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The A-10 Warthog: Worse Than You Think

Written by George Colclough

Introduction:

“One of the most successful weapons of the post-Cold War era.”

“US Air Force A-10 Warthog Is What Enemy Combatants Fear More Than Anything.”

“Only 1 Thing Can Kill the A-10 Warthog (Not Russia).”

These are all quotes taken from headlines regarding the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, an aircraft which it’s safe to say is RATHER well regarded by the aviation enthusiast community. Often lauded for its redundant systems and its “titanium bathtub”, both of which apparently make it all but impossible to shoot down, as well as its 30mm GAU-8/A rotating cannon, which apparently can open up tanks as easily as a can opener opens up a can of baked beans, it is safe to say that the A-10 is a very well loved and highly praised aircraft… but does it deserve this praise?

Join us today dear viewers, as once again we go against the grain and present to yourselves contrary perspectives on another aircraft whose position in popular legacy is very much deeply ingrained.

As with our F-35 post, to which today’s post is very much a part two, our purpose today is not necessarily to convince you of any particular perspective on the A-10, but once again to stress to yourself the great complexity of military analyse, and how often these complicated matters are not given their due diligence or presented with appropriate nuance within the confines of the clickbait inducing articles and headlines in which their popular image is often shaped.

To do this we shall focus on two key elements of the A-10s legacy: namely its cannon, and its combat performance; both factors in which it is not difficult to argue that the A-10 comes up lacking.

With that out of the way, let’s jump right into it!

The Gau-8:

https://flic.kr/p/77VLe2

The A-10, or A-X as it was known during development was never originally envisioned to have a 30mm cannon. Contemporary wisdom of the mid 1960s saw the 20 mm rounds being fired by the M3 cannon already mounted to the Douglas A-1 Skyraider as being perfectly adequate for the task of close air support, as it was able to quite happily handle soft targets while ever more sophisticated bombs and air to surface rockets were seen as perfectly dependable for armoured targets.

This changed with the publication of the Gun System Study Group’s final report in September of 1969, which recommended a 30 mm hydraulically driven rotary cannon to be made the main armament of the A-X. The Airforce rolled with this suggestion and after some deliberation settled on the GAU-8/A.

At face value this appeared to be a great choice, as in testing with its main rival the GAU-9/A the GAU-8/A could fire 15,000 rounds between major service intervals compared to the 3,000 rounds of the GAU-9/A, had an average of 8,800 rounds between failure compared to the 846 of the GAU-9/A, only required 5.9 maintenance man hours compared to the 24.3 of the GAU-9/A, and fired a total of upto 42,000 rounds between barrel changes compared to the 1,500 rounds of the GAU-9/A. What’s more, it fired a substantially bigger round than the 20mm systems it was replacing, so it would pack more punch – what wasn’t to love?

As it turns out, actually quite a lot, because while the GAU-8/A was undoubtedly a better cannon than the GAU9/A it was pitted against in testing, praise of the GAU-8/A in its own right is predicated upon the foundation of its fundamental premise being viable, and arguably, it was not.

The shortcomings became apparent quite quickly, when a trial of the new gun was undertaken on the 14th of August 1979. The trial was conducted by the Combat Damage Assessment Team, who published their findings in the snappily named Combat damage assessment team A-10/GAU-8 low angle firings versus simulated Soviet tank company (Array 17, Aerojet). The trial saw a GAU-8/A equipped A-10 being pitted against Soviet T-62s which were stowed with full ammunition loads, fuel, oil, and dummy crews.

A total of 17 passes were made against the T-62s, and from 957 rounds fired 93 impacts were scored on six of the seven tanks, 17 of which penetrated, causing three catastrophic kills and two mobility kills. Furthermore, two of these kills were caused by a single penetration.

At face value this sounds pretty good doesn’t it? The test proved that the GAU-8/A could kill Soviet tanks, and seemingly do so quite happily… or did it? As it turns out, no, not it did not.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A-10_%22Warthog%22_(6118942664).jpg

For starters all of these kills were achieved against the side and rear armour of the T-62s, the 30mm rounds of the GAU-8/A flatly could not penetrate the frontal armour, not for want of trying however, it just that every single one round that hit the frontal armour failed to penetrate, bounced off, and subsequently failed to ruin the day of the dummy crew within.

Furthermore the hit to penetration ratio of the rounds that found their way to the T-62s was very low, some would argue this isn’t a bad figure in light of the fast firing rate and decent ammo reserves of the A-10, but when a 30×173 mm round weighs over a kilogram, at what point is it just worth carrying a different kind of ordnance rather than throwing heavy lumps of metal downrange for no effect?

