It is difficult to envision the existence of any combat aircraft as cherished, celebrated, and loved as the iconic A-10 Warthog.
Not only has the aircraft performed famously in combat for decades, but the aircraft itself seems “alive” with a survival instinct as it has withstood years of Air Force attempts to retire the aircraft.
Keeping the A-10 from Extinction
Congressional and Pentagon advocates, including many combat-experienced ground troops saved by the A-10, have fought to ensure its continued and much-needed place in the Air Force fleet.
Its “flying-tank-like” titanium hull, built-in redundancy, 30mm cannon, and expansive weapons arsenal have distinguished the A-10 throughout decades of warfare. Even so, some might wonder if there will eventually become a point at which the famous Warthog does in fact become obsolete.
Perhaps considered differently, are there other aircraft such as high-speed, fixed-wing 4th- and 5th-generation jets capable of performing the Warthog’s missions in a comparable or more effective way? That has been the contention of some Pentagon and Air Force decision-makers in recent years, some of whom claim the F-35 is perhaps better positioned to absorb close-air-support (CAS) missions.
Pitting the A-10 Against the F-35
This question generated so much interest and debate that the Pentagon and Joint Program Office for the F-35 conducted an extensive “fly-off” or series of tests with both the A-10 and F-35 in an effort to discern which aircraft might be optimal for the CAS mission. Certainly, a high-speed F-35 would be maneuverable and less vulnerable to small arms fire, but just how much small arms fire could an F-35 withstand?
That could be a concern, however, the range and fidelity of the F-35’s sensors may enable the aircraft to successfully perform the targeting and attack functions of CAS from much safer stand-off distances, enabling the aircraft to perform close air support combat missions from much higher altitudes.
The A-10, by contrast, can fly slowly and almost “hover” within line-of-sight attack range in support of maneuvering ground troops. The A-10 uses built-in redundancy or duplicate systems such as electronics and engines to ensure continued functionality in the event that some vital systems are destroyed by enemy fire. The A-10’s titanium hull is also regarded as quite unique as it enables the aircraft to sustain attack and maneuver operations if hit by enemy fire.
The Armed A-10
The A-10 flies with a full complement of weapons, including GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMS). 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 fly under the wings and three under the fuselage. When it comes to targeting, navigation, and precision, enhancements in mission computing could prove crucial to upgrading combat performance for the A-10 by enabling new weapons systems for the platform
Is the A-10 Outmatched?
Despite these well-known and proven attributes, will the A-10 eventually need to disappear if it becomes entirely outmatched by enemy weapons and technologies? Perhaps not, as while the non-stealthy A-10 would clearly not be an aircraft of choice in a high-end, great-power air superiority fight, yet there are bound to be less contested warfare environments without advanced air defenses or 5th-generation enemy attack planes that would render the aircraft A-10 inoperative or at least much less relevant and impactful.
Yet another factor to bear in mind is that many decades-old airframes themselves can remain viable for many years beyond what may have been expected, something evidenced by the continued life of the B-52 and other legacy platforms such as the 1980-era F-16 and F-15.
With maintenance, some structural reinforcement, and service life extension plan adjustments, legacy aircraft can long outlive their anticipated service life. Given this reality and the continued likelihood of armed conflict in less-contested areas where the U.S. would have air superiority, it is possible the famous A-10 may actually have a few more decades of life.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive 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