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An A-10C Thunderbolt II from the 75th Fighter Squadron honing its skills in the skies over the training ranges at Ft. Irwin, Calif.

The Warplane Nobody Wanted

By Stephan Wilkinson
9/3/2014 • Aviation History Magazine

The A-10 story is a painful illustration of just how much flag-rank military thinking is driven by ego, selfishness and greed and how little of it is relevant to war-fighting.

In 1972 the Fairchild Republic A-10 came out of the big aluminum womb ugly, misbegotten and ignored. It seemed fated for a life as the awkward stepchild of its F-plane playmates, the pointy-nose F-15 and F-16, eventually to be joined by the rapacious F-22 and voracious, obese F-35.

The Warthog, as the attack airplane came to be known, finally had its day when it was a 19-year-old virgin with a mustache and, yes, warts, about to be put out to pasture. The A-10 was scheduled for retirement—for the first of several times—when the battle against Soviet T-55, T-62 and T-72 tanks that it had been designed to fight finally erupted. Only not in the Fulda Gap but in Kuwait and Iraq, and the tanks belonged to Saddam, not Stalin. It was called Desert Storm and thankfully not World War III, but overnight the ugly stepchild became the most vicious and powerful armor-killer ever to fly.

Ground attack from the air and what’s today called close air support (CAS) has a surprisingly long history (see “The First Ground-Pounders,” November 2014 issue). We think of World War I airplanes as dogfighters and balloon-busters, but the Junkers J.I was the world’s first airplane designed from the wheels up for ground attack. Also the world’s first all-metal production aircraft, it was an enormous sesquiplane with a corrugated, Quonset-hut upper wing twice the span of a Sopwith Triplane’s. It had a tall, vertical exhaust stack that made it look like a flying locomotive and, presaging the A-10’s structure, featured an entirely armored cockpit bathtub. Like the Warthog, it too got an unflattering nickname: the “Moving Van,” thanks to its size, weight and 96-mph top speed.

Though J.Is managed to immobilize a few thin-skinned British tanks, the first effective anti-tank aircraft was the Russian Polikarpov I-15, an open-cockpit biplane fighter flown by the Republican Loyalist side in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. I-15s carried four wing-mounted, rapid-fire 7.62mm machine guns, and the total of 50 armor-piercing rounds per second could do serious damage to what passed for armor in that era. Several I-15s created enough chaos among Italian tanks advancing on Madrid that the attack was then broken up by Loyalist infantry.

This caught the attention of the Soviets and led to the legendary Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik tank-buster of World War II, an airplane that turned out to be so useful it was produced in greater numbers—more than 36,000—than any other combat aircraft ever built. The Shturmovik also had a heavily armored cockpit plus another valuable characteristic that would show up in the Warthog: It could carry a wide variety of underwing ordnance, including machine guns, cannons, bombs and rockets.

The Germans had also seen the need for a CAS airplane, the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka (see “Screaming Birds of Prey,” September 2013 issue). The Luftwaffe’s raison d’être, in fact, was entirely to provide ground support. It was the Wehrmacht’s air arm, and Stukas were initially used as flying artillery working in league with the army’s panzers as they blitzkrieged through Europe. Though the Messerschmitt Me-109 would soon take the title, Stukas were for awhile the most important arrows in the Luftwaffe’s quiver.

Knowing that the Ju-87 was becoming increasingly obsolescent, the Germans tried their best to develop a more modern tank-buster, the little-known Henschel Hs-129. Its parallels with the A-10, however, are interesting. Both airplanes are twin-engine for redundancy, though the Hs-129’s power plants were not very good. Both the Henschel and the A-10 utilized true “armored bathtubs” for cockpit protection—not just steel-plate fuselage skinning but an internal structure that, in the case of the Hs-129, had sloped sides to increase the effective thickness of the armor. And both carried enormous guns. The Hs-129 is said to have been the first airplane to fire a 30mm cannon in anger, and its final version mounted a 75mm cannon.

But what about the A-10 Thunderbolt II, as it’s officially (but rarely) known? Let’s back up and look at what was behind this shotgun marriage of World War II technology, turbofan engines and a massive piece of artillery, the 30mm Gatling gun that became the A-10’s best-known weapon. Has there ever been an airplane conceived under such miserable conditions? The A-10 story is a painful illustration of just how much flag-rank military thinking is driven by ego, selfishness and greed and how little of it is relevant to war-fighting. Dwight Eisenhower had already called its practitioners the military/industrial complex.

