Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II, better known to the world simply as Warthog is the only plane built by the USAF for the sole purpose of Close Air Support, and it’s good at it.
The ground forces are in love and awe for the Hog since 1976, the year it entered service. As an heir of A-1 Skyraider, Warthog was designed around the beastly 30 mm GAU-8 Avenger which can obliterate enemy armored vehicles and tanks in seconds, and everything around too if the pilot wishes so.
By providing quick-action support, the Hog is considered to be irreplaceable by many. and instead of a new project countless admirers would rather prefer to upgrade the current A-10 to modern standards.
The debate about F-35 replacing the holder of GAU-8 Avenger is still going on, and the fate of Warthog is quite contentious within the USAF circles. As they say, the wonderful thing about A-10 Warthog is Warthogs are wonderful things.
Funny enough, initially A-10 Thunderbolt II was considered as of little combat value by the USAF, since the HQ were prioritizing high speed on high altitudes, just like with F-15 and F-16, while all the dirty work was supposed to be handled by helicopters, forgetting the experiences from Korea, Vietnam, and Laos when propelled aircraft could do things that jets were not so superior at.
This by no means is an indication that multirole strike aircraft do CAS.
It was the Congress that forced the Air Force to create it in the first place, and the Army needed it. It was not only a domestic opinion, as China turned down an offer to buy the A-10 design in the 80’s when the USAF was trying to get rid of it. In the end, its ugliness became beautiful and is now literally a cultural icon.
The facts speak for themselves
A-10 Warthog was ambitious. Since the early ’80s, during the Cold War, NATO was planning to introduce aircraft capable of flying slow on rather low altitudes against the Warsaw Pact tanks stationing in Central and Eastern Europe.
Luckily for humanity, such conflict never erected but in 1991 there was another chance for Warthogs to prove their worth.
During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, A-10 erased from the surface over 1000 tanks, 2000 other military vehicles, and 1200 artillery positions proving their efficiency and shocking even the military planners with their scores.
Only 5 Warthogs were lost, mostly shot down by ZSU-23-4 Shilka, but that’s it! Many more were landing with severe damage boasting around how durable the airframe was.
A-10s were also serving in Kosovo in 1999, during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 (stationing in Bagram Base), during the 2003 invasion of Iraq (where only one A-10 was shot down, out of 60 deployed), in Granada, and most recently against the Islamic State in the Middle East.
The Air Force was trying to get rid of it several times, but it seems no one is going to pull the Warthog from service without a viable replacement on the horizon. As the saying goes “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
Its service was not without fail. Friendly fire is a terrible thing and it does happen. In 1991, one of the planes accidentally fired against two British APCs FV 510 Warrior, killing nine allied soldiers. Another British reconnaissance vehicles Scimitar were under fire in Iraq in 2003.
US Marines went under fire of the hell caused by Gatling gun too, during the battle of An Nasiriyah, whereby a mistake killed at least one Marine, and possibly as many as 17 Marines.
Granted that Warthog was able to carry a substantial amount of armament under its wings, it was still the Gatling gun to be the main weapon – the famous 30 mm hydraulically driven seven-barrel Gatling-style autocannon, simple GAU-8 Avenger.
Basically, the whole airframe was built around it. Capable of firing 4,200 rounds per minute in high the high setting, in theory at least as the ammo drum can hold up to 1,350 rounds of 30 mm ammunition.
The cannon was installed asymmetrical, with the fuselage around it, a bit left from the longitudinal axis and at a 3 ° downward angle, making it easier to aim against ground targets.
This magnificent gun created a lot of legends too. Some say that a long enough firepower was able to stop the plane mid-air, or even forcing it into reverse.
According to the producer data, the GAU-8/A Avenger recoil was about 45 kN, which is more than half the power of both engines running at full. In theory, with one engine out of action, the gun’s recoil power is able to exceed the power of thrust of the remaining engine.
However, despite the stunning effectiveness of the Gatling gun, A-10 Warthog’s elemental armament also consists also of AGM-65 Maverick allowing the pilot to precisely engage the target from a further distance than GAU-8/A and avoiding a direct danger of anti-air systems at the same time. The rest are typically cluster bombs and unguided missiles.
During the Persian Gulf War, pilots of A-10 made 8100 combat missions, firing 90% of all AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles of all available in that particular war theatre, reaching an extraordinary 95,7% efficiency.
Both the cockpit and vital steering systems are protected by a titanium armor of a total weight of 400kg (~880 lb). The construction allows the Warthog to operate from makeshift airfields built close to the combat zone as it was anything but fragile.
It can sustain direct hits from armor-piercing and high-explosive shells up to caliber 23mm. With a lot of protection over the most important parts, landing with damaged hydraulics or even parts of wings rarely made the injuries fatal.
Someone put a lot of thought into the design in terms of maintenance as they are easy to fix and change parts, starting from engine parts, landing gear, and ending on tailplanes. The capability to operate from frontline airfields was priceless and imperative due to low speed, thus long flight.
At the start, A-10 was an object of criticism for rather poor avionic equipment. However, it was built with the idea of close combat support in mind, so it did not need any complicated electronic systems that would only unnecessarily rise its cost.
The early models had only installed RWR system and TACAN equipment, there was even no autopilot. A potential threat from the Warsaw Pact and its Soviet tanks forced the USAF to invest more into modern electronic systems as the weather in Western Europe was often unfavorable.
Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II was honored by its enemy as well. During the Gulf War, Iraqi tankers were calling them Whistling Death. After the defeat of Iraq Forces in 2003, captured soldiers were referencing to Warhthogs as Devil’s Cross (probably due to its silhouette). In the US they are simply known as Warthog or just Hog.