A-10 Warthog, RIP? On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee announced a version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that endorses the Air Force’s plan to start retiring its older A-10 Warthog attack planes. Namely, the new budget will allow the Air Force to replace 21 A-10s, currently stationed with the Indiana Air National Guard, with F-16 Fighting Falcons.
The NDAA still needs to make it through Congress, but should the bill be signed into law, it would represent a step forward in resolving the A-10 impasse that has plagued the Air Force-Congress relationship for years.
How the A-10 Could Finally Retire
For years, the Air Force has requested to retire the A-10. Congress has refused, staunchly keeping the tank-busting attack aircraft in service for fear that the A-10s close air support abilities were irreplaceable.
Even last year, for the 2022 NDAA, Congress rejected Air Force requests to retire 42 A-10s (while granting every single non-A-10 retirement request). The proposed 2023 NDAA suggests that Congress may now share the Air Force’s perspective: that the A-10 won’t survive the next war.
The A-10 made its first flight half a century ago, during the peak of the Cold War. The straight-winged, subsonic aircraft is basically a modified, updated version of the World War II era A-1 Skyraider. Although, the A-10 features a few substantial differences from the A-1 – like two turbo-fan engines – and a massive 30 millimeter autocannon.
Designed to destroy Russian tanks sweeping across the plains of Eastern Europe, the A-10 was built around a GAU-8/A Avenger autocannon, which happens to be one of the most powerful cannons ever strapped to an airplane. Firing large depleted uranium armor-piercing shells, the GAU-8 is well equipped to knock out enemy tanks. The cannon’s seven barrels are hydraulically driven, firing at a fixed rate of 3,900 rounds per minute. Meaning that, after the cannon reaches top-speed (which takes about half a second), it can fire about 70 rounds per second. The GAU-8 is accurate, too, capable of placing 80 percent of its rounds with a 40-foot diameter from 4,000 feet. The cannon is so vital to the A-10s mission, that the jet’s fuselage was designed around the cannon. Capable of holding up to 1,350 rounds of ammunition, the A-10 is revered for its close air support ability – which is exactly why Congress has prevented the Air Force from retiring the Warthog.
Nothing else in the US inventory has proven itself as adept at providing close air support as the A-10. Not the utilitarian F-16, nor the cutting-edge F-35, nor the insectile AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. The A-10 is unrivaled.
But the A-10 is slow and visible. Built with straight wings to be maneuverable at low speeds, built with heavy armor to protect the plane and pilot at low altitudes, the A-10 lumbers with a 439 mile per hour top speed and a 6,000 foot per minute rate of climb. And built before enemy detection methods were so sophisticated, the A-10 was built without stealth technology, leaving war planners concerned that the easily detectable, easily catchable Warthog will not survive our next conflict with a technologically advanced adversary (i.e. China or Russia).
With the average Warthog approaching 40 years old, Congress is just now seeming amenable to a force structure without the A-10. But we’ll see if the 2023 NDAA proposal makes it all the way through Congress.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.