Referred to as a “flying tank” with a titanium hull and a highly-lethal 30mm cannon, the famous A-10 Warthog has been revered for years by ground forces for its ability to provide highly-lethal; close air support; follow a dynamic, fast-changing combat environment; and save soldiers’ lives when facing enemy fire.
A-10 Has Distinct Advantages
The A-10 can fly at slower speeds at 300 knots beneath the clouds at very low altitudes as low as 100 feet. This gives pilots the ability to see enemy targets with the naked eye, and then drop bombs, fire rockets, or shoot with the 30-millimeter cannon in close proximity to friendly forces.
However, the most defining feature of the A-10 may be its built-in redundancy and ability to keep flying after being damaged by an enemy.
The aircraft has built-in redundant electronics and controls as well as a durable engine to help ensure continued flight after taking enemy fire. The A-10 engines are mounted high up onto the aircraft to ensure the aircraft can land in rugged, austere areas under enemy fire.
There are many famous stories of A-10 aircraft saving ground units, taking massive amounts of incoming enemy fire, and returning to base to land. In a few cases, the A-10 has returned to base after losing a wing and suffering extensive damage.
That Big Gun
Unlike other aircraft built for speed, maneuverability, air-to-air dogfighting, and using air-to-air weapons, the A-10 is specifically engineered around its gun, a 30-millimeter GAU-8/A cannon aligned directly beneath the fuselage. Armed with 1,150 rounds, the 30-millimeter cannon is able to fire seventy rounds a second.
The 30mm cannon is aligned straight beneath the pilot or parallel in a linear direction underneath to enable a “straight-on” gun attack
The A-10 carries a full complement of weapons, including GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM).
Its arsenal includes GBU 38s, GBU 31s, GBU 54s, Mk 82s, Mk 84s, AGM-65s, AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and rockets along with illumination flares, jammer pods, and other protective countermeasures.
The aircraft can carry 16,000 pounds of mixed ordnance—eight can be fitted under the wings and three under the fuselage.
An Uncertain Future
Despite its history and performance, the A-10 has been on the chopping block for years as something the Air Force has been planning to divest. Ground forces, some Air Force weapons developers, and members of Congress have been pushing back on this possibility, arguing that there simply is no equivalent to the A-10.
Land forces, or “ground-pounders” as they are often called, fervently argue for the continued life of the A-10. The subject has been one of considerable and ongoing debate. Many Air Force weapons developers have argued that indeed fix-wing jets, and especially the F-35, can pick up the CAS or Close Air Support mission.
At one point in recent years, the Pentagon actually performed a “fly-off” assessment or competition between the F-35 and A-10 to make the optimal determination regarding which plane would be better suited for the CAS mission.
There are a number of interesting variables related to this, such as potential uncertainty about the extent to which an F-35 could absorb small arms ground fire. However, proponents of the F-35 for CAS make the point that the 5th-generation fighter’s stealth and speed would enable it to quickly maneuver in support of ground troops.
Perhaps of even greater significance, the F-35 could use its drone-like Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) ability and leverage its long-range high-fidelity sensors to track, target, and destroy enemy ground forces.
It may not be clear how much an F-35 could “loiter” or hover at lower altitudes, however, a non-stealthy aircraft such as the highly detectable A-10 might quickly be seen and destroyed by enemy air defenses. However, there may be many circumstances in which enemy fighters are not supported by advanced air defenses, in which case an A-10 might be well positioned to maneuver in support of ground troops while facing small-arms fire.
A Close-Air Support tactical circumstance would enable F-35 aircraft to fire precision air-to-ground weapons as well as its side-mounted 25mm cannon to destroy enemy ground forces from safer stand-off distances. It is certainly possible for fixed-wing aircraft to perform varying degrees of Close-Air-Support depending upon the extent to which there is air supremacy.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, ground-based F-15s would take off instantly when the source of incoming enemy mortar fire was determined at U.S. forward-operating bases. The jets would scramble with the hope of finding and attacking the launch point of incoming insurgent mortar fire. Also, while primarily thought of as an air supremacy fighter, the F-22 has also performed successful CAS missions during its combat debut against ISIS in Iraq in 2014.
The A-10 uses both “Lightning” and “Sniper” pods engineered with infrared and electro-optical sensors to find targets for the pilot. Pilots flying attack missions in the Warthog communicate with other aircraft and ground forces using radios and a data link known as LINK 16. Pilots can also text messages with other aircraft and across platforms.
The cockpit is engineered with what is called the CASS cockpit, for Common Avionics Architecture System, which includes moving digital map displays and various screens showing pertinent information such as altitude, elevation, surrounding terrain, and target data.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19 FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.