A-10 Warthog To Soon Carry 16 Small Diameter Bombs In Combat

U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthogs can now employ up to 16 GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs) on a single sortie, among other stores, with the help of a new software update. Four of the five pylons under the fuselage were recently loaded with specialized bomb racks each holding four SDBs during a test sortie to validate the software for frontline distribution.

Photos released by the Department of Defense show the Warthog recently kitted out with different SDB configurations, including one with 16 SDBs and one with eight SDBs and a centerline fuel tank, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. According to the image captions, the recent tests took place between April 19-20, and saw personnel attached to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) assess an updated version of Operation Flight Program (OFP) 11 – software that controls aircraft avionics and enables the integration of weapons.

As part of the newer version of OFP 11, the 422nd TES specifically tested an updated software patch that supports two additional GBU-39/B SDB racks being fitted under A-10s. This test marked the first time the 422nd TES “carried and employed all four bomb racks of [16] GBU-39/Bs on a single jet,” the image captions note. As The War Zone reported in August of last year, initial carriage tests of SDBs loaded under A-10s had already been completed by the 422nd TES, with live-fire tests soon to follow. The wider A-10 fleet, as we also noted last August, is expected to receive SDB upgrades this year.

The GBU-39/B SDB is an air-launched precision weapon. With initial low-rate production beginning in 2005, the standard GBU-39/B features a combination inertial navigation system with a GPS guidance system, while the GBU-39B/B adds laser guidance. At just 250 pounds, the GBU-39/B provides A-10 pilots with greater ability to make precision standoff strikes compared to Joint Direct Attack Munitions and AGM-65 Maverick missiles due to the SDB’s ability to glide for dozens of miles to its target. While light in weight, SDBs still pack a formidable punch and can even penetrate hardened structures.

An A-10 Thunderbolt II, assigned to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron waits to taxi out for a test mission, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, April 20, 2023. U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis

In the images below, we see a pilot assigned to the 422nd TES inspecting the additional SDB racks under an A-10. After performing the necessary inspections and putting on his helmet and oxygen mask, the pilot taxis out of the aircraft hanger before taking flight.

U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis
U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis
U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis
U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis
U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis
U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis
U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis
U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis

As part of the series of photos released by the Department of Defense, we also see another A-10 pictured on April 19 sporting eight GBU-39/B SDBs alongside a centerline fuel tank. According to the photo captions, this configuration was designed to “evaluate aircraft climb and endurance performance under heavy weight and the ability to carry and employ a large number of weapons over long distances.”

An A-10 Thunderbolt II, assigned to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) takes off for a test mission, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, April 19, 2023. U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis
U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis

Of course, these new photos come as part of a wider bid to modernize the A-10 and keep it relevant for future high-end conflicts, potentially one against China. The A-10 Common Fleet Initiative, initiated in 2018, is designed to keep the Warthog flying into the 2030s, although the Pentagon now wants the type gone by the end of the decade. As The War Zone highlighted in August last year, the 422nd TES at Nellis AFB is playing a central role in this effort.

Speaking to us last summer, Maj. Kyle “Metric” Adkison, A-10 division commander at the 422nd TES, stipulated that: 

“The big effort we are pushing for in the A-10 today is quick and simple modernization efforts to help the Air Force better posture to fight tomorrow. As long as the A-10 is in service, we want to develop it to help the Air Force successfully fight however we can. Today that means supporting fifth-gen fighters.” Proponents such as Adkison are keen to emphasize that the A-10 is much more than just an airframe and a 30mm gun. “It has 10 weapons stations, a very long loiter time, and a significant and robust austere capability to operate from highways and dirt strips, plus it doesn’t need lots of support infrastructure — so the overhead for us to affect the battlespace is low. Essentially, we can carry a lot of things that will help others achieve their desired effects.”

An A-10C takes flight at Nellis AFB. Jamie Hunter

Central to the modernization of the A-10, as we also reported last year, has been:

A plan for the integration of the ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD), and the GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), a 250-pound-class precision-guided bomb that can glide dozens of miles to strike its target. Testers are also looking at adding the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) further down the road… SDB for the A-10 is further advanced and initial carriage tests have been flown in development test… Maj. [Mason “Pinch”] Vincent [an A-10 instructor pilot with the USAF Weapons School’s 66th Weapons Squadron] says: “We can load four SDBs on each pylon, and we’ll carry between four and six of those Bomb Rack Units (BRUs) — so that’s 16 to 24 SDBs on each A-10 with stations to spare.” A four-ship of A-10s would be able to carry an eye-watering 64 SDBs! Maj. Adkison says SDB is expected to be rolled out to the fleet in 2023.

One could imagine that SDB’s follow-on, the GBU-53/B SDBII ‘Strombreaker’ would be something of a dream weapon for the A-10, as it has the ability to hit moving targets dozens of miles away and in any weather conditions. If the A-10 were paired with a radar pod or third party sensor data from another platform, a single A-10 could take out an entire formation of armor on the move from many miles away, even during a storm. The same could be said for a swarm of boats. Will the A-10 live long enough to see Stormbreaker? That’s another story.

The challenge for the 422nd TES, and the wider A-10 community, in modernizing the A-10 relates to the Air Force’s desire to retire all of its Warthogs before the end of the decade. The first of those Warthogs, an A-10C carrying the serial number 80-0149, arrived at the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona on April 5. The Air Force currently has approval from Congress to divest 21 A-10Cs, which will bring the overall fleet size down to around 260 aircraft. As part of the 2024 Fiscal Year budget proposal, the Air Force is seeking approval from Congress to divest an additional 42 A-10C airframes.

U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis

That said, the recent images show that the Warthog is still an aircraft to be reckoned with, and will be deploying greater standoff capabilities in the near future thanks to its increased SDB load.   

Contact the author: oliver@thewarzone.com

Oliver Parken Avatar

Oliver Parken

Associate Editor

Oli’s background is in the cultural and military history of twentieth-century Britain. Before joining The War Zone team in early in 2022, he was Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent's Center for the History of War, Media and Society in the U.K., where he completed his PhD in 2021. Alongside his contributions to The War Zone's military history catalog, he also covers contemporary topics and breaking news.