When the Air Force was released from its traditional service as an obedient part of the Army in September 1947, it became a separate and independent branch of the armed forces. The brand-new U.S. Air Force immediately foreswore serious duty working for soldiers on the ground. Let the Army and Marine Corps take care of their own, said the Air Force, our job is flying at the speed of heat, gunning enemy jets, making aces and dropping bombs, preferably nuclear. “Not a pound [of airframe weight] for air to ground” became an Air Force fighter-development principle.

This deal was further ratified in March 1948 by the Key West Agreement. The chiefs of staff and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal sat down in, obviously, Key West and agreed that the Navy could keep its tailhookers (some of which the Marines would of course continue to use for close air support), but that the Army was done forever flying fixed-wing aircraft in combat. They were welcome to play with helicopters, which seemed at the time to be of little consequence, but flying real airplanes was the Air Force’s job. The Army could continue to use aircraft for minor logistics, medevac and recon, but no weapons were allowed to be mounted aboard them.

The U.N. “police action” in Korea saw the Air Force grudgingly dedicating its obsolete F-51D and its least effective jet fighters, the Lockheed F-80C and Republic F-84, to the unglamorous job of going down low and helping grunts hold off raging Chicoms and North Koreans. But the most effective CAS missions were flown by Marine F4U Corsairs. Oddly, the Air Force had retired or given to the Air Guard all its P-47s, the workhorse American ground-support airplanes of WWII. No Thunderbolts flew in Korea.

Vietnam was the real wake-up call. North American F-100 Super Sabres and other jets were assigned the CAS mission and did the best they could, but finding targets hidden in thick jungle while flying too fast at altitudes too high with too little fuel to hang around for a second look didn’t work. “One pass, haul ass” became the CAS mantra.

To the dismay of the speed-of-heaters, the Douglas A-1 Skyraider proved to be the most effective CAS airplane of the war. Not only was the Spad old enough to have almost made it into WWII, but it was a Navy plane, forgodsake. Still, it was the best the Air Force could find for CAS.

The Army, meanwhile, was developing helicopter gunships into serious (albeit still vulnerable and delicate) CAS birds. Serious enough, in fact, that in 1966 the Army began work on a ground-up design for an armed and armored attack helicopter, the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne. The Cheyenne was a compound helo, with rigid rotors for VTOL and a pusher prop for pure speed. It was so complex and sophisticated that had it gone into production, each Cheyenne would have cost more than an F-4 Phantom. That will never do, the Air Force said; that’s money we should be getting.

The Air Force set out to develop its own fixed-wing close air support machine. Even though they didn’t want the CAS mission, letting the Army take it over was worse. All the brass wanted was for their ground-attack bird to be better and cheaper than the Cheyenne. So began the 1966 A-X (Attack Experimental) program. Six airframers wanted in, but only two were selected: Fairchild Republic and Northrop.

Northrop’s contender, the YA-9, was conventional and unimaginative—its high wings made loading ordnance more difficult, the low-mounted engines were vulnerable to groundfire and a single vertical tail offered neither redundancy nor shielding of the engines’ infrared exhaust signatures. Fairchild Republic, however, had the help of an unusual civilian maverick, French-born systems analyst Pierre Sprey. The Air Force loathed Sprey, for he’d been one of the key developers of the much-reviled “lightweight fighter” that became the F-16; the Air Force preferred the big, expensive, electronics-laden, multiengine F-15.

But Sprey knew the importance of CAS, had some big ideas on how to do it best and had written scholarly papers on the subject. He’d studied the Stuka, and one of his heroes was Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the ultimate ground-attack pilot (with more than 2,000 vehicles, trains, ships, artillery pieces, bridges, aircraft and landing craft destroyed, including 519 tanks). Sprey is said to have required every member of the A-10 design team to read Rudel’s autobiography, Stuka Pilot.

Tasked with leading the A-10 team and writing the specs for the prototype, Sprey interviewed every Vietnam Spad pilot and forward air controller he could find. As a result, he prioritized long loiter time, good range, excellent visibility, low-and-slow maneuverability, survivability and lethal weapons “the very sight of which will turn an enemy soldier’s bowels to water,” wrote Robert Coram in his book Boyd, an excellent study of the “fighter mafia” led by iconoclasts John Boyd and Sprey. Still, as Coram put it, “the A-X was a leprous project led by a pariah.”

