It is a given that the folks in the Army like to make fun of the Air Force as “the country club” and not really being a military service. An old joke holds that the very first thing built on a new Air Force base is the golf course. They know if they blow all the money on luxury items, sooner or later Congress will fund the runways. I’m not immune to this, having made fun of the wing-wipers once or twice myself.
There is, however, a small slice of the Air Force that Army folks admire, almost without reservation. Close Air Support is a mission the Air Force doesn’t like, never has, and probably never will. But the folks in the Air Force that actually do end up with the job are commited to doing it as good as anyone in the world. The epitome of close air support is the A-10.
At the end of the Vietnam war, the Air Force had relied heavily on two planes for close air support- the A-1 Skyraider, and the A-7 Corsair II. While both were excellent aircraft, neither were optimum aircraft for the post-Vietnam close air support role. The A-1 was a piston engined airplane of WWII design. They were just plain worn out. Even worse, it was a Navy design. That didn’t set well with the upper echelons of the Air Force. The A-7, on the other hand, was a relatively new design, with excellent range and load-carrying capacity. But it too had two major flaws. Again, it was a Navy design. Second, it wasn’t optimized for the close air support role. It had been designed for long range strike. The Air Force began a to design a new aircraft totally dedicated to close air support.
The major problem facing the Air Force in Western Europe in the 1970s was the same as the Army- the colossal numbers of Soviet tanks. The prime mission of any close air support aircraft would be killing tanks. Historically, the best weapon an airplane could use to kill tanks was a gun. The 20mm Gatling gun in use wouldn’t be enough though. A bigger gun was needed. And a bigger gun was got. The GAU-8 Avenger. This huge 30mm Gatling gun fired armor piercing rounds that could penetrate the armor of any tank. But it was huge. The airplane that carried it would actaully have to be designed around the gun.
The A-10 was designed around the gun. In fact, the nose wheel of the plane is offset to one side to make room for the gun and to make sure that the firing barrel is on the centerline of the aircraft.
In addition to the big gun, the A-10 has lots (and lots and lots) of hard-points under its wings to hang additional weapons, including missiles, bombs and rockets.
Another prime concern when the A-10 was being designed was survivabilty. The front line is a dangerous place. Planes flying close air support have to get down low and in close. That means that every bad guy with a gun gets to take a shot at you. Republic, who designed and built the A-10, had seen many of their F-105s lost in Vietnam to relatively minor damage. They were determined that wouldn’t happen with the A-10. Airplanes are made of panels of aluminum about as thick as a beer can. So is the A-10. But the pilot sits in a “bathtub” of titanium armor, so he won’t be injured by flak. The engines are mounted to reduce the chance of a heat-seeking missile hitting the aircraft. Rather than risking losing control from hydralic leaks, the airplane has a backup system of pushrods to handle the flight control surfaces. The wheels don’t even retract all the way into the plane. This way, in a belly landing, they can still support the plane.
The A- 10 isn’t a very fast jet. It only goes about 400 miles an hour. That’s about the same as a WWII fighter. The joke in the Air Force is that A-10 pilots don’t wear a wristwatch, they carry a calendar. But it is the best plane in the world for close air support. In service since the late 1970s, A-10s have been the angel on the groundpounder’s shoulder in Desert Storm, The 1999 Air War in the Former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. With its excellent manueverability, lethal weapons and great survivability, the A-10 has not only been the plane for close air support, it has also served as a Forward Air Controller, helping planes like the F-15E and F-16 locate and destroy targets to support the troops on the ground. Currently, the Air Force is upgrading the A-10s to help them do this job well into the future.