Affectionately called the “Hog” (or “Warthog”), the A-10 Thunderbolt II was the only aircraft designed for close air support by the United States Air Force during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet despite its enduring track record of unparalleled combat effectiveness against enemy tanks, armored vehicles, and other ground forces, the remaining fleet of active 350 A-10 Warthogs may soon be retired to save approximately $3.7 billion over the next five years for the US Air Force.
Although Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is adamant in retiring the A-10, and replacing them with the more modern F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the move is being widely criticized by marines, politicians, and former air force pilots alike who swear by the A-10’s ability to not only remain a viable part of the US Air Force’s winged arsenal, but also in its ability to outperform the F-35, which continues to be plagued by cost overruns and faulty software programming.
Everything about the A-10’s design centers around inflicting maximum damage to opposing ground forces, and ensuring maximum protection for the pilot and plane.
To provide effective ground support, a plane has to fly in slower and lower to the ground than those designed exclusively for precision bombing and air-to-air combat. With these flight needs in mind, the A-10 has a large wing area with wider ailerons and a high wing aspect ratio, which together allows the A-10 to achieve high maneuverability during low altitudes.
The A-10 has been called the most survivable plane ever built, capable of taking direct hits from armor-piercing bullets and high explosive projectiles (up to 23 mm). Protecting the pilot and plane are 1200 lbs of armor, a titanium tub, and bullet proof glass. Additionally, all the controls in the cockpit are redundant, including a 2nd mechanical control system in the event any part of the plane’s hydraulic flight system is damaged or disabled.
Another feature unique to the A-10 are its twin-engines mounted above and away from the plane’s fuselage and fuel tank, minimizing the risk of a bullet setting fire to the engines.
With a sloping nose and a narrow cockpit, the A-10’s pilot has a 360-degree field of view for identifying and distinguishing targets on the ground.
Although the A-10 can “carry up to six Maverick AGM-65/B/D/G/H/K air-to-surface missiles, and up to four AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles,” its nose-mounted 30 MM Gatling gun, originally designed to rip through Soviet era tanks, is the A-10’s most feared weapon, capable of unleashing a barrage of 30 caliber rounds traveling faster than the speed of sound. The following video, set to start at 2:04, provides an example of the A-10’s canon in action:
The A-10 is able to fly more than 3 sorties a day, and its sturdy landing gear allows for short take-off from a range of less than ideal terrain. And given the need to remain near the front lines, “the A-10 is designed to be refueled, rearmed, and serviced with minimal equipment. Also, most repairs can be done in the field, [and] many of the aircraft’s parts are interchangeable between the left and right sides, including the engines, main landing gear, and vertical stabilizers.”
Given the A-10’s legacy and primacy in providing close air support, let’s hope that in the least the A-10 will help inspire similar features in future aircraft.