Sprey pretty much got his way, since the Air Force simply wanted to put a stake through the Cheyenne’s heart—which they did when the Lockheed program was canceled. Two A-10 features that Sprey didn’t like were its twin engines and enormous size; he had wanted a smaller, lighter, more maneuverable airplane than the Warthog turned out to be. After all, it is a single-seat attack aircraft with a wingspan only 5 feet shorter on each side than a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber’s, and fully loaded for a CAS mission an A-10 weighs 6 tons more than a grossed-out B-25.

Yet the A-10 is a simple airplane, and until post-production upgrades beginning in 1989, it even lacked an autopilot—just like a WWII fighter. Nor does it have radar, and the main landing gear is only semi-retractable, like a DC-3’s. Half of each mainwheel protrudes from its fairing in flight, which some have assumed is to enable the Warthog to make safer gear-up landings. That’s true, but the design was really chosen because it allows the wings to remain free of wheel wells, making construction simple, straightforward and strong. Same goes for the protective cockpit structure, which is not a forged bathtub-like piece at all but several plates of titanium bolted together.

By zoomy blue-suiter standards, the A-10 is painfully slow. It can do just over 365 knots but usually flies strikes at 300 knots or less. The typical jokes are that A-10s don’t have instrument panel clocks, they have calendars. And bird strikes from behind are a big risk. (Those of us who flew the original Citation 500 business jet—often referred to as the Slowtation—were subjected to the very same snark.) But if the A-10 has a basic shortcoming, it admittedly is underpowered. A-10 pilots say the airplane has three power-lever positions: off, taxi and max power.

The A-10 was also designed around a specific weapon—the General Electric GAU-8/A seven-barrel Gatling cannon, which, with its huge 1,174-round ammunition drum (mounted behind the pilot), is as big as a car. It fires 30mm cartridges nearly a foot long, and though its firing rate is typically quoted as 3,900 rounds per minute, that’s a meaningless number. An A-10’s gun is fired for one- or two-second bursts, so a delivery of roughly 60 to 65 rounds per second in intermittent bursts is what “will turn an enemy soldier’s bowels to water.”

The rotating-barrel cannon is mounted exactly on the A-10’s centerline, resulting in the Warthog’s odd stance, with its nose-gear strut displaced well to the right to clear the barrel. A popular myth has it that firing the gun results in recoil so strong it could stall the airplane, but you’d have to be flying just a knot or two above stall speed for that to happen. What is a consideration, however, is that the gun’s recoil is strong enough that any off-centerline positioning of the firing barrel would result in yaw that could cause the firing pattern to be scattershot rather than firehose.

The cannon fires high-explosive and armor-piercing rounds, in addition to target-practice rounds in peacetime. The armor-piercing incendiaries have depleted-uranium cores, which have the advantage of being extremely dense—1.67 times as dense as pure lead—and thus have enormous hitting power. But DU has two other potent characteristics. It is “self-sharpening,” meaning the projectile doesn’t squash or flatten as it pierces armor but fractures and remains relatively pointed. The other is that DU is pyrophoric—it spontaneously ignites upon contact with the air. As an A-10’s DU rounds penetrate a tank’s armor, its fragments, some as tiny as dust, all become intensely incendiary particles scattering through the tank’s interior, with grisly effects on the crew.

By the end of the 1990s, it again seemed the Hog’s day was done. Seven hundred and fifteen A-10s had been built, but the active fleet was down to 390 units, what with weary and excess A-10s sent to the Davis-Monthan boneyard. (Many returned to base almost unflyable, but only seven Warthogs have ever been shot down or crashed due to combat.) Production had been shut down since 1984, and zero effort had been put into coming up with a direct replacement. It looked like the Hog would be makin’ bacon in the boneyard.

But wait. Saddam came back, and now we also had the Taliban to deal with. Hog pilots suited up and headed not to retirement but to the Mideast again, where A-10s continued to rule the anti-armor and CAS roost. The distinctive sound of an A-10’s engines was sometimes enough to make an enemy throw away his weapons and run. If he heard the even more distinctive sound of its GAU, it was already too late.

By 2008, most of the still-active A-10s were C models, with glass cockpits, upgraded sensors, video targeting and many other enhancements. Gone was some of the original Hog’s steam-gauge simplicity. Some pilots didn’t like the optical/FLIR imaging and called the video screen a “face magnet,” sucking the pilot’s view into the cockpit. The most frequently used metaphor was that viewing the battleground through a camera’s eye was “like looking through a soda straw.” Like looking through a toilet paper roll might be closer to the truth, but it was a far cry from a good pilot’s 360-degree physical scan.