There is also the fact that this test was conducted under sterile laboratory conditions, the tanks were not moving, nor were their escorts firing back, both of which in real world combat conditions would only reduce the hit to penetration ratio even further.

What’s more, the T-62s being used as targets were obsolete models by 1979, with the new and improved T-72s that the US would be facing if the Cold War went hot having thicker armour than the T-62s used during this test.

Certainly this test would suggest that the accuracy of the GAU-8/A was lacking, but it was ultimately just one test. It could well enough have just been a fluke, and to really prove this point we would need other tests that arrived at the same conclusions.

So do we have any such tests? I hear you cry out in the audience!

Well yes. Yes we do in fact.

The Combat Damage Assessment Team undertook another test on the 7th of November 1979 and published their findings in the still snappily named Combat damage assessment team : A-10/GAU-8 low angle firings versus simulated Soviet tank company (Array 22, Aerojet).

In this test 10 M47 Patton tanks were arranged in a triangle to mimic an attacking Soviet tank formation, a single A-10 was used as the attacking aircraft, and the pilot was under orders to take ten passes against the column and be as trigger happy as he pleased while doing so. During the test the sky was clear, the terrain was open, each of the Pattons was immobile and loaded up with lots of volatile and explosive ammunition, and the pilot was allowed to take as long as he wanted to line up the ideal attack vector. The conditions of this test could not have been better aligned to all but guarantee a favourable outcome for the A-10… IT’S ALMOST AS IF FAIRCHILD REPUBLIC ORCHESTRATED THE TEST THEMSELVES.

The pilot rationed his passes out equally, and made a single attack run on each tank individually and fired 174 rounds in the process, of which 90, or 51.72% impacted the Pattons, hitting eight of them and leaving two untouched. Of the rounds that landed on target 30 achieved perforations, significant results from which include catastrophic damage to 3 tanks, 1 tank immobilised and silenced, three tanks immobilised only.

All of these penetrating hits were against the rear of the Pattons, and later analysis concluded that all three of the immobilised vehicles could be made operable again in less than a day’s work. As if this wasn’t enough, the report also speculated that had the targets been more modern M60 Pattons rather than the M47s used in the test, only one would have been destroyed, and had the tanks been real Soviet T-62s as per the 14th of August 1979 test, nevermind T-72s, none at all would have been knocked out.

These tests serve to highlight the poor accuracy of the GAU-8/A: when it fires; 80% of its rounds will land within a 12m diameter circle, hardly laser precision. What’s more this is under perfect conditions and assumes that you’re not trying to hit a moving target and are firing from 1.2km away. In comparison an SDB II (GBU-53) when fired from an F-35 or another aircraft with the right sensors, can hit within 1m of a target from up to 72km away and will destroy or disable vehicles within a 10m radius. It’s kill radius will naturally differ based on environment, but you could easily expect soldiers to be incapacitated or killed at twice that.

All of this serves to build a clear picture that the A-10 isn’t as accurate, and consequently as dangerous as its popular legacy would have one believe.

And just to rub salt in the wound: the poor accuracy of the A-10 in the early days was hardly classified information either, with the results being so damning against the A-10 that many historians consider inaccuracy to be the reason why the A-10 failed to secure any export orders. Fairchild Republic was certainly keen to hoover up some juicy export contracts, and at one time both the United Kingdom and West Germany expressed an interest in the aircraft, interest that quickly waned and came to naught when the true inaccuracy of the A-10 became apparent.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A10WarthogFront.jpg

Combat History

So far this analysis has been largely theoretical. It’s all well and good giving you the audience lots of juicy facts, stats, and figures that imply that the A-10 and its cannon aren’t all they are cracked up to be, but how about in the real world… do we have any combat history to look at which proves once and for all that the A-10 is an overrated aircraft?

As luck would have it… yes we do! As much as the Cold War never went hot, and the A-10 never had to square off against the Soviet Army, there were still plenty of conflicts in which the A-10 had the opportunity to be pitted against the very Soviet armour it was designed to defeat, as Soviet armour often found its way into the inventories of nations not on the US’ christmas card list.

A prime example is the Gulf War of 1991, during which Iraq had an inventory of 1,850 T-55s, 100 T-62s, and 100 T-72s for the A-10 to prove its mettle against.

For those in the know, at first it may look odd that we have chosen to bring up the Gulf War, when at face value the aircraft performed very well. Indeed, the notion that the A-10 was successful in this conflict has firmly penetrated the common zeitgeist, and all you have to do is google “A-10 Gulf War” and you will be met with a stream of copy and paste articles which describe all manner of click inducing feats; such as the destruction of 23 Iraqi tanks in a single day and the supposed destruction of tanks 987 tanks in total.

