The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun

Built tough, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, or Warthog, is one of the most recognizable aircraft ever designed and built.
Christopher McFadden
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The A-10 Thunderbolt II is literally death from the sky incarnate.

Staff Sgt. William Hopper/Wikimedia Commons  

  • The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II first took to the air in the 1970s.
  • Something in the order of 715 was ever built, with the last one coming into service in 1984.
  • Since then, they have continued to be upgraded and repaired and should continue to serve until around 2040.

First built almost 50 years ago, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Lightning II is one of the most robust and powerful aircraft worldwide. Armed with a terrifying 30mm Gatling gun that fires depleted uranium ammunition, this aircraft can give as good as it takes.

While she has aged gracefully, there is talk of replacing the A-10 fleet in the not-too-distant future. But that won't be until at least 2040.

So, want to know a little about this ugly yet graceful war bird? Let's take a look.

What is the A-10 Thunderbolt II?

The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II is a single-seat, straight-wing, subsonic attack plane made for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and designed for close air support of ground forces. It has two turbofan engines and a straight wing. It has been in service since 1976 and is named after the equally famous Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a World War II fighter-bomber known as the "Warthog" or "Hog," which was very effective at hitting ground targets.

Each plane can carry 13 tons of weaponry in the air and weighs roughly 12 tons without armament. They each cost an average of $26.6 million to build.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun
The Thunderbolt II is named after the WW2 Thunderbolt.

It is sometimes referred to as the "A-10 Warthog" because of its intimidating appearance and is frequently painted with fangs or a shark's mouth on the nose cone. Perhaps the most infamous feature of the A-10 is its terrifying GAU-8 Avenger 30mm Gatling cannon placed on the nose. The GAU-8 can fire high explosive incendiary rounds and depleted uranium bullets that can penetrate armor.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is a highly accurate and resilient weapons delivery platform with good mobility at low air speeds and altitudes. The aircraft can operate in low ceiling and visibility situations while loitering close to active fighting zones.

Operations can occur in and out of places close to the front lines because of the broad combat radius and quick takeoff and landing capabilities. A-10 pilots may fly missions at night by donning night vision goggles.

The A-10 was the first production-made U.S. aircraft explicitly built for close air support (CAS) that operated with the U.S. Air Force. To this end, it has been designed from the ground up to support allied ground troops by striking armored vehicles, tanks, and other hostile ground forces.

Its secondary duty is to direct other aircraft in attacks on ground targets; this function is known as forward air controller-airborne, and most aircraft engaged in it are given the OA-10 designation.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun
The A-10 Thunderbolt II is often seen with a shark's mouth decal on its nose.

With features like 1,200 pounds (540 kg) of titanium armor to safeguard the cockpit and aircraft systems, it was built with a durable airframe, as well as self-sealing fuel cells that are protected by internal and external foam and can withstand damage and keep flying.

Its simple design enables maintenance with little facilities, and its ability to take off and land from relatively short runways allows operation from airstrips close to the front lines.

The A-10 made a name for itself during the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), the American-led intervention against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The A-10 also took part in various wars, including those in Grenada, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East campaign against self-proclaimed ISIS.

Although one pre-production airframe was converted into the YA-10B twin-seat prototype to test an all-weather, night-capable version, the A-10A single-seat form was the only one built. A program to convert the remaining A-10A aircraft to the A-10C type with contemporary avionics for precision armament was launched in 2005.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II was supposed to replace the A-10 when it entered service, but the USAF and political circles are still very divided about this. The A-10's service life can be prolonged to 2040 with several improvements and wing replacements; as of June 2017, the service has no set retirement date.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun
The A-10 may stay in service for at least another decade.

What is the A-10 Thunderbolt used for?

As we previously mentioned, and in the United States Air Force's own words, "the A-10C Thunderbolt II is the first Air Force aircraft specially designed for close air support of ground forces."

They can be deployed against any land-based target, including tanks and other armored vehicles, light maritime attack aircraft, and a wide variety of ground installations like radar arrays.

The A-10C maintains a highly accurate weapons delivery platform while providing excellent mobility at low airspeeds and altitudes. They can land in harsh conditions, linger close to the action for extended periods, and operate in conditions with visibility of 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) and ceilings of 1,000 feet (303.3 meters).

