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The A-10 Is at War on Its 40th Anniversary

Once the ugly duckling, there is no more beautiful sight for troops in contact on the ground today than a 'warthog' overhead

This summer, Lt. Col. Brian “B. T.” Burger will take command of the 184th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron in Afghanistan and will lead 350 airmen in carrying out A-10 Thunderbolt II operations in the war zone.

“The A-10 is a great aircraft,” says Burger, whose usual assignment is with the Arkansas Air National Guard at Fort Smith. “When we upgraded the A-10 to bring it to the current A-10C configuration, we made a good decision.”

Once derisively called the “ugly duckling” of Air Force inventory and more recently dubbed the “Warthog” with newly found affection, the A-10 began as a rebellion within the Pentagon by a small group of key advisers calling themselves the “fighter mafia,” including Pierre Sprey and Col. Everest Riccioni. Concerned about the increasing cost and complexity of warplanes, they wanted a single-mission, air-to-ground attack aircraft that could be manufactured at reasonable cost. Sprey is considered the principal mover behind the A-10, a simple airframe built around a heavy gun and intended to halt Soviet main battle tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap and onto the plains of Western Europe.

A contemporary of the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, the A-10A did not initially find much love. At one point, Congress wanted all A-10As transferred from the Air Force to the Army. The Army said it didn’t want them. The Warthog had a turnaround in its reputation during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 when it killed tanks as planned, and used its gun and bombs on a variety of other targets.

As we mark the 40th anniversary of the A-10 in 2012, its Cold War anti-tank mission has been replaced by precision close air support. Never fully appreciated early in its career, the A-10 has proven invaluable in the wars of the past decade. Still, the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget request would retire 102 A-10 airframes of the 356 now on duty (and of 715 built altogether). The budget request would wipe away five squadrons, including the one Burger will return to in Fort Smith.

A-10 Afghanistan hop

An A-10 Thunderbolt II flies a close-air-support mission over Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2008. The A-10 has excellent maneuverability at low air speeds and altitude, and and the big straight wing is able to carry a lot of ordnance to support troops on the ground. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon

The first service-test YA-10A (serial no. 71-1369) made its initial flight at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on May 10, 1972. Before any A-10 reached a squadron, a very public tragedy struck: On June 3, 1977, an A-10 crashed at Le Bourget Field, France in the middle of the Paris Air Show, mortally injuring Fairchild chief test pilot Howard “Sam” Nelson.

A contemporary of the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, the A-10A did not initially find much love. At one point, Congress wanted all A-10As transferred from the Air Force to the Army. The Army said it didn’t want them. The Warthog had a turnaround in its reputation during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 when it killed tanks as planned, and used its gun and bombs on a variety of other targets.

Unchanged is the slightly off-center GAU-8/A Avenger, or “Gatling,” 30 mm cannon with 1,196 rounds that is among the largest, heaviest and most powerful aircraft cannons in the U.S. military. In Afghanistan, the cannon has proven extremely accurate during close support strikes within 200 yards of friendly troops.

By the 1990s, the stage was set for the “precision strike” upgrade that produced the A-10C. The changes are “extraordinary,” said A-10C pilot Maj. Paul “Harb” Brown, also of the Fort Smith Guard unit. Brown has flown in combat in the A-10A and the A-10C. “There’s no comparison,” he said. From a clear-weather, visual-only, mostly-daytime attack aircraft, the Warthog has been transformed into an all-weather, multi-mission precision weapons delivery platform. It now routinely uses Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and the Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser. The modifications include advanced sensors, a data-link and the Litening and Sniper XR advanced targeting pods, which boost pilot situational awareness, targeting capabilities, survivability and communication. Typically, the A-10C carries the AN/AAQ-28 Litening II Gen-4 advanced targeting pod when on home station.

A-10As

Two U.S. Air Force A-10A Warthogs, from the 52nd Fighter Wing, 81st Fighter Squadron, Spangdhalem Air Base, Germany, drop away from a refueling tanker during a NATO Operation Allied Force combat mission, Apr. 22, 1999. The A-10 “Tank Killer” munitions include 250 pound iron bombs, ALQ-131 electronic jamming pod, 2.75 inch Zuni rockets, AGM-65D Maverick missiles, and a 30 mm cannon mounted in the nose. As formidable as the A-10A was, the present-day A-10C is much more lethal. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Greg L. Davis

“To the pilot, the only thing that’s similar is the exterior of the airplane and how it flies,” said Brown. “The cockpit isn’t 100 percent glass, but the targeting portion of the cockpit is a glass cockpit with two 5×5 color multi-function displays. The FLIR [forward-looking infrared] is strikingly clear and very clear and very sharp.”

Unchanged is the slightly off-center GAU-8/A Avenger, or “Gatling,” 30 mm cannon with 1,196 rounds that is among the largest, heaviest and most powerful aircraft cannons in the U.S. military. In Afghanistan, the cannon has proven extremely accurate during close support strikes within 200 yards of friendly troops.

The “precision strike” A-10C upgrade did not include re-engining. The Warthog’s 9,065-pound thrust General Electric TF34-GE-100 engines are becoming difficult to support with parts, although maintainers say they have a good record of reliability. Grafting new engines to existing A-10s would have been costlier than the other improvements in the A-10C upgrade effort. Funding was never available for this, so it has never happened.

Maj. Trey Rawls made the first flight of an A-10C (serial no. 81-0989) at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on Jan. 20, 2006. The first operational A-10C was delivered to the 355th Wing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., on Nov. 29 of that year. Over the past half-dozen years, the entire Warthog fleet has been brought up to C-model standard.

Once tasked to prove itself, the A-10 doesn’t need to prove anything any longer. As budget battles heat up this summer, the administration’s plan to retire 102 A-10Cs will be a focal point of debate. Not everyone believes that the venerable A-10C Thunderbolt II is quite ready to be put to pasture just yet.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...