If however one analises these various claims and reports critically, it quickly becomes apparent that the performance of the A-10 in the Gulf War was not nearly as laudable as it first appeared.

The first problem, is that the aforementioned 987 destroyed tanks figure, credited to 165 A-10s is fudged to such a high degree, that it can be considered all but total nonsense. Misreporting and misattribution of tank kills during the Gulf War was prolific and systematic, contemporary analysts routinely rejected claims of kills by other attack and close air support aircraft such as the Grumman A-6 Intruder, the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, and even foreign jets such as the Panavia Tornado and credited them to the A-10 instead, and consequently scores were falsely attributed to the A-10, leaving its kill count grossly overinflated.

Depending upon who you ask this culture of false attribution was caused either by an internal bias in favour of the A-10 by contemporary analysts so ingrained that they simply didn’t look into kills deeply enough, assuming they must be the handiwork of an A-10, or an active conspiracy within the United States Airforce to protect their image after investing so much of their time and energy into promoting the A-10 as a viable weapons platform.

Further evidence for the disappointing performance of the A-10 comes from its losses; the fact that this supposedly durable and resilient aircraft, with its famous titanium tub and structural redundancies that supposedly make it it one of the most survivable warplanes in the sky, had a hell of a habit of falling out of the sky when it got shot at.

For starters, of the 21 aircraft that were lost by coalition forces after being hit below 12,000 feet, the very height the “low and slow” A-10 is supposed to excel at, 12 were A-10s. So worried was the US senior leadership about the losses the A-10 was suffering, that in mid February 1991 it was completely pulled from the heavily defended north of Iraq, and relegated to the south of the country where resistance against aerial assets was significantly lighter. In addition the A-10 also completely stopped making day time sorties, and was restricted only to night time operations where again resistance would be lesser.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RAR2009_-_Front_A-10_Warthog.jpg

Other aircraft, often operating in similar or identical roles as the A-10, such as the F-111, F-16, and Tornado all managed to achieve similar kill ratios to the A-10, without suffering anything even approaching comparable losses..

Similarly in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, there is a marked difference between the popular conception of the A-10, and reality. One has only to look elsewhere on this very website to bare witness to the popular zeitgeist surrounding the A-10 in these conflicts, with searches on the matter being dominated by such carefully considered and thought provoking titles as:

  • “Awesome A-10 Thunderbolt II BRRRT Compilation”
  • “A-10 Warthog BRRRT sound compilation! AWESOME!”
  • “A10 Warthog Gun Run Comparison PART 2 BRRRRT!”

And perhaps the most subtle of all, simply entitled:

  • “BRRRRRRRRRRRRT!”

In reality meanwhile, we see the inaccuracy of the A-10’s 11th hour jury rigged cannon in the procedures of the men and women it is sent to help which is: run and take cover due to the damned inaccuracy of the thing. Not only did this weaken the pressure on the enemy combatants, to whom the A-10 gave a nice little reprieve for inserting a fresh magazine and catching a breather, but shockingly, it took the Taliban the whole of maybe five minutes to notice this pattern, and begin running for cover themselves, rendering the close air support of limited utility anyway.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the A-10 was designed to kill tanks, and it can barely do that, and when bodged into the role of close air support, it isn’t much better.

Compare that to the F-35, the plane that the A-10s advocates love to malign. When flying a close air support mission the F-35 can get there three times faster and actually be relied upon to hit the enemy when it arrives: as with the right sensors, it can hit to within 1m of a target from up to 72km away and will will destroy or disable vehicles within a 10m radius – there is simply no competition between the two, proving that the A-10 is worse than you think.

Closing Remarks:

Having addressed the major downsides of the A-10, namely that it is neither as accurate, nor as survivable as its popular legacy would imagine, hopefully it is now apparent, even if you completely disagree, that assessing the success of a military aircraft such as the A-10 is no black and white matter. There are layers of nuance and complexity in the evaluation that go far beyond that which can be accurately described within the confines of a short, copy and pasted click bait article.

As with our F-35 post, the purpose of today’s post is not necessarily to convince you of any particular opinion regarding the post’s subject matter. Rather this post is a thought exercise intended to encourage us all to be more critical when rendering our verdicts on military aircraft.

With that in mind, be sure to tell us your opinion down below! Do you think that the A-10 is overrated? Or does it fully deserve its reputation? Be sure to let us know!

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