Nicknamed the ‘Tankbuster’, the ‘Warthog’ or, simply the ‘Hog’, the United States Air Force’s pounding Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II is one of the best-known and most instantly-recognised modern day jet aircraft designs. Unique in its field – the USAF operating no other specialised close air support type – it’s been in service for nearly 40 years. Its ‘tank-busting’ role aside, the A-10 is also tasked with forward air controller-airborne (FAC-A) support duties.
Highly agile, still extremely capable and able to operate by day or night, the A-10 is an enduring and much-valued USAF asset. The air arm currently has 283 examples in service, while over 100 more equip the Air National Guard.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II’s seeds were sown during the mid-1960s. The USAF's experiences in Vietnam, involving a high number of ground attack aircraft shoot-downs, dictated the need for a new type that could better survive low-level operations. In 1970, an RFP (Request For Proposals) was issued. The RFP asked US defence manufactures to come up with an aircraft equipped with a 30mm cannon and 7,300kg of ordnance carried on external pylons. Also desired were a 460mph top speed and the ability to carry out missions across a 285-mile radius of action.
Six firms responded. Of the solutions submitted, only Northrop’s YA-9A and Fairchild Republic’s YA-10A – the A-10 prototype - were taken forward. A two-month fly-off in late 1972 decided the winner, which on 18 January 1973 was announced as the YA-10. Later that same year, General Electric won the 30mm cannon build contract. The pairing of airframe and armament would prove its worth over countless future battlefields.
The 355th Tactical Training Wing at David Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, took delivery of the USAF’s first A-10A in March 1976. Hundreds more examples would follow in its wake. A-10 production finished in 1984, by which time 713 airframes had been produced.
The A-10 is flown by a single pilot. Around him sits a titanium ‘bathtub’ incorporating 1,200 pounds of the material and almost four centimetres thick in places. This, combined with the aircraft’s bulletproof canopy, is designed to provide pilot protection at all times, while the wings’ leading edges incorporate a honeycomb structure, hardening them against ground fire.
The nucleus of the A-10 is its General Electric GAU-8/A cannon. Some 19 feet long, it makes up about 16 per cent of the A-10’s overall weight. The cannon’s maximum burst rate is 3,900 rounds per minute, although only 1,174 rounds are carried at any one time.
Other key A-10 design features include its semi-retracted main gear, which leaves the main wheels sticking out slightly after they’ve been pulled-up. This serves to minimise airframe damage, should a forced landing have to be made. The twin turbofan engines are mounted high for two reasons: to prevent FOD intake and to allow quick turnarounds in between sorties, enabling groundcrew personnel to service the aircraft while the engines are still running.
The A-10 can be armed with a variety of rockets, missiles and bombs. They include Hydra 70mm rockets, AIM-9 Sidewinder AAMs (air-to-air missiles), AGM-65 Maverick ASMs (air-to-surface missiles) and Mk 77 or Mk 80 bombs.
Desert Storm A-10s
14 years into the type’s service career, Desert Storm became the A-10's operational baptism of fire. During it, A-10s destroyed approximately 3,000 armoured vehicles, including 900 Iraqi tanks.
8,100 Desert Storm A-10 sorties were flown, out of the 65,000+ USAF sorties flown overall. It was also during Desert Storm that the A-10 claimed its first air-to-air engagement while, on one particular day – 25 February 1991 – a pair operated by the 76th Tactical Fighter Squadron took out no less than 23 tanks during the course of three successive missions.
Other A-10 Operations
A flood of further deployments followed. These saw USAF A-10s participating in operations Southern Watch (the post-Desert Storm sorties flown over Iraq between 1993 and 2003), Desert Fox (the four-day bombing of Iraq staged over 16-19 December 1998), Noble Anvil (the airstrikes carried out on Yugoslavia in 1999), Deny Flight (the UN-ordered Bosnia and Herzegovina no-fly zone enforcement), Enduring Freedom (the airstrikes in Afghanistan) and Iraqi Freedom. During the last two-named of these, A-10s carried out 32 per cent of all combat missions flown. Still now, A-10 sorties continue: just last year, 12 examples arrived in Turkey to undertake support flights over Iraq and Syria.
Numerous A-10 upgrade programmes have been implemented over the years, starting with the now-discontinued Pave Penny laser spot tracker’s integration in the late 1970s. GPS technologies started to be added in the late 1990s but the most significant A-10 fleet overhaul began in 2005. The Precision Engagement upgrades made all in-service A-10As into A-10Cs, giving them wholly reconfigured instrument panels, F-16-style control sticks and the ability to carry Sniper XR or LITENING II targeting pods.
Current plans see USAF A-10s starting to be retired later this decade although the situation isn't entirely clear. Officially, the F-35 Lightning II was conceived as the A-10’s (and other types’) replacement and deliveries of that type, in its F-35A version, are scheduled to get underway between June and September 2016. However, the most recent modifications made would give the A-10 a circa 20-year life extension, keeping it in the skies until the late 2020s. So, what’ll happen to the USAF A-10C fleet in coming years isn’t fully known at this stage. Much more certain is the USAF’s ongoing – if only short-term - need for this much-employed type and that further operational sorties for it almost definitely lie ahead.
Close Air-Support Aircraft
53 ft 4 in (16.16 m)
57 ft 6 in (17.42 m)
Two General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofans, producing 9,065 pounds thrust each
439 mph (706 km/h)
2,580 miles (4,150 km)
45,000 ft (13,700 m)
GUA-8/A Avenger cannon, AIM-9 Sidewinder and AGM-65 Maverick missiles, various bombs
10 May 1972
All A-10 images copyright USAF – courtesy Wikimedia Commons