The A-10 can also operate above, below, and in adverse weather conditions thanks to its capacity to carry precision-guided and unguided missiles. Operations in and out of positions close to front lines are made possible by their extensive combat radius and quick takeoff and landing capability.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun
The A-10 is a formidable aircraft.

A-10C pilots can still perform their duties for nighttime missions by donning night vision goggles through integration with its Night Vision Imaging Systems (NVIS).

Due to its relatively low speed and tendency to get in close, the aircraft must also be able to take some punishment and dish it out.

To this end, the aircraft can withstand direct blows from 23mm high explosive and armor-piercing ammunition. Foam on the inside and outside of them protects their self-sealing fuel cells. Manual mechanisms back up their redundant hydraulic flight-control systems.

This enables pilots to take off and land even without hydraulic power.

"The Thunderbolt II can be serviced and operated from bases with limited facilities near battle areas. Many of the aircraft's parts are interchangeable left and right, including the engines, main landing gear, and vertical stabilizers.," explains the USAF.

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The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun
The A-10 can carry a wide variety of munitions and countermeasures.

Equipment used in avionics systems includes night vision goggles, GPS, inertial navigation, fire control, and weapons delivery systems. Their weapons delivery systems include heads-up displays that provide airspeed, altitude, dive angle, navigational data, and weapons pointing references, and a low altitude safety and targeting enhancement system (LASTE) that delivers freefall munitions at continually calculating impact points.

In addition, the aircraft is equipped with armament control panels, electronic and infrared countermeasures, and missile and anti-aircraft artillery countermeasures to deal with surface-to-air threats.

A-10s are also typically armed with electronic countermeasures, target penetration aids, self-protection systems, and a variety of air-to-surface weapons such as the AGM-65 Maverick and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, as well as laser and GPS-guided munitions.

And that leads us on nicely to the A-10's sucker-punch weapon, its famed A-10 Gatling gun.

The 30mm GAU-8/A Gatling gun on the Thunderbolt II can fire 3,900 rounds per minute and destroy various ground targets, including tanks.

What will the A-10 be used for in the future?

For the most part, the A-10 will likely continue its current role as a close-ground support aircraft. But, there are rumors that it could be adapted for a new mission, with recent exercises taking place in the Pacific Theatre.

In a recent article by Business Insider, the A-10 was tested as a mothership for special drone decoys that could be deployed to confuse the enemy.

The ADM-160 Miniature Air Launched Decoys (MALD) were installed on A-10s during training exercises in the Pacific at the beginning of November 2022. The 8-foot-long (2.4 meters) MALD, which is referred to as a form of a cruise missile, weighs less than 300 pounds (136 kg) and has a 500-mile (805 km) range.

Each MALD also comes with a Signature Augmentation System that imitates the radar signature flying patterns of particular U.S. aircraft. The decoys would be deployed before a U.S. airstrike to confuse the enemy on the number and location of approaching aircraft.

"The A-10 can carry up to 16 MALDs, the same quantity as the B-52, and 12 more than the F-16," according to an Air Force news release.

While using the MALD to protect U.S. aircraft and confuse enemy air defense networks does make logical sense, using the A-10 to transport the decoys, as Business Insider points out, is an interesting proposal.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun
The ADM 160 MALD decoy is an interesting piece of kit.

A longer-range decoy-laden aircraft, such as a cargo plane or a larger drone, may be more effective, especially across the huge distances of the Pacific. The A-10 has a reasonable range of around 700 miles (1,127 km), which can be increased by aerial refueling, but is still inherently limited in range compared to a larger aircraft.

The truth behind the proposal may be more of an attempt to keep the A-10 relevant almost 50 years after it entered service rather than being the best decoy hauler around. Of course, without behind-the-scenes insider knowledge, it may be that the A-10 really is the best choice.

Is the A-10 still in production?

In short, no. And not for a long time. The last A-10 was produced 37 years ago, in 1984.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun
The last A-10 was built in the 1980s.

They've been upgraded and undergone service life extensions since then. Still, they're an old fleet, made by a company that doesn't exist anymore. Dornier absorbed Fairchild Republic in 1996, then in 1999 was acquired by the insurance company Allianz, with its assets sold off to M7 Aerospace, which later became part of Elbit Systems.

How tough is the A-10?

