Just six years ago the U.S. Air Force was on the verge of culling its entire fleet of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, better known as Warthogs. In 2014, the then USAF Chief of Staff, Gen Mark Welsh III, said the Air Force had to retire the A-10 completely if it was to make substantial cuts to its budgets, and that it required freed-up funding and manpower to be channeled into the standup of new F-35 units. Welsh claimed divesting the close air support stalwart would save $3.7 billion across the five-year future-year defense program and another $500 million in cost avoidance for upgrades that wouldn't be necessary. How times have changed. Fast forward to 2020 and the A-10 is not only here to stay, but it’s getting a raft of upgrades to keep it relevant for years to come. New weapons, a new cockpit layout, and an overhaul of tactics are some of the elements now in the pipeline to keep the “Hawg's” tusks sharp and its community a meaningful contributor on the front line fight.
Built to ravage Soviet tanks on the plains of northern Europe, the A-10 was designed around the General Electric GAU-8/A Avenger 30mm cannon and its seven barrels, which are able to dish out devastating punishment to armor. Over the years, the Warthog's 11 hardpoints have evolved from carrying dumb iron bombs and rockets to hauling the latest guided ordnance. Despite carving itself a fearsome reputation during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and evolving with the times as new technology became available, the venerable ground attack jet has repeatedly come under fire from within the Air Force when it comes to cutbacks.
The USAF made the case for the F-35A Lightning II to assume the A-10’s roles, emphasizing how the Warthog was no longer survivable in modern high-threat environments littered with advanced air defense systems. The A-10 community was told that the drawn-out war in Afghanistan was over and that close air support (CAS) specialists were no longer needed. All the while, A-10 supporters in Congress vehemently rejected the proposals on the grounds that it would severely impact the USAF’s ability to cover this mission, and some demanded a fly-off to prove once and for all that the F-35 could adequately replace the A-10 in this mission.
Fight against ISIS helps make the case for retaining the A-10
As talk of retiring the A-10 grew in 2014, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the U.S.-led mission to dismantle the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was ramping up fast and pressure was put on the USAF to step up its involvement in the expanding campaign. Back home, the Fiscal Year 2015 spending plan included House and Senate Armed Services Committee stipulations that essentially blocked efforts to retire the A-10 fleet. It was a perfect storm that effectively saved the A-10.
The Indiana Air National Guard’s 163rd Fighter Squadron, the “Blacksnakes,” deployed to the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations in October 2014, as part of a Theater Security Package sent to Kuwait. The unit was quickly re-tasked to Afghanistan to cover U.S. Army withdrawals from forward operating bases (FOBs) in that war-ravaged country. However, after only a month in theater, the pressure was on to move the “Blacksnakes” back to Kuwait to join the burgeoning effort against ISIS.
The A-10s were immediately pressed into combat missions, a move that was to again underscore the usefulness of the A-10 to senior leaders. As time went on, a succession of Warthog squadrons were called upon to join the OIR mission, providing both CAS, as well as cover for Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) for coalition operations.
New upgrades for the A-10
The scheme to retire the A-10 had started a knock-on effect with regard to support and upgrades. Operational testing for the active-duty A-10 fleet at the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and the A-10 Program Office at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, had both effectively been shut down. However, with OIR at its height, by the summer of 2016, this was all being reversed, with a renewed impetus for mission-critical enhancements for the A-10.
The planned end of the A-10 briefly stalled some supply chains, but a rolling series of upgrades were soon back on track. “In 2017, the Lightweight Airborne Recovery System [LARS] V-12 was installed on all active-duty and Air National Guard and Reserve Command A-10s to allow pilots to communicate more effectively with individuals on the ground such as downed pilots and pararescuemen,” explains Air Force Major Matthew Kading, the A-10 Test Director for the 59th TES. “This was integrated in [Operational Flight Program, OFP] Suite 8, and all A-10s now have this system integrated into the Central Interface Control Unit to provide critical Combat Search and Rescue [CSAR] information.”
As a community with limited funding, the active-duty test effort under the 422nd and the 59th Test and Evaluation Squadrons and that of the Air National Guard/Air Force Reserve Command Test Center (AATC) at Tucson Air National Guard Base, Arizona, now work collectively. The USAF currently fields 281 A-10s, but there have been numerous failed attempts to reduce the fleet. The USAF's proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget looks to cut three squadrons-worth of jets, effectively 44 Warthogs. This too may well end up curbed and now major A-10 upgrades are moving full steam ahead.
Such is the resurgence of the A-10, that a new Common Fleet Initiative is planned to keep the type in service and credible out towards 2035. Central to the upgrades for the A-10 is the need to be survivable in a contested environment. This involves Warthog pilots evading threats through the additional use of standoff weapons from longer ranges, combined with the use of updated tactics. A-10 operations will evolve to include the ability to tackle some threats with precision weapons from extended ranges. Once these threats are destroyed, the A-10s will then theoretically be able to swing into more traditional missions.
“Survivability isn’t just about upgrading equipment and software, it’s about ensuring we’re going into battle with the most up-to-date and lethal tactics,” says Major Kading. “What makes the 422nd/59th TES, and the 53rd Wing as a whole, a unique organization is that we do all of these things."
