Low and slow with a deadly bite. That’s a good way of summing up the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II aka “Warthog” close support aircraft of the USAF.
The A-10 first entered USAF service in the late 1970’s achieving combat readiness in the summer of 1978. It is fitted with two General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofans that provide 9,000 lbs. of thrust each and a top speed of 724 kmh / 450 mph. The cruising speed is a little slower at 539 kmh / 335 mph. The maximum range of the aircraft is 1287 km / 800 miles.
The A-10 is highly maneuverable at low speeds and low altitudes. It can get down into valleys and the like and turn back on targets to quickly eliminate enemy threats. The pilot, vital avionics and control systems of the aircraft are protected by titanium armour to allow the aircraft to take a great deal of damage whilst still staying in the fight. The aircraft also has a long endurance time enabling it to cover long distances while also being able to stay over target areas and loiter waiting for targets. It also is also relatively easy to maintain and has a short takeoff and landing capability that makes it perfect for operating from forward airbases (during the Cold War they used to practice taking off from Autobahns in Germany). All of these capabilities accompanied with lethal weapon systems makes the A-10 perfect for providing close air support for troops on the ground.
The primary weapon of the A-10 is the hydraulic powered General Dynamics GAU-8 Avenger 30mm rotary cannon that fires a mix of depleted uranium armour-piercing and high explosive shells at 4,000 rounds per minute with deadly accuracy (the shells are huge – 29 cm / 11.4 inches in length and weighing at least 0.69 kg / 1.53 pounds). The cannon is offset slightly and is just below the aircrafts centre of gravity to avoid its recoil causing any changes in pitch or yaw for the A-10 so it can stay on target. The 7 barrel cannon is so big it takes up virtually half the airframe (from the muzzle to end of the ammunition system it is approximately 5.9m /19.5 ft in length) and contributes to approximately 16% of the aircraft’s weight (the gun with it feed system and a fully loaded ammunition drum of 1,150 rounds weighs 1,828 kg /4,029 pounds)! Accompanied with a 16,000 lb. weapons payload of bombs and missiles the A-10 provides lethal close support to troops on the ground.
Something the A-10 does very well is more or less shred to pieces enemy tanks, armoured vehicles and weaponry with its rotary cannon. Pilots have to be careful to limit their bursts though to one to two seconds lest the gun barrel overheats (this is also to conserve ammunition).
713 A-10’s were built between 1972 to 1984 (plus to YA-10A prototypes). Large numbers of the aircraft were deployed to Europe during the Cold War to counter any armoured threat from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations. It was not until 1991 though that the A-10 first saw combat with the start of the first Gulf War against Iraq. The destruction unleashed on Iraqi military convoys and armoured vehicles was terrifying to say the least!
The A-10 is a very popular aircraft to its pilots and the troops on the ground (not so much for those unfortunate enough to feel its bite). The age of the airframes and the fact that the A-10 is used only for the single mission of close support though has recently led the USAF to look at retiring all of them and replace them with existing multi-role aircraft like the General Dynamics F-16. The Air Force claimed the retirement of all A-10’s currently in service would save about $3.7 billion (the USAF A-10 active force is currently: 187; plus Reserve 49 and Air National Guard 107). This caused a furor leading to a special law being passed in the US Congress denying the USAF the right to retire them! So for now it looks likes the “Warthog” will remain flying for some time to come (in fact I was driving past Moody AFB in Georgia recently and two flew over head which was good to see).