American Steel: The A-10 Thunderbolt II

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a-10 thunderbolt ii

The evening of October 28th, 2008 in the Bala Murghab district of the Badghis province in northwestern Afghanistan was alive with gunfire. Six members of a Marine special operations team, their Afghani interpreter, and an Afghan soldier were conducting a standard reconnaissance mission along the Turkmenistan border when their patrol came under fire from a massive group of Taliban fighters. Heavily outnumbered and cut off from reinforcements stationed just a few miles away, the Marines and their allies moved quickly through the dying rays of light to establish a defensive perimeter around a single building nearby; their goal to keep their assailants at bay until darkness descended to cover an escape. As a hail of rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine rounds pelted the walls of their structure, the team’s joint terminal attack controller radioed out a desperate call for close air support.

Four US Navy F/A-18 Hornets were dispatched to assist. However, they arrived at the Marines’ location to find a thick bank of clouds blanketing the valley in which the soldiers were pinned. The Hornet is not an aircraft built to penetrate severely overcast skies at low altitude, meaning the cloudy weather deck, coupled with the mountains surrounding the Marines’ position, made it impossible for the F/A-18s to provide any aid to the soldiers fighting below. The Hornets helplessly orbited above the valley, the Marines underneath them deadlocked in close quarters combat with a horde of Taliban insurgents quite literally outside the windows of their compound. Without help, the United States was going to lose some of its own. 

325 miles away, two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs were in the process of returning to Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul. The A-10s, piloted by Capt. Jeremiah Parvin and First Lt. Aaron Cavazos, were radioed the Special Ops team’s situation and quickly chose to re-direct toward the Marines’ location. As they approached, the F/A-18s peeled off, returning to their carrier in the Arabian Sea. This rescue belonged to the A-10s alone. Capt. Parvin and First Lt. Cavazos, their Thunderbolt IIs far more adept at flying low altitude attack runs than their Hornet brethren, sliced through the low-hanging clouds surrounding the valley with ease. For 25 minutes, the two A-10s thundered through the valley, strafing Taliban positions with their 30mm GAU-8 cannons, annihilating the insurgents’ heavy machine gun emplacements and RPG nests. Wth the Thunderbolt IIs overhead and the sun low on the horizon, the Marines broke from their defensive position and made their escape to the north end of the valley. Any Taliban soldier who dared pursue the retreating American soldiers charged into the teeth of the A-10s aerial barrage, the distinctive roar of their front-mounted cannons reminding them that the evening of October 28th, 2008 belonged to the airplane affectionately referred to by the men who flew her as the “the flying tank.”

The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II began its life as the YA-10A, a response to the United States Air Force’s May 1970 proposal for an aircraft specifically designed for close air support operations. Following the end of World War II, the USAF’s development of attack airplanes armed with conventional weapons had largely stagnated. Furthermore, the advent of nuclear weapons in the late 1940s resulted in a high demand for military aircraft capable of delivering said weapons at high speeds with a high rate of accuracy, leaving designs for conventionally-armed planes on the backburner. However, the United States’ entry into the Vietnam war and the prevalence of more advanced Soviet ground forces highlighted the USAF’s continuing need for a fleet of modern, conventionally-armed attack aircraft, especially one effective in air-to-ground combat. During the 1960s, the F-4 Phantom filled this requirement to a degree, but its lack of loiter time and poor low-speed performance prevented it from being the ideal plane for the job. In addition, the Phantom was expensive to fly and vulnerable to small-arms fire, a weakness for which the F-4 paid dearly in close support situations. Thus, the Attack Experimental (A-X) program was born.

It was through the A-X program that the requirements for the USAF’s new close air support (CAS) aircraft were set. An eligible prototype needed a maximum speed of 460 mph, a takeoff distance of 4,000 feet, an external load of 16,000 pounds, a 285-mile mission radius, and a unit cost of 1.4 million dollars or under. Designs from six companies that fit those parameters were submitted for the contract, with orders for prototypes given to Northrop and Fairchild Republic. What was incredibly unique about the A-X program’s requirements was that a prototype needed to be built around the General Electric GAU-8 Avenger cannon. No plane in the USAF’s fleet had been specially constructed to feature a specific weapon before, but the Air Force considered the 30mm rotary cannon system a mandatory element of their future CAS aircraft. After extensive flight testing, a fly-off was held between the Northrop YA-9A and the Fairchild Republic YA-10A on January 18th, 1973 — a competition that ended in the YA-10A’s formal selection for production. Just over three years later, the first order of combat-ready YA-10s were delivered to the 355th Tactical Training Wing in March of 1976. This is where the aircraft was re-designated the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the spiritual successor to the mighty P-47 Thunderbolt (a World War II-era fighter-bomber).

Despite the A-10’s service introduction in 1976, it wasn’t christened in combat until 1991. However, the time spent idle did not blunt the Thunderbolt II’s effectiveness. During the Gulf War, A-10s destroyed over 900 Iraqi tanks, 2,000 other military vehicles, and over 1,200 artillery pieces. The Thunderbolt II even scored two air-to-air victories when it dispatched two Iraqi helicopters with its 30mm cannon. The A-10 continued its absolute dominance of the ground in engagements in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the mid-nineties, firing approximately 10,000 30mm rounds and crippling Bosnian Serb forces to the point of surrendering entrenched artillery positions. The invasion of Iraq and campaign against the Taliban in the early 2000s brought the Thunderbolt II to bear on America’s enemies again, flying 11,189 sorties in Afghanistan alone. Recently, the might of A-10 was felt by the Islamic State, a squadron of Thunderbolt IIs destroying a convoy of over 100 ISIS-operated oil tankers in Syria in 2015. For the better part of the last three decades, the A-10 has enjoyed unrivaled supremacy over the world’s low horizon. In fact, the Thunderbolt II has been the most effective close air support attack asset on the planet since its combat debut in 1991, an accomplishment that includes rotary aircraft consideration as well.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, possibly even better known by the nickname “Warthog” for its resemblance to the angry, ugly, tusked pig, has earned its eminence by annihilating the United States’ enemies in every conflict in which it has flown. Heralded by the “BRRRRRRRTTTT” sound made by its signature GAU-8 Avenger 30mm cannon, the A-10 has become an icon representative of the United States’ overwhelming air superiority. Perhaps the most recognizable face of the modern USAF’s attack aircraft fleet, the A-10’s unyielding toughness and vicious weapons give it unparalleled efficiency in a CAS role. To this day, it remains a beacon of hope for American soldiers and a pillar of fear for our enemies.

For its decades of service in conflict, its mythical standing in American air power, its “Go Ugly Early” capabilities, and its refusal to be destroyed by the hand of the enemy or Air Force budget cuts, the nigh indestructible A-10 Thunderbolt II takes its rightful place at the head of the legendary lineage of American Steel.

Image via Shutterstock

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Wooden hulled, three masted heavy frigate. Named by President George Washington.

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