The A-10 is exceptionally battle-hardened and can withstand direct strikes from 23 mm high-explosive and armor-piercing rounds. It has two redundant hydraulic flying systems and a mechanical system backup if the hydraulics fail.

Not only that, but the plane is built to fly even without one engine, one elevator, one tail fin, or one wing. 

The cockpit and some flight-control systems are shielded by a "bathtub"-shaped piece of 1,200 lb (540 kg) titanium aircraft armor. Aside from direct impacts from 57 mm shell fragments, the armor has been tested to survive indirect hits from 23 mm cannon fire.

It is so heavily armored that roughly 1/5th of the aircraft's empty weight is made up of armor. A multi-layer nylon spall barrier is applied to any interior surface of the tub that is in direct contact with the pilot to prevent shell fragmentation. The canopy and front windscreen are impervious to small-arms fire. 

And all this armor is not just for show. It is regularly put through its paces.

For example, during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, an A-10 flown by Captain Kim Campbell sustained significant damage, including damage to the hydraulic system. Still, she returned the plane safely to the base in manual reversion mode.

The A-10's resilience was also tested on April 7, 2003, when Captain Kim Campbell sustained significant flak damage while flying over Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Fire from Iraq destroyed the hydraulic system and one of her engines, again necessitating the use of the "manual reversion mode" to manage the aircraft's stabilizer and flight controls.

Campbell piloted the plane for almost an hour in this mode and landed it successfully despite the damage.

The A-10 is designed to take off from forward air bases and partially prepared runways, where there is typically a high risk of engine damage from foreign objects. The General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofan engines' peculiar placement lowers the chance of ingestion while enabling the engines to function.

At the same time, ground technicians can repair the aircraft and rearm it, shortening turnaround time. Additionally, situated closer to the ground, the wings make servicing and rearmament easier.

All four of the A-10's fuel tanks are positioned close to the center of the aircraft and are isolated from the fuselage to lessen the possibility of damage to the fuel system; projectiles would need to pass through the aircraft's skin before reaching a tank's outer skin.

The plane's gasoline transfer lines self-seal and check valves can stop fuel from entering a compromised tank if the damage is more significant than a tank's capacity for self-sealing. Most of the fuel system's parts are inside the tanks, preventing fuel loss due to component failure.

The inner and outer sides of the gasoline tanks are lined with reticulated polyurethane foam, preventing fuel from spilling and holding back debris. Firewalls and suppression systems separate the engines from the rest of the airframe. Two self-sealing sump tanks have enough gasoline to fly 230 miles (370 km) if all four main tanks are lost.

The A-10 carries flares and chaff cartridges because it flies relatively closely to enemy positions, making it an easy target for surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), hostile aircraft, and MANPADS.

Is the A-10 Thunderbolt II still in service?

It most certainly is. Owing to various upgrades and wing replacements, the A-10's service life should be able to be extended to 2040.

Boeing has recently been awarded a contract to replace the wings on the existing fleet of A-10s.

"Boeing is under contract to manage the production of 112 wing sets and spare kits. The U.S. Air Force has ordered 44 wing sets since the contract award. Under a previous contract, Boeing delivered 173 wing sets to the Air Force," explains Boeing.

"The upgraded wings are more durable, efficient, and easier to maintain," they explain.

But wings are only one part, albeit a vital one, of the A-10; the rest of the aircraft also requires ongoing maintenance, repair, and upgrade over time.

A recent article in Defense News highlights that the A-10 fleet may be under threat from under-investment.

Officials in charge of the A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft for the U.S. Air Force claim that despite efforts to retire the aged attack plane, the service is "hollowing" out its Warthog fleet by starving it of resources while still heavily using it.

The Air Force has "resourced the A-10 to divest yet flew it like an enduring fleet, rapidly accelerating [the] decline toward today's hollowing fleet," said Pamela Lee, the A-10 systems manager at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, in a briefing on March 31, 2022.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun
The A-10 has a little more life left in her yet.

Over the past 20 years, the A-10 has been used frequently to provide close-air support in the Middle East and Afghanistan. However, the Air Force has frequently tried to retire the fleet, either entirely or in part, since 2015 to free up funds, despite long-standing warnings that the A-10 would not survive a high-intensity battle in contested airspace.

