Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II – ‘actual death from above!’

 

An A-10 Thunderbolt II, like this one, is among the various U.S. Central Command Air Forces air assets available for providing close-air support for International Security Assistance Force troops in contact with enemy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The A-10 is specially designed for close air support of ground forces and can be used against all ground targets, including tanks and other armored vehicles. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Justin T. Watson)

An A-10 Thunderbolt II, like this one, is among the various U.S. Central Command Air Forces air assets available for providing close-air support for International Security Assistance Force troops in contact with enemy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The A-10 is specially designed for close air support of ground forces and can be used against all ground targets, including tanks and other armored vehicles. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Justin T. Watson)

The A-10’s survivability in the close air support arena greatly exceeds that of previous Air Force aircraft. The A-10 is designed to survive even the most disastrous damage and finish the mission by landing on an unimproved airfield. Specific survivability features include titanium armor plated cockpit, redundant flight control system separated by fuel tanks, manual reversion mode for flight controls, foam filled fuel tanks, ballistic foam void fillers, and a redundant primary structure providing “get home” capability after being hit.

All of the A-10’s glass is bulletproof and the cockpit itself is surrounded by a heavy tub of titanium. Titanium armor protects both the pilot and critical areas of the flight control system. This titanium “bathtub” can survive direct hits from armor-piercing and high explosive projectiles up to 37mm in size. The front windscreen can withstand up to a 23mm projectile. Fire retardant foam protects the fuel cells which are also self-sealing in the event of puncture.

The redundant primary structural sections allow the aircraft to enjoy better survivability during close air support than did previous aircraft. Designers separated all of the crucial battle and flight systems. The wheels can roll in their pods, which lets the plane perform belly landings without significant damage to the aircraft. Dual engines are mounted away from the Warthog’s fuselage; if one is destroyed, the other can propel the craft to safety. Dual vertical stabilizers shield the hot exhaust from Russian-designed heat seeking missiles. The A-10 has two hydraulic flight control systems, backed up by a manual flight control system. This redundancy allows the pilot to control a battle damaged aircraft, even after losing all hydraulic power. Furthermore, redundant primary structural and control surfaces enhance survivability. Lastly, the long low-set wings are designed to allow flight, even if half a wing is completely blown off. No other modern aircraft — including the F-16 — can survive such punishment. The wings themselves are set low to allow for more weaponry to fit beneath the aircraft.

The General Electric Aircraft Armament Subsystem A/A49E-6 (30 millimeter Gun System) is located in the forward nose section of the fuselage. The gun system consists of the 30mm Gatling gun mechanism, double-ended linkless ammunition feed, storage assembly and hydraulic drive system. The General Electric GAU-8/A 30mm seven barrel cannon, specifically designed for the A-10, provides unmatched tank killing capability. The gun fires armor-piercing projectiles capable of penetrating heavy armor. It also fires a high explosive incendiary round, which is extremely effective against soft skinned targets like trucks. The cannon fires at a rate of 4,200 rounds per minute. The A-10’s maneuverability, teamed with the gun’s accuracy, allows the pilot quick reaction with lethal effects. Other weapons include the AGM-65 Maverick and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

Thunderbolt IIs have Night Vision Imaging Systems (NVIS), compatible single-seat cockpits forward of their wings and a large bubble canopy which provides pilots all-around vision. The ACES-II ejection seat safely operates from 518 miles per hour down to zero speed and zero altitudes.

Avionics equipment includes communications, inertial navigation systems, computer-aided fire control and weapons delivery systems, electronic countermeasures, target penetration aids and self-protection systems. The A-10 employs both electronic and infrared countermeasures against enemy weapons systems. The weapons delivery system incorporates a heads-up display that provides the pilot with references for flight control and weapons employment. The weapons delivery systems include head-up displays that indicate airspeed, altitude and dive angle on the windscreen, a low altitude safety and targeting enhancement system (LASTE) which provides constantly computing impact point freefall ordnance delivery; and Pave Penny laser-tracking pods under the fuselage.

The A-10/OA-10 have excellent maneuverability at low air speeds and altitude, and are highly accurate weapons-delivery platforms. The A-10 has half the turning radius of the Air Force’s other primary CAS aircraft, the F-16. After initially leaving a target, the A-10 can turn around and hit the same target again, all in around 7 seconds. Due to its large combat radius, the Thunderbolt II can loiter for extended periods of time, allowing for the coordination required to employ within yards of friendly forces. They can operate under 1,000-foot ceilings (300 meters) with 1.5-mile (2.4 kilometers) visibility. Using night vision goggles, A-10/ OA-10 pilots can conduct their missions during darkness. The A-10s highly accurate weapons delivery system makes it effective against all ground targets including tanks and other armored vehicles.

