Here's what it's like to fly attack missions in the A-10
A-10 Thunderbolt IIs break over the Pacific Alaska Range Complex and one aircraft drops a flare during live-fire training | U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Robert Wieland
Known for an ability to keep flying after taking multiple rounds of enemy machine gun fire, land and operate in rugged terrain, destroy groups of enemy fighters with a 30mm cannon and unleash a wide arsenal of attack weapons, the A-10 is described by pilots as a "flying tank" in the sky -- able to hover over ground war and provide life-saving close air support in high-threat combat environments.
"It is built to withstand more damage than any other frame that I know of. It's known for its ruggedness," A-10 pilot Lt. Col. Ryan Haden, 23rd Fighter Group Deputy, Moody AFB, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
The pilot of the A-10 is surrounded by multiple plates of titanium armor, designed to enable the aircraft to withstand small-arms fire and keep flying its attack missions.
"The A-10 is not agile, nimble, fast or quick," Haden said. "It's deliberate, measured, hefty, impactful calculated and sound. There's nothing flimsy or fragile about the way it is constructed or about the way that it flies."
A-10 Thunderbolt II, affectionately known as the Warthog, has been in service since the late 1970s and served as a close air support combat aircraft in conflicts such as the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, among others.
Having flown combat missions in the A-10, Haden explained how the aircraft is specially designed to survive enemy ground attacks.
"There are things built in for redundancy. If one hydraulic system fails, another one kicks in," he said.
If the aircraft loses all of its electronics including its digital displays and targeting systems, the pilot of an A-10 can still fly, drop general purpose bombs and shoot the 30mm cannon, Haden explained.
"So when I lose all the computers and the calculations, the targeting pod and the heads up display, you can still point the aircraft using a degraded system at the target and shoot. We are actually trained for that," he said.
Unlike other air platforms built for speed, maneuverability, air-to-air dogfighting and air-to-air weapons, the A-10 is specifically engineered around its gun, a 30mm cannon aligned directly beneath the fuselage. The gun is also called a GAU-8/A Gatling gun.
"The 30mm cannon has 7 barrels. They are centered the way the aircraft fires. The firing barrel goes right down the center line. You can point the aircraft and shoot at the ground. It is designed for air to ground attack," Haden explained.
Armed with 1,150 rounds, the 30mm cannon is able to fire 70-rounds a second.
Haden explained the gun alignment as being straight along the fuselage line without an upward "cant" like many other aircraft have. Also, the windows in the A-10 are also wider to allow pilots a larger field of view with which to see and attack targets.
A-10C aircraft from the Maryland Air National Guard stationed at Warfield Air National Guard base in Baltimore, Maryland flying in formation during a training exercise. | U.S. Air Force photo
The engines of the A-10 are mounted high so that the aircraft can land in austere environments such as rugged, dirty or sandy terrain, Haden said. The engines on the A-10 are General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofans.
"I've seen this airplane land on a desert strip with the main gear buried in a foot of sand. On most planes, this would have ripped the gear up, but the A-10 turned right around and took off," he added.
There have been many instances where A-10 engines were shot up and the pilots did not know until the returned from a mission, Haden said.
These aerodynamic configurations and engine technology allow the A-10 to fly slower and lower, in closer proximity to ground forces and enemy targets.
"The wings are straight and broadened. The engines are turbofan. They were selected and designed for their efficiency, not because of an enormous thrust. We have a very efficient engine that allows me to loiter with a much more efficient gas-burn rate," Haden said.
Close Air Support
By virtue of being able to fly at slower speeds of 300, the A-10 can fly beneath the weather at altitudes of 100 feet. This gives pilots and ability to see enemy targets with the naked eye, giving them the ability to drop bombs, fire rockets and open fire with the 30mm cannon in close proximity to friendly forces.
"We shoot really close to people. We do it 50-meters away from people. I can sometimes see hands and people waving. If I get close enough and low enough I can see the difference between good guys and bad guys and shoot," Haden explained.
The aircraft's bombs, rockets and cannon attack enemies up close or from miles sway, depending on the target and slant range of the aircraft, Haden added.
"We deliver the munitions by actually going from a base position – then pointing the jet at the ground and then pulling the trigger once we reach the desired range," he explained.
The A-10 uses both "Lightning" and "Sniper" pods engineered with infrared and electro-optical sensors able to find targets for the pilot.
