The glory of the A-10 Thunderbolt II
For reasons of congressional action (and inaction) that will be clear to the readers of these pages, the Pentagon’s budget is being squeezed. And for reasons that have never been entirely clear to anyone, whenever the Pentagon’s budget is squeezed, it is the A-10 Thunderbolt II — affectionately referred to by its Air Force pilots as the “Warthog,” or simply the “Hog” — that is the first to feel it. Alack, last week the Defense Department announced plans to eliminate five A-10 squadrons from service: one active-duty, one reserve, and three Air National Guard. On paper, the A-10 is slated to remain in service, at reduced numbers, through at least 2028, when the F-35 Lightning II (a panacea or a boondoggle, depending on whom you ask) is slated to take over its mission. But with the Warthog flown by all but one of the six combat squadrons marked for decommissioning under the Pentagon’s austerity measures, the writing appears to be on the wall.
Why go after the Warthog? Well, a good prima facie reason might be that it is old. Consider: The Fairchild/Republic A-10 has been the United States military’s primary tank-smiter and dispenser of troop-supporting firepower for so long that neither Fairchild Industries nor Republic Aviation exists anymore; for so long that the aircraft it replaced, the propeller-driven A-1 Skyraider, was first flown while Hitler’s Wehrmacht still held territory west of the Rhine; for so long that many in the Pentagon were actively scheming for its retirement before the first Iraq War.
Not only is it old, but a number of military observers have long argued it is also unloved, at least by the Air Force hierarchs. Imbued since its founding with the ethos of air superiority and interdiction bombing — i.e. the destruction of an enemy by targeting his productive and logistical capacities along the full depth of the battlefield — the Air Force views close air support of ground troops as an afterthought, developed the A-10 only begrudgingly, and regards the lanky, loping Warthog as the redheaded stepchild of the tactical fleet.
Or so the theory goes. Whether this attitude still prevails in the Air Force, amid the Pentagon-wide emphasis on joint operations, is a matter for speculation. But there can be no doubt that this old orphan is one of the cheapest, sturdiest, and most mission-relevant platforms the Air Force operates today, which helps explain why it was able to fend off extinction not once, but twice before.
Though it was designed in the late Sixties and early Seventies to thin the ranks of Soviet T-62 tanks pouring into Germany’s Fulda Gap in a hypothetical Third World War, by the 1980s many in the Air Force grew convinced that the A-10 was insufficiently nimble to operate on a high-tech battlefield against enemies who would be lighting up the skies with guided surface-to-air missiles. So they began testing a block of converted F-16s, upgrading the sleek, single-engine jet with a 30mm cannon and strengthened wing structure to carry heavier ordnance loads. But the modifications faced engineering setbacks, and plans to phase out the Hog in favor of the supersonic fighter were squelched when the disgruntled U.S. Army told Congress that if the Air Force didn’t want to fly the Hog, they would do it themselves. That the A-10 became one of the most storied weapons of Operation Desert Storm didn’t hurt either. A second attempt to mothball the A-10 in 2003 — again in favor of high-flying, supersonic fighters — was nixed for similar reasons; that is, around that time the Pentagon figured out the Warthog was quite good at picking off the Baathists and jihadists in a crowd of friendlies and civilians. This is why, whatever the blue-shirted generals may think of it, the Warthog has become the sweetheart of many a grunt in desert fatigues.
The contrasting opinions of the A-10 between the front and rear echelons is not lost on Colonel Martha McSally (USAF, retired), who is no less than the former commander of the 354th Fighter Squadron, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the seven members of the first class of American women to pilot combat aircraft, and the first woman ever to drive a Warthog angry. “The Army and the Marines on the ground are our biggest lobby,” she tells me. “We’re always on the chopping block when they are looking for budget cuts. But then we’re always the first called to service when there’s trouble.”
What makes the Hog so good at its job? Well, if you were to close your eyes and strip an A-10 down to its quintessence, what you would be left with is a lone pilot inside a titanium bathtub set atop a 20-foot-long, seven-barrel cannon spewing milk-bottle-sized, depleted-uranium projectiles at a rate of 4,000 rounds per minute, which in turn travel at a speed of 3,500 feet per second. The Warthog is built around this world-beating gun — the 30mm GAU-8 Avenger, which exists on no other platform — and on the concept of survivability emblemized by the cradle of armor ensconcing the pilot. There’s more, of course: foam-lined fuel tanks; double and even triple redundancies for the hydraulic, electric, and targeting systems; high wing-surface area and fuel-efficient turbofans; multiple external hardpoints that can accommodate just about any air-to-ground weapon in the arsenal; and so on. Together, they let the A-10 loiter at low altitudes and speeds above the hottest of hot zones, covering troop movements, protecting truck convoys, and picking off targets of opportunity at will. There is quite simply no other weapon like it, anywhere.
That’s why, when McSally’s stellar performance record (did I mention she is a Republican candidate to succeed Gabby Giffords in Arizona’s 8th?) gave her her pick of assignments, including the sexier F-15 and F-16, she still chose the Hog.
“It’s a unique capability, very closely tied with our joint operations with the Army and Marine Corps,” McSally says. “I chose it because I wanted to be a part of that mission. I wanted to be able to be out there on the front lines . . . talking to Americans on the ground whose lives are in danger and who need firepower.”
McSally says some senior officers tried to talk her out of her choice, warning that Hog-driving was not the smartest career move. But she feels redeemed by the A-10’s success in places such as Afghanistan, where she put in most of her 300-plus combat hours.
“We’ve certainly learned in the last ten years how absolutely vital the A-10 is in a dynamic environment where friends, enemies, and civilians are all closely clustered and every bullet fired can have strategic consequences,” she says.
Indeed, in the middle of one 2005 firefight in Afghanistan so closely pitched that McSally’s radio exchanges with troops on the ground revolved around settling exactly which trees and bends in the ravine were hiding insurgents, her electronic “heads-up display” died as she turned to fire a third salvo of rockets and bullets on the insurgents, and suddenly she was left with only the World War II–era targeting reticle, called the “standby pipper,” bolted onto the dash.
“Everyone said there was no possible way I’d ever have to degrade to standby pipper in actual combat. And there I was. I had to dial that hard sight down and get myself in the right geometry, the right altitude, the right airspeed, to make the trajectory right so I didn’t hit any friendlies.” Get it right she did. McSally was awarded a medal for her strafing run, and the squadron she commanded later received a prestigious unit award for their Afghanistan deployment, during which zero friendlies and zero civilians were hurt or killed.
This kind of low-tech, highly adaptive capability to bring hurt to the enemy is the hallmark of the Hog. (McSally reminds me of another: If the aircraft’s primary and secondary hydraulics systems fail, it can be flown with nothing but brawn — its center stick is connected to a series of cables and pulleys that manipulate its control surfaces.) It’s also something sorely lacking in the razzle-dazzle F-35 or any of the Air Force’s other next-generation fighters.
And, let’s just face it, there is something irreducibly badass about the Warthog. Just ask the Afghani insurgents, who, according to McSally, more often than not scattered at the mere sight of an A-10 overhead. This power to inspire the dread of the enemies of the United States is perhaps best expressed in a photo circulating on the Internet. It’s a frontal view of a grounded Hog, with eyes and a menccing, toothy grimace painted on its forward fuselage such that the 30mm cannon looks like the stump of a chomped cigar. The caption reads: “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. But He sub-contracts.”
May He bring back the Lazarene Warthog, for one more strafing run.