The aircraft is capable of worldwide deployment and operation from austere bases with minimal support equipment. Their short takeoff and landing capability permit operations in and out of locations near front lines. In addition to its survivability, the A-10 has the ability to land on unimproved airfields and be flown and maintained near Army ground troops. Highly effective and efficient in combat, the A-10 is capable of sustaining operations on unimproved airfields near ground troops — keys to success in conducting small operations against hostile forces. The A-10’s rapid re-fueling and re-arming capability allows it to operate from forward bases close to the front lines. It is also capable of refueling in the air.

In 2007, the A-10 was expected to be in USAF service until 2028 and possibly later, when it may be replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Critics have said that replacing the A-10 with the F-35 would be a “giant leap backwards” given the A-10’s performance and the F-35’s rising costs. In 2012, the Air Force considered the F-35B STOVL variant as a replacement CAS aircraft, but concluded that the aircraft could not generate sufficient sorties. In 2012, the USAF proposed disbanding five A-10 squadrons in its budget request to cut its fleet of 348 A-10s by 102 to lessen cuts to multi-mission aircraft. In August 2013, Congress and the Air Force examined various proposals, including the F-35 and the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle filling the A-10’s role. Proponents state that the A-10’s armor and cannon are superior to aircraft such as the F-35 that guided munitions could be jammed; and that ground commanders frequently request A-10 support.

In the Air Force’s FY 2015 budget, the service considered retiring the A-10 and other single-mission aircraft, prioritizing multi-mission aircraft; cutting a whole fleet and its infrastructure is seen as the only method for major savings. Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve members argued that allocating all A-10s to their control would achieve savings; half of the fleet is operated by the Air National Guard. The U.S. Army also expressed interest in obtaining A-10s. The U.S. Air Force stated that retirement would save $3.7 billion from 2015 to 2019. Guided munitions allow more aircraft to perform the CAS mission, reducing the requirement for a specialized aircraft; since 2001, multirole aircraft and bombers performed 80 percent of CAS missions. The A-10 is also more vulnerable to advanced anti-aircraft defenses. The Army stated that the A-10 is invaluable for its versatile weapons loads, psychological impact, and reduced logistics needs on ground support systems.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 prohibited the Air Force from spending money during FY 2014 on retiring the A-10; it did not change scheduled reductions of two aircraft per month, reducing the operational total to 283. On 27 January 2014, General Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command, stated that while other aircraft in the A-10’s role may not be as good, they were more viable in environments where the A-10 was potentially useless and that retaining the A-10 would mean cuts being imposed on other areas. Equivalent cost saving measures include cutting the entire B-1 Lancer bomber fleet or 350 F-16s; the F-16 fleet would either be reduced by a third or perform most CAS missions until the F-35 becomes fully operational. On 24 February 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel presented a budget plan that would retire the A-10 over five years to fund the F-35A.

There were accusations that the A-10’s retirement is due to less importance placed on ground support and that it would risk lives. Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno told Congress that while the Army did not recommend retiring the A-10, he understood the Air Force’s budget decision, and that both services would work together to develop better CAS tactics for the F-16; the Senate viewed that as a new solution to one already in place. On 23 April 2014, Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh defended the plan to divest the A-10 as “logical” and that analysis showed that the choice was the least operationally harmful, as well increased cost savings to $4.2 billion. He also revealed alternative cost-saving measures the Air Force rejected such as: F-35A deferments; further F-15 Eagle cuts; ISR and air mobility fleet reductions; extensive tanker fleet reductions; command and control cuts; and grounding some long-range strike platforms.

The House Armed Services Committee passed an amendment to their FY 2015 markup blocking A-10 retirement, stipulating that the fleet cannot be retired or stored until the U.S. Comptroller General completes certifications and studies on the abilities of other platforms used to perform CAS. The Senate Armed Services Committee markup directed $320 million saved from personnel cuts to retain the A-10. Both Armed Services Committees of Congress draft plans kept the A-10 in service for at least another year. The House Appropriations Committee voted in favor of retiring the A-10 fleet, but the House FY 2015 spending bill blocked the retirement during 2015.

Operational readiness for F-35A introduction may have to be pushed back in part due to the blocking of A-10 retirement since the Air Force claims keeping it is keeping maintainers needed to work on the F-35. Lawmakers are backing bills to prevent A-10 retirement in FY 2015, but up to 36 planes could be allowed to be moved to back-up status to free up maintainers to work on the F-35, provided a review is conducted to see if other ways to provide manpower for maintaining fighter fleets and fielding the F-35 on time cannot be found

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