"The aircraft uses the same targeting pod as F-15E and F-16. However, most of the fighters can't transition between the two targeting pods and we can, based on our software," Haden said.
The A-10 carries a full complement of weapons to include Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM GPS-guided bombs; its arsenal includes GBU 38s, GBU 31s, GBU 54s, Mk 82s, Mk 84s, AGM-65s (Maverick missiles), AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and rockets along with illumination flares, jammer pods and other protective countermeasures. The aircraft can carry 16,000 pounds of mixed ordnance; eight can fly under the wings and three under-fuselage pylon station, Air Force statements said.
A-10 Avionics Technology
Pilots flying attack missions in the aircraft communicate with other aircraft and ground forces using radios and a data-link known at LINK 16. Pilots can also text message with other aircraft and across platforms, Haden added.
The cockpit is engineered with what is called the CASS cockpit, for Common Avionics Architecture System, which includes moving digital map displays and various screens showing pertinent information such as altitude, elevation, surrounding terrain and target data.
A-10A Thunderbolt II cockpit |U.S. Air Force Museum
A-10 pilots also wear a high-tech helmet which enables them to look at targeting video on a helmet display.
"I can project my targeting pod video into my eye so I can see the field of view. If something shoots at me I can target it simply by looking at it," he explained.
During the early months of combat in Operation Enduring Freedom, in a battle known as "Operation Anaconda," Haden's A-10 wound up in a fast-moving, dynamic combat circumstance wherein U.S. military were attacking Taliban fighters in the Afghan mountains.
During the mission in March of 2002, Haden was able to see and destroy Taliban anti-aircraft artillery, guns and troop positions.
"We could see tracer fire going from one side of the valley to the other side of the valley. We were unable to tell which was from good guys and which was from bad guys. Using close air support procedures in conjunction with our sensors on board, we deconstructed the tactical situation and then shot," he said.
The Future of the A-10
Many lawmakers, observers, veterans, analysts, pilots and members of the military have been following the unfolding developments regarding the Air Force's plans for the A-10. Citing budgetary reasons, Air Force leaders had said they planned to begin retiring its fleet of A-10s as soon as this year. Some Air Force personnel maintained that other air assets such as the F-16 and emerging F-35 multi-role stealth fighter would be able to fill the mission gap and perform close air support missions once the A-10 retired.
However, a chorus of concern from lawmakers and the A-10s exemplary performance in the ongoing air attacks against ISIS – has lead the Air Force to extend the planned service life of the aircraft well into the 2020s. Despite the claim that other air assets could pick up the close air support mission, advocates for the A-10 consistently state that the platform has an unmatched ability to protect ground troops and perform the close air support mission.
Sending the close-air-support aircraft to the bone yard would save an estimated $4.2 billion over five years alone, Air Force officials previously said.
The overall costs of the program including life cycle management, sustainment and upkeep had made the A-10 budget targets for the service, however many lawmakers pushed back on the plans.
There have been many advocates for the A-10 among lawmakers who have publically questioned the prior Air Force strategy to retire the aircraft. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. and Sen. John McCain have been among some of the most vocal supporters of the A-10.
On several occasions, Ayotte has challenged the Air Force decision to retire the plane.
"The A-10 has saved many American lives, and Senator Ayotte is concerned that the Air Force might prematurely eliminate the A-10 before there is a replacement aircraft—creating a dangerous close air support capability gap that could put our troops at risk," an Ayotte official said several months ago.McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed the news that the A-10 might remain longer than the Air Force had planned.
"I welcome reports that the Air Force has decided to keep the A-10 aircraft flying through fiscal year 2017, ensuring our troops have the vital close-air support they need for missions around the world. Today, the A-10 fleet is playing an indispensable role in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and assisting NATO's efforts to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe," McCain said in a recent statement.
Also, the A-10 has been performing extremely well in ongoing attacks against ISIS, creating an operational demand for the durable aircraft and therefore reportedly informing this Air Force decision.
"With growing global chaos and turmoil on the rise, we simply cannot afford to prematurely retire the best close air support weapon in our arsenal without fielding a proper replacement. When the Obama Administration submits its 2017 budget request in the coming weeks, I hope it will follow through on its plan to keep the A-10 flying so that it can continue to protect American troops, many still serving in harm's way," McCain added.\
Although the continued existence of the A-10 is assured well into the next decade, the debate about what, if anything, might be able to replace it is quite likely to continue.