Blame Congress and sequestration, not the USAF, but the Air Force has been told to lop a big chunk off its budget. They have chosen to do this by scheduling the A-10 for total retirement in 2015—not by just reducing the fleet size but by eliminating the airplane, the pilots, ground support, training, spare parts supply, logistics, upgrading and every other vestige of the Warthog. Total fleet and infrastructure removal is the only way to save serious money, which in the case of the A-10, the Air Force calculates, will come to $3.7 billion.

But some legislators want the Air Force to find another way to save that money. In May the House Armed Services Committee came up with a defense spending bill that specifically blocked plans to retire the Warthog, and it was approved a month later by the House of Representatives. If the Senate agrees—which as we go to press doesn’t look likely—the A-10 will fly on at least a while longer.

When the Hog does make that final fight to Davis-Monthan, what will replace it for the CAS mission? The Air Force version of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Opponents of the way-over-budget F-35 program say that the JSF acronym actually stands for Joke Still Flying, in light of the F-35’s problems and presumed failings, and some have called for its cancellation rather than the A-10’s. But let’s assume the F-35 eventually meets all of its performance targets and goes into service as one of the world’s best fighters; can it replace the A-10? The Air Force claims that with sophisticated targeting systems under development and even in existence, there will no longer be a need to get down in the weeds and use binoculars—a favorite Hog pilot tool—to find and identify targets. CAS will necessarily be done from altitude and at speed, since nobody is going to risk a $200 million fighter to small-arms fire.

An excellent article, “Tunnel Vision,” by Andrew Cockburn in the February 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine, however, described a May 2012 CAS mission by a two-ship of A-10s over Afghanistan, controlled by a video-viewing JTAC (joint terminal attack controller) from a forward position. The JTAC sent the two A-10s to four different grid coordinates, one after the other, in a confused search for Taliban troops supposedly in contact with American forces. At the fourth location, the A-10 flight leader reported that yes, now he could see through his binocs people around a farm building, but there was no sign of weapons or hostile activity. He refused to attack, so the JTAC assigned the CAS mission to a loitering B-1 bomber that used satellite-guided bombs to obliterate an Afghan husband, wife and five children. Apparently, remote targeting systems still need work.

A-10 enthusiasts—including every pilot who has ever flown one in combat—argue that the Warthog is cheap to fly, is already in operation, has substantial loiter capability that the F-35 will lack, is extremely survivable and can put Mark I eyeballs on the target. Only an A-10, they say, can put ordnance “danger close” to ground troops, which in extreme cases means 20 feet away from them. And many A-10s are currently getting brand-new Boeing-built wings and center sections, which will allow them to operate for another quarter-century.

F-35 proponents point out that their airplane is stealthy, which the A-10 definitely isn’t; that the A-10 is slow and vulnerable to sophisticated anti-aircraft systems; and that, just like the WWII Stuka, it requires air superiority before it enters a target area. A point they especially stress is that the F-35 is a multirole aircraft: It can achieve air superiority, it can bomb and it can do the CAS job. The A-10, they say, is a single-mission aircraft, and the Air Force can no longer afford such specialized machines. (Though there is a forward air control version, the OA-10, it is simply a designator difference, as the airframes are identical and they are all part of the CAS mission.)

Inevitably, the last-generation multimission aircraft, the General Dynamics F-111, is brought up, for the Aardvark was largely a failure, a jack-of-all-trades that was master of none. “If history tells us anything,” Ian Hogg wrote in his book Tank Killing, “it tells us that can openers are better than Swiss army knives for opening cans.”

The A-10 has gone to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. Where it hasn’t gone to war is Russia, China or North Korea. If we could be guaranteed that our future opponents will be Somalis with AKs or Syrians with RPGs, the A-10 will continue to get the job done at the lowest possible cost. But if the U.S. needs to face off against a wacky Putin or a crazed Kim Jong-un, the stakes will be higher and the weapons vastly more deadly.

Perhaps the F-35 isn’t the perfect mud-mover, but could this be a case of perfect being the enemy of good enough?

For further reading, frequent contributor Stephan Wilkinson recommends: Warthog: Flying the A-10 in the Gulf War, by William L. Smallwood; A-10 Thunderbolt II: 21st Century Warthog, by Neil Dundridge; Tank Killing, by Ian Hogg; and Boyd, by Robert Coram.

 

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