If you are operating an enemy tank, the deep, buzzing belch of cannon fire from an A-10 Thunderbolt II may be the last thing you ever hear.
The A-10, better known as the Warthog, has a rotary cannon called the GAU-8 Avenger that can sustain 600 revolutions and fire 4,200 rounds per minute. The gun can make short work of armored vehicles.
Let’s take a look at the awesome power of this gun.
Looking for the Perfect Weapon
In the early 1970s, the U.S. Air Force analyzed various wars between Israel and Arab countries that featured tank-on-tank warfare. The service branch came away from that research looking for an airplane and a gun that could buzz enemy tanks and plink them into oblivion. They reckoned such a platform could help defeat the Soviet army’s thousands of tanks.
General Electric won the bid for a 30mm ultra-fast cannon. The gun would fire armor-piercing and high-explosive rounds that were a match for any tank, armored vehicle, and artillery piece. Enemy bunkers were also on the list of installations the gun could destroy. Each bullet had the length of a pint bottle.
Working Through the Avenger’s Issues
By 1974, the GAU-8 Avenger was ready for testing. The seven-barrel, gatling-style gun fired from as high as 25,000 feet and as low as 100 feet. It underwent 60 test flights and shot 39,000 rounds in various maneuvers and stunts at up to 5-Gs. Hydraulic motors spun the rifled barrels.
However, the gun had some issues. Flashes from the firing kept the pilot from seeing where he was flying. The gas dirtied the windshield, too. Gas could also reach the airplane’s engines, causing the power plants to suffocate. Engineers spent 10 years addressing and fixing those problems.
The huge gun weighs 620 pounds, but once you add the feed system and drum, it weighs 4,029 pounds. The Avenger has a full load of 1,150 rounds of ammunition in the drum. The entire apparatus is nearly 21 feet long, and its range is 4,101 feet.
Desert Storm Dandy
It was during Operation Desert Storm that the A-10 and its gun shone brighest. The gun fired 783,514 rounds during 8,077 combat sorties. It eliminated 900 Iraqi tanks, at least 2,000 other armored vehicles, and around 1,200 artillery pieces.
A-10 pilot John Marks was interviewed by Smithsonian Magazine about shooting the Avenger during the First Gulf War. “The thing shook the airplane when you pulled the trigger. You could smell the spent casings even with the oxygen mask on. The sound is muffled with all the gear we wear, but you still hear it. The high rate of fire and typical range mean the rounds hit just before or about the time you release the trigger,” Marks recalled.
The GAU-8 is mounted laterally off-center because the recoil could move it off target during a strafing run. But the barrel is “underneath the airplane’s center of gravity,” according to Matt Snape of Hotcars.com. “This centers the recoil forces, preventing changes in aircraft pitch or yaw when fired,” Snape wrote.
Despite the power of the gun and the A-10’s combat-proven effectiveness, the Air Force tried to retire the airplane in 2015, 2016, and 2017 budget cycles, and it wanted to trim the numbers in 2021 and 2022. But Congress said no, because they believed the A-10 was the best platform for close-air support. Lawmakers did agree to retire 21 Air National Guard A-10s for FY23.
The Air Force and the Congressional Research Service will be investigating lessons learned from the war in Ukraine. Russia has lost hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers to anti-tank guided missiles, artillery, and drones. Could the Air Force do away with the A-10 and focus instead on these systems and tactics during an armored fight? Or is it better to depend on that amazing gun to eliminate even more enemy tanks and infantry fighting vehicles? These are difficult questions to answer, but one thing we know for sure is that the Avenger gun is a force on the battlefield. It puts fear into the enemy.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.