"Right now, the 422 is working on multiple Tactics Development and Evaluations [TD&Es] to address an Air Combat Command Tactics Improvement Proposals, known as a 'TIPs.' One current example is a TIP for Night Medium Altitude Survivability and Low Altitude Tactics. Modern Night Vision Goggle fidelity has driven the requirement to re-evaluate if we can execute the A-10’s primary missions at lower altitudes at night. Other planned TD&Es include adapting CSAR tactics and engaging maritime targets with AGR-20 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System [APKWS] rockets. There are also continued efforts to enhance the A-10's capability to operate from austere environments with minimal support. All these will allow for greater readiness and mission ability through tactics improvements," Kading explains. The AGR-20 APKWS II is a guided version of the veteran 2.75-inch Folded Fin Aerial Rocket, which was added to the A-10’s arsenal in 2013.
“Suite 9 [fielded in 2019] brought the integration of Situational Awareness Position (SAP) into the OFP, so JTACs [forward air controllers] can report their position digitally,” says Kading. “Validation was built in to help prevent inadvertent targeting of friendly positions with inertially aided munitions. It also introduced the first phase of engaging multiple targets with precision-guided munitions. It allowed six weapons to be dropped with a single 'pickle button' press.”
The aircraft can send weapons to different targets with one button push on one pass, whereas before it took a lot of pilot workload. A-10 pilots can employ 500-pound-class GBU-38 or 54 or 2,000-pound class GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Muntions (JDAM) and the aircraft will inform the pilot if they can all hit their intended targets on a single run.
Suite 9 also included provision for an improved helmet-mounted sight, known as HObIT (Hybrid Optical-based Inertial Tracker), which is a development of the Thales Visionix Scorpion helmet that A-10 pilots have been wearing since 2013. The improved helmet more accurately tracks pilot head movements via a new optical head tracker, consisting of a series of dots on the canopy.
Biggest upgrade since the A-10C
The upgrade of A-10As to A-10Cs from 2005 onwards was a huge leap for the Warthog. This essentially added precision weapons, a partial glass cockpit, and a laser designator pod. “Suite 10 will field in the spring of 2021, and it’s a foundational step in the modernization of the A-10,” says Kading.
Suite 10 will include “multiple target list improvements” that will enable the pilot to engage multiple targets with three different weapon types on one pass. It also includes full AGR-20 APKWS integration, which Kading says “provides the ability to target at the maximum kinematic range of the rocket with aiming solutions designed within rocket tolerances.” GBU-31(V)3 JDAM integration brings expanded capabilities for utilizing new fuze types, and “improved JDAM feedback” will enable the pilot to have greater confidence in weapon accuracy. “Threat information can now be shared between A-10s utilizing the data link, which allows all flight members increased situation awareness for survivability.”
“Operational testing for Suite 11 will begin when Suite 10 fields,” Major Kading continues. The developmental testing of this phase is currently underway with the 40th Flight Test Squadron, which is headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. “Suite 11 is the first A-10 OFP that will be built using agile development methodologies. This will provide a more rapid update cycle for relevant enhancements.”
“Most of the improvements in this program will focus on hardware integration of a new High Resolution Display System [HRDS], GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb [SDB] integration, 3-D audio, jam-resistant GPS, and ARC-210 radio upgrades. New map software will also be added, along with further enhancements to weapons employment. Both the method of development and the result will be a major modernization for the A-10.”
“We are currently working on the HRDS, which is a 11.6-inch, 1920 x 1080-pixel Multifunction Color Display that replaces [the cockpit’s central ‘six-pack” of analogue instruments] with a digital primary flight display. This will display high definition targeting pod footage and a new map engine. It is the most significant cockpit modernization since the A-10A to A-10C conversion.”
“This upgrade is important because it provides modern navigation instruments to improve situational awareness when flying in IMC [Instrument Meteorological Conditions],” Kading explains. “It will make targets much more visible through a higher definition display of targeting pod footage and improved map imagery will allow enhanced target correlation.”
“SDB testing is currently in developmental testing with the 40th Flight Test Squadron, Detachment 1, based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. This will give the A-10 a four-fold increase in standoff bomb capability and allows the A-10 to provide weapons effects in much [greater] threat environments than before.” This is due to the standoff range of these weapons, which means the A-10 pilot will be able to strike from outside the range of some ground threats.
The USAF completed a project to re-wing a portion of its A-10C fleet on July 25, 2019. The project began in 2007 when Boeing received a $1.1-billion contract to provide 173 sets of wings. The new wings are expected to last for up to 10,000 equivalent flight hours without requiring a depot inspection and will permit the modified aircraft to remain in service through 2030 or beyond.
A further project to provide 112 additional wing sets for the remaining A-10Cs was funded in Fiscal Year 2018. The service is acquiring the wing sets under the A-10 Thunderbolt Advanced-Wing Continuation Kit (ATACK) program.
A long-held ambition to re-engine the A-10s isn’t included in current plans. New parts suppliers with modern techniques may help restore the original engine thrust of the General Electric TF34 engines rather than the slight de-tune that the aircraft currently operates with.
Together, this host of capability upgrades will keep the A-10 at the forefront of the USAF CAS mission for at least another decade, and likely substantially longer. A lot will depend on whether or not the USAF decides to mount another attack on the Thunderbolt II fleet, but with new investments being made to recapitalize the A-10 force and with reduced interest in a successor or new Light Attack platform, all indications are that the A-10 will not be going away anytime soon.
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com