"The A-10 is a great platform for an [permissive] environment," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown told the House Armed Services Committee in a Wednesday hearing. "I don't see many [permissive] environments we'll roll into in the future."

Lee claimed that the Air Force's policies have "devastated" the fleet and left it "facing perpetual issues" despite Congress rejecting all of the service's efforts.

According to Lee's briefing slides, the service postponed the "hogback" fuselage structural repair work on the A-10 from 2013 to 2019, putting 120 aircraft at risk of being grounded. She also noted that the number of A-10s traveling to depots for extensive maintenance had been reduced by more than half.

According to Lee, the A-10's deteriorating engine nacelles pose a greater threat to the aircraft's readiness than its wings. She further claimed that the A-10's efforts to re-wing are failing, with only 173 of the service's 281 Warthogs receiving new wings. According to Lee, this prevents 145 A-10s from flying a six-month deployment.

The Air Force has until the second quarter of 2023 to purchase new wings before it runs the risk of experiencing a "stalled recovery," according to the slides. She claimed it would take at least ten years to address the depot issue, the wing, and other problems.

According to Lee, if Congress rejects the military's request to begin retiring the A-10, swift action will be required to address the worst effects of these choices.

General Brown stated during the committee hearing that the service intends to purchase new wing kits for about 218 A-10s. In its FY23 budget request, the service requested the retirement of 21 A-10s, leaving it with 260 Warthogs, none of which, according to Brown, will be re-winged.

Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich., expressed doubt over the Air Force's ostensible plan to purchase insufficient wing kits for all remaining A-10s and questioned whether only 218 aircraft need new wings.

According to how many A-10s the U.S. maintains, Brown stated. "If we start retiring A-10s, what we don't want to do is acquire more wing kits than we're going to need."

According to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, the remaining 42 A-10s would still be able to fly even if they didn't receive new wings.

Additionally, Kendall stated that if given the option, the Air Force would retire its A-10 fleet by the end of the following five-year plan.

But, the aircraft is aging, so replacements are currently being sought by the United States Armed Forces.

What will replace the A-10 when it retires?

In one example, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II was supposed to replace the A-10 when it entered service, but the USAF and political circles are still very divided about this.

One exciting possibility is an aircraft called the "Machete." Developed by a Minnesota-based startup company, the "Machete" is advertised as a revolutionary assault plane made of a new metal foam created in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun
The "Machete" could be a potential A-10 replacement.

As reported by the Dail Mail in 2017, the "Machete" will come with the same 30mm cannon as the Warthog; it potentially replaces the lightweight, robust metal foam that can deflect bullets and other projectiles in much less space than conventional armor.

It will come in two main variants from what has been released about it: a propeller-powered SM-27 and a jet-propelled SM-28. Additionally, the startup has discussed creating Machete models for advanced training and air-to-air combat.

Instead of using conventional armor, the plane would be made of metal foam. This makes it stronger, lighter, and able to stop bullets in a smaller space.

The SM-27 and SM-28 will be single-engine, single-seat aircraft with the same GAU-8 gun that the A-10's predecessor used in its triumph in the early 1990s.

According to David Axe of War is Boring.com, Stavatti, an aeronautical startup, revived an old Machete idea that was first offered in 2009.

However, the design has advanced and changed since it was first introduced in early 2009. For example, the innovative metal foam is included in the design to enable the plane to deflect missiles with less space than conventional armor.

Afsaneh Rabiei, an engineering professor at North Carolina State University, who conducted the tests on the metal foam, claimed that it could stop the bullet at a total thickness of less than an inch and with an indentation on the back that was less than eight millimeters deep.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun
The "Machete" would be as equally armed and armored as the A-10.

Additionally, according to the Daily Mail, Stavatti has discussed plans for Machete models that would be utilized for advanced training and air-to-air warfare. The SM-27 and SM-28 will be single-engine, single-seat aircraft with the same GAU-8 gun that the A-10's predecessor used in its triumph in the early 1990s.

The Machete was first brought up when the Air Force considered buying 100 light attack aircraft to take the place of A-10s on important missions since they were more expensive than $10,000 per flying hour. The Air Force's preference for lightweight aircraft did, however, decline after 2009, when Congress imposed budget constraints.

The military even went to retire the remaining A-10s, but Congress intervened to rescue the Warthog fleet, announcing that A-10 cuts would be postponed until the 2040s.

