Thursday, May 24, 2018
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So It's Ugly, Big Deal
Walter Salm, Editor

"Ugly as sin." That was my first impression of the Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, also lovingly known as "Warthog" because it really is ugly and has a lot of metal "warts" on its skin. I first saw the Warthog in the boneyard at Tucson's Davis-Monthan AFB. In the boneyard. Turns out these few retired aircraft are kept there for spare parts, since Tucson is the home base for these aircraft when they're not deployed, and they stopped manufacturing the A-10 in 1984. I am happy to report that the A-10 is still alive and well in all its ugliness, and in its latest assignment, is blasting away at ISIS positions in Iraq. My wife and I would drive through the Tucson boneyard every time we went into town on our weekly shopping expedition, since Kolb Avenue runs right through the middle of the Air Force base and was the shortest route from I-10 to CostCo and Trader Joe's.

The Warthog is uniquely qualified for its new assignment in spite of repeated efforts by USAF brass to be rid of the plane. The Air Force chiefs never quite accepted the A-10; it's slow and ugly and lacks the glamour of the zippy new ultra-fast and ultra-expensive F-35s that in spite of their glitz, can't provide much in the way of close support for grunts on the ground — certainly not the way the A-10 can. Recently, an Air Force four-star appeared before Congress and tried to kill the Warthog's annual operating budget of $300 million. This money, if freed up, might pay for as many as 3 new F-35s. Wow.

First manufactured in 1976, the A-10 rolled off the assembly lines with a delivered price tag of $18.8 million — a lot cheaper than the F-35's current cost of $98 million or more. Some F-35 versions are expected to cost as much as $116 million, and we're not even sure how well they will perform.

The A-10's principal armament is its 30 mm Gatling cannon, which fires large depleted uranium armor-piercing rounds, at a rate of 3,900 rounds per minute. It makes a sound like a big zipper being unzipped. The Gatling gun itself is about the size of a Volkswagon Beetle, and the plane was designed and built around the gun, which protrudes from the nose. The plane also has 11 hard points that can mount bombs, racks of rockets and missiles. The A-10 gives the military a lot of bang for the buck, and I'm awfully glad they still have a whole bunch of them in operation.

The Warthog's first combat appearance was in 1991 in the Gulf War. Its fearsome firepower accounted for the destruction of over 900 tanks, 2,000 other military vehicles, and 1,200 artillery pieces. It also saw service in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

This is intentionally not a fast flying plane; its cruising speed is about 350 mph, and it is designed to "loaf" over battlefields, remaining available to be called in by ground troops to take out difficult enemy targets, a task at which it excels.

The aircraft carries an exceptional amount of armor, which provides lots of protection for Air Force pilots, and along with redundant control systems has contributed to bringing pilots back alive in badly shot-up planes. USAF pilots love the plane; USAF generals hate it. They believe the Air Force's primary mission is to provide high-flying speed and glitz and to carry nuclear bombs. Yet the A-10 is incredibly well-suited to fight the kinds of wars we are now involved in.

Fortunately, Congress has provided repeated renewals for the A-10, with upgrades for its electronics and engines, and the plane is now expected to be around at least until 2029. That's the earliest that the USAF believes it can have a suitable replacement ready to go into service, probably at a very high cost per plane. The generals still labor under the delusion that the $100 million super-fast F-35 can provide good ground support. It can't, but it's doubtful that they'll ever admit it. In the meantime, the ugly, wonderful Warthog continues to do a job that can be done by no other military aircraft. It's incredibly effective at its job, and it brings the pilots back alive every time, while continuing to work at bargain prices.  

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