12th December 2014 (Updated 21st January 2015) | Washington, DC. Often described as “ugly but invaluable,” the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II will for a time continue to support troops on the ground.
It took recent action by concerned members of Congress to save the ‘Warthogs’ and the battle to save the birds continues. The Pentagon bureaucrats have long desired the homely planes’ removal from the USAF’s inventory.
In 1976 an early production variant of the A-10 began public appearances. Many who witnessed flying demonstrations later that year were impressed. The Thunderbolt II was armored, could turn on a dime, and the 30mm GAU-8/A Gatling gun could undoubtedly quickly destroy tanks and vehicles. Yet, questions remained.
The following July, during a demo flight near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, one civilian Airframe and Powerplant mechanic mused, “Could the type survive in a ‘low and slow’ combat environment, and what about those exposed tires? If A-10s ever saw intense action would there be many crash landings as a result of punctured tires?”
The man was referring to the fact that, like the Seversky P-35 and Boeing B-17, both designs from the 1930s, after the landing gear was retracted the main wheels partially protruded from beneath the wings!
When A-10s entered service in March 1976 it was envisioned as a counter to enemies’ numerical advantage in tanks. Europe and Korea were the envisioned areas in which the unattractive ‘Warthogs’ were expected to be battle tested.
A-10s were initially somewhat unwelcome. Pilots assigned to the Thunderbolt II were unhappy because they wanted to fly an aircraft possessing sleek lines and a capability for high speed flight.
Nevertheless, without firing a shot in anger, A-10s provided a potent deterrent during the Cold War. However, the Thunderbolt IIs remained unproven.
The 1991 Gulf War would change perceptions and demonstrate the potency and value of the design, which is credited in part to colleagues and devotees of Colonel John Boyd‘s revolutionary design theories.
Warthogs flew many thousands of missions, destroying scores of Iraqi armored vehicles and artillery pieces in addition to downing at least two helicopters. All this was accomplished with the loss of only two A-10s.
Decades ago a teenage girl commented to a television news reporter about the appeal of the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger: “He’s so ugly he’s cute!” In a similar vein U.S. airmen suddenly found Warthogs very attractive and desirable mounts.
Infantrymen possess something akin to the aforementioned individuals’ sentiments when speaking of the aged ‘Warthog,’ for the U.S. Air Force’s premier Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft has saved many a soldier from a dangerous situation. Additionally, enemies possess a deadly fear of the straight-winged harbinger of death and destruction.
Early in the Vietnam Conflict USAF leaders discovered the service lacked an adequate CAS support aircraft; supersonic fighter-bombers could not get down low and slow enough to repeatedly put ordnance directly onto enemy troops and equipment and afterward loiter in the area while ground forces slowly advanced past and through hindrances. Furthermore, pinpoint accuracy is required during CAS and lives are at stake when delivering munitions.
An interim solution was found and pressed into service. Rugged Douglas Skyraiders, designed for the U.S. Navy toward the end of World War II, began to wear USAF livery. A National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Skyraider factsheet records the results:
“Its ability to carry an immense amount of weapons and stay over the battlefield for extended periods of time made it a powerful weapon. This aircraft provided close air support to ground forces, attacked enemy supply lines, and protected helicopters rescuing airmen downed in enemy territory.” The aforementioned essential capabilities and tasks are currently provided by A-10s. Warthogs are their worthy successors.
In dispatching a Rockwell B-1B Lancer in 9 June 2014 to support ground forces, tragically resulting in friendly fire deaths (see article A-10 Warthog Retirement Debated After Replacement’s Role in ‘Friendly Fire’ Deaths), some would say that USAF forgot the wisdom contained in the following Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás (aka George Santayana) quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A significant number of vocal and influential Congresspersons have decided that controversial budgeting goals and proposed changes in priorities should not risk a reduction in efficiency and effectiveness relating to the protection of American and allies’ lives. As a result, one can only hope that the beloved ‘hogs’ will hopefully continue to fly.
The author (John Stemple) thanks William Commerford for supplying information related to the damage inflicted by A-10s and other coalition aircraft on enemy vehicles moving along the ‘Highway of Death‘ in Iraq.
Sources, Suggested Readings and Viewings
A-10 Thunderbolt II
A-10 Warthog Retirement Debated After Replacement’s Role in ‘Friendly Fire’ Deaths
A-10 Warthog, The Hand of God (Combat footage)
A-10 Warthog: Attack Run
A-10 Warthog Thunderbolt II – Dylan “Habu” Thorpe of A-10 East Demo Flight at Manitowoc WI 2011
Air Force: A-10 cuts would save $3.5 billion
Airpower Survey, Vol. 5.
Bill Blocks Air Force from Retiring A-10 Warthog
Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress
Coram, Robert, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002.
Coyne, James P. “Total Storm,” Air Force magazine, June 1992, “Fixed-wing Combat Aircraft Attrition, list of Gulf War fixed-wing aircraft losses.”
Douglas A-1E Skyraider
Fairchild Republic A-10A Thunderbolt II
Friedman, Norman. “Desert Victory.” World Air Power Journal.
Highway of Death
How the A-10 Warthog became ‘the most survivable plane ever built’
Rockwell International B-1B
Senate Approves Defense Policy Bill
Senator Says Air Force Misleading Congress in Pitch to Kill A-10
Soldiers Fight to Save the A-10 Warthog
Spectacular A-10 Live Fire Action in the Desert
U.S. Troops Revisit Scene of Deadly Gulf War Barrage