Can an A-10 win a dogfight?

Believe it or not, it most certainly can. There is one particular A-10 with an F-22 and an F-16 among its victories.

The Aviation Geek Club reported that in 2019, an intriguing photo emerged of an A-10 Warthog with what appear to be two kill markings, signifying two (simulated) aerial wins against F-16 and F-22 fighter aircraft.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is basically a giant flying gatling gun
Image of an A-10 with kill markings including an F-22 and F-16 (circled in red).

While the specific circumstances surrounding these kill marks are unknown, and despite the A-10's reputation as a ferocious machine, it would be challenging for the fabled "Hog" to score kills against the F-16 and F-22 fighters.

The A-10 in the picture above is a "demo bird," which most likely belongs to the USAF Air Combat Command A-10 Demo Team. It bears the markings of other demo teams' aircraft, including fighter jets like the F-22 and the F-16, which typically fly in formation during airshows across the country.

To demonstrate the distinctive combat capability of the A-10 "Warthog," the Air Combat Command A-10C Thunderbolt II Demonstration Team, based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, brings the aircraft to air shows across the United States. They display the purpose and professionalism of the men and women of the United States Air Force while performing precise aerial maneuvers.

But, simulations aside, the A-10 could, theoretically, stand a chance in a dogfight with even the most modern fighters. The main reason is that it is one rugged aircraft.

It has a turning radius that would make any modern fighter blush and can fire 3,900 depleted uranium 30mm rounds at a target each minute. But, it is important to note that even the most advanced A-10C, with its revised cockpits and increased capacity for ordnance, isn't equipped to compete with most of today's fighters.

It is not designed for that!

According to sources like SANDBOXX, most active A-10 pilots don't give dogfights much thought as they shouldn't find themselves having to deal with other fighters during combat. As a result, A-10s frequently work with air superiority fighters like the venerable F-15 Eagle, which take down enemy jets before they can engage any "Warthogs."

But, to paraphrase Robert Burns, even the best-laid plans of mice and men can go awry, especially in the heat of battle. However, that doesn't mean it wouldn't have a chance.

The Air Force sends its top A-10 pilots to Weapons School twice a year, receiving advanced training to instruct the remainder of the force in their respective wings. While it might seem that A-10 pilots would begin by attacking ground targets with firepower, they begin with BFM.

They'll be in shock if a "leaker," or opposing fighter, does manage to slip through. Being slow and maneuverable can help in a duel versus fast-moving jets, as American fighter pilots in Vietnam saw firsthand.

Only the thrust-vectoring F-22 Raptor from Uncle Sam's arsenal could match that, and even then, it would have to slow down to about 300 knots to negate its speed advantage over the A-10 (though the F-22 could put a lot more power down when compensating).

Remember that dogfights don't have to last for even an entire minute, unlike in the movies. Depending on how well one pilot does (or how badly the other does), combat may last only for the same amount of time as it takes for two jets to complete one circle after merging (where they meet head-on).

The A-10's small turn radius lets it point its nose at an opposing fighter before the enemy can turn its cannons against it. The fact that the A-10 is equipped with a 30mm GAU-8 cannon, much more potent than the 20mm cannons often found on other fighters, makes things worse for the fighter.

Despite the GAU-8's strength, the "Warthog" also carries other weapons that can assist it in defeating a rival plane. For example. The A-10 also carries two AIM-9M sidewinder missiles in case of a dogfight. The A-10 has the power to attack an enemy fighter at a distance thanks to the AIM-9s, which are infrared-guided weapons with a 22-mile range.

The A-10's small turning circle and AIM-9s deliver a terrifying one-two punch for aggressive adversary fighters. When confronted with an A-10 nearby, an adversary airplane has to make one of two challenging decisions: either attempt to outturn the A-10 (not likely) or perform a tactical retreat.

But that would put a pilot at the mercy of the A-10's sidewinders unless they are already spent.

And that is your lot for today.

The A-10 is one of the USAF's fleet's most unique and best-known jets. She has served her country with distinction for almost 50 years and looks to be around for some time.

But, plans are afoot to replace her aging airframe with more modern replacements like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II. When the last A-10 finally retires, it will be a sad day for anyone who loves this street fighter of an aircraft.