Few U.S. Air Force aircraft are as popular among the ground troops of the military as the A-10 Thunderbolt, aka “The Warthog.” And it is as unpopular with our foes in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan as it is popular with our troops. The distinctive sound of the jet’s high-bypass turbofan engines is enough to make our foes cringe and hide from sight. 

The A-10 first flew on May 10, 1972, as the war in Vietnam was winding down. The Pentagon recognized the need for an updated Close Air Support (CAS) airframe to support ground troops. The Air Force didn’t want to spend money on a slow-moving airframe and pressed F-4 Phantoms and F-111s into service. But neither performed well at low speeds, so the preferred CAS was the 1940s era A-1 Skyraider. 

The A-10 was authorized for production on February 10, 1976. During its years of service, the A-10 has seen numerous upgrades as it retains its unique mission. It is the only aircraft that was designed around its huge and potent weapons system. 

The main weapon of the A-10 is the General Electric GAU-8/A Avenger, a 30 mm hydraulically driven seven-barrel Gatling-style autocannon. Designed specifically for an anti-tank role, the Avenger delivers very powerful 30mm rounds at a high rate of fire. 

The GAU-8 complete weapons system weighs 4,029 pounds with a maximum ammunition load. It measures 19 ft 5 1⁄2 inches from the muzzle to the rearmost point of the ammunition system. Its ammunition drum is 34.5 inches in diameter and 71.5 inches long. In the attached photo below you can see it in comparison to a VW Beetle.

The business end of an A-10, the GAU-8 30mm cannon next to a VW Beetle. (U.S. Air Force)

The A-10 has become one of the most preferred CAS platforms of American and coalition troops in the Middle East wars. The aircraft has outstanding maneuverability at low airspeeds and altitude and its weapons system is highly accurate. The A-10 can loiter near battle areas for extended periods of time and operate in low visibility and night conditions. 

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A-10 pilots are protected by 1,200 pounds of layered titanium armor that also protects parts of the flight-control system, which is referred to as “the bathtub.” The aircraft can survive direct hits from armor-piercing and high explosive projectiles of up to 23mm. Its self-sealing fuel cells are protected by internal and external foam. Manual systems back up the redundant hydraulic flight-control systems; this permits pilots to fly and land when hydraulic power is lost.

General characteristics

  • Primary function: close air support, airborne forward air control, combat search and rescue
  • Contractor: Fairchild Republic Co.
  • Power plant: two General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofans
  • Thrust: 9,065 pounds each engine
  • Wingspan: 57 feet, 6 inches (17.42 meters)
  • Length: 53 feet, 4 inches (16.16 meters)
  • Height: 14 feet, 8 inches (4.42 meters)
  • Weight: 29,000 pounds (13,154 kilograms)  Maximum Takeoff Weight: 51,000 pounds (22,950 kilograms)  Fuel Capacity: 11,000 pounds (7,257 kilograms)
  • Payload: 16,000 pounds (7,257 kilograms)
  • Speed: 450 nautical miles per hour (Mach 0.75)
  • Range: 2580 miles (2240 nautical miles)
  • Ceiling: 45,000 feet (13,636 meters)
  • Armament: one 30 mm GAU-8/A seven-barrel Gatling gun; up to 16,000 pounds of mixed ordnance on eight under-wing and three under-fuselage pylon stations, including 500 pound  Mk-82 and 2,000 pounds  Mk-84 series low/high drag bombs, incendiary cluster bombs, combined effects munitions, mine dispensing munitions, AGM-65 Maverick missiles, and laser-guided/electro-optically guided bombs; infrared countermeasure flares; electronic countermeasure chaff; jammer pods; 2.75-inch rockets; illumination flares and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
  • Crew: one
  • Unit cost: $18.8 million

During the first Gulf War, A-10s wreaked havoc on Iraqi armored formations in the desert. The Warthogs destroyed more than 900 tanks, 1,200 artillery pieces, and 2,000 other military vehicles. Warthogs shot down two Iraqi helicopters. In one day, a pair of A-10s destroyed 23 tanks by launching Maverick missiles as well as the GAU-8, 30mm cannon. Iraqi troops referred to the A-10 as the “Cross of Death” because of its wing shape and firepower.

The amount of damage the aircraft can survive in combat is legendary. Back in 2003, then-Captain Kim Campbell’s Warthog suffered severe damage while flying a CAS mission over Baghdad. As she was returning to base after several passes, during which she and her wingman brought fire on Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles, she felt the aircraft shudder after taking severe anti-aircraft fire. 

Captain Kim Campbell surveys the damage to her A-10 after receiving ground fire in Iraq in 2003. (U.S. Air Force)

With both hydraulic systems out, she switched to her back-up system called manual reversion. Manual reversion is a system of cranks and cables that allows the pilot to fly the aircraft under mechanical control.

“It was my last chance to try and recover the aircraft or I would be riding a parachute down into central Baghdad,” she said later in an interview.

She was able to get the aircraft righted and with the help of her wingman, brought it safely back to her base. There were hundreds of small holes on the starboard side of the fuselage and tail and a football-sized chunk was missing out of the starboard stabilizer. 

The Air Force has tried to replace the venerable but still deadly effective A-10, with its newest toy, the sleeker, faster, and stealthier F-35. But the Warthogs will continue to support our ground troops for another couple of decades. The current plans are to keep seven squadrons of A-10s, between active, reserve, and Air National Guard units, until 2040. 

That means there will be plenty of BRRRRRRT heard for years to come.