed, the A-10 is structurally designed to continue flying even after incurring massive damage. It is said the Warthog can fly with half its tail, half a wing, and even one engine and elevator. The plane’s cockpit lovingly referred to as a “titanium bathtub,” protects pilots from anti-aircraft guns up to 23 millimeters.
Importantly, the Warthog can load a lot more than just its cannon. In addition, it has 11 external hardpoints for carrying electronic countermeasure equipment, fuel tanks, bombs and missilies. It can carry up to 24 500-pound bombs, four 2,000-pound bombs, or six AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles, making it capable of carrying out multiple types of frontline missions.
Despite its successes, however, the USAF has been attempting to decommission the aircraft for decades, shifting the Warthog’s mission to F-16s and eventually F-35s. The Air Force’s argument has been that the Warthog is not fit for a conflict with great power rivals such as Russia or China.
To be sure, the A-10 could not survive against high-tech anti-aircraft-equipped countries (like China and Russia) alone. The Warthog thrives against low-tech enemies with poor air-defense, such as ISIS and the Taliban. Facing the aforementioned Chinese and Russian systems would require the A-10 to have additional support.
One potential solution that has been suggested would be to pair the fighter with air-defense suppression drones, opening the skies up for the A-10’s entry. Strafing runs employing the GAU-8 would be less common, but the A-10 could rely on the Maverick missile or the Small Diameter Bomb to take out enemy targets.
And despite the USAF’s desire to free up space in its budget for more F-35s, most outside of the Air Force believe that the F-35A is not an appropriate replacement for the A-10’s missions. Critics often point out that no other plane has the firepower, protection, and performance characteristics of the A-10. The F-35A lacks the massive GAU-8 cannon needed for CAS, the large amount of external hardpoints for carrying a variety of weaponry, and the tough armor and redundant features needed to remain flying after a hit.
Either way, the USAF may not ultimately have much of a say in the matter. Roughly 280 A-10s remain in service with USAF, Air Combat Command, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard, and Congress seems intent on keeping that number high. A rewinging effort is underway, yet it remains to be seen if the A-10 will remain on the battlefield through 2040 as optimists predict, or if the USAF will get its way, turning the A-10 out to pasture long before its usefulness will have expired.
Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review.