The A-10 Thunderbolt II is the first US Air Force (USAF) aircraft specially designed for close air support of ground forces. It is a simple, effective and survivable twin-engine jet aircraft that can be used against light maritime attack aircraft and all ground targets, including tanks and other armored vehicles. The first production A-10A was delivered to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB), Arizona, in October 1975.
The Warthog (as the A-10 is dubbed by its aircrews) proved to be vital asset to the US and its allies during Desert Storm.
In the attempt to replace the A-10 Thunderbolt II, in the 1980’s the U.S. Air Force (USAF) started to develop the A-16, a close air support (CAS) version of the basic F-16 armed with a 30 mm cannon and 7.62 mm Minigun pods. Several F-16A Block 15 aircraft were painted in the ‘European One’ camouflage scheme and were modified to this configuration. The type was to have received the ‘Block 60’ designation; however, the A-16 never went into production due to a Nov. 26, 1990 Congressional directive to the USAF mandating that it retain two wings of A-10s.
A second outcome of that directive was a decision by the USAF that, instead of upgrading the A-10, it would seek to retrofit 400 Block 30/32 F-16s with new equipment to perform both CAS and battlefield air interdiction (BAI) missions. The project which was called F/A-16 featured new systems such as a digital terrain-mapping system and a Global Positioning System (GPS) for improved navigational and weapons delivery accuracy, as well as an Automatic Target Handoff System (ATHS) to allow direct digital target/mission data exchange between the pilot and ground units. This approach, however, was dropped in January 1992 in favor of equipping Block 40/42 F-16C/Ds with Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) pods.
In 1991, 24 F-16A/B Block 10 aircraft belonging to the 174th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), a New York Air National Guard unit that had transitioned from the A-10 in 1988, were armed with the 30 mm GAU-13/A four-barrel derivative of the seven-barrel GAU-8/A cannon used by the A-10A. This weapon was carried in a General Electric GPU-5/A Pave Claw gun pod on the centerline station, and was supplied with 353 rounds of ammunition. There were also plans to convert F-16Cs to this configuration and to incorporate the A-10s AN/AAS-35V Pave Penny laser spot tracker. The vibration from the gun when firing proved so severe as to make both aiming and flying the aircraft difficult, and trials were suspended after two days.
The A-10 Vs F-16 controversy revived during Operation Desert Storm, where both aircraft were used extensively in the war with substantial data on their success rations of various types of missions. As explained by Ken Neubeck in his book A-10 Warthog Mini In Action, the Block 10 F-16 had the advantage of speed and full night capabilities, whereas the A-10 required the use of flares to light up the battlefield or a second A-10. Yet despite these advantages, the F-16’s performance in Desert Storm was inferior to the A-10 in the CAS role, primarily because the F-16 was extensively vulnerable to ground fire down low. It did not have the rugged survivability features the A-10 had, consequently the F-16 was forced to fly at higher altitudes. At higher altitudes, the F-16’s weapons were less accurate than the A-10’s Maverick missile and gun strafing capabilities. The 30 mm gun pod attachment for the F-16 proved to be unstable and inaccurate.
As Neubeck says “the war had proved conclusively that the modified F-16 cannot replace the A-10 Warthog and perform all aspects of the CAS mission. The A-10 was truly the only aircraft that was built solely for the CAS mission. Many experts feel that the results of the war shows that the U.S. would do well to continue to have a mix of aircraft including the ‘air-to-mud’ types.”
One former Pentagon engineer, Pierre Spey, who worked the F-16 and A-10 programs, was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article saying that the idea of replacing the A-10 with the F-16 was “one of the most monumentally fraudulent ideas the Air Force has ever perpetrated.” As told by Neubeck, Mr. Spey would later summarize the A-10’s war accomplishments in the September 1991 issue of the IEEE Spectrum (the magazine edited by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). Spey stated that “among the aircraft, the ‘low tech’ A-10 – much despised the U.S. Air Force brass – was the real hero of the air war. Even though it represent only one-twelfth of the fighter force, it flew one-third of the sorties and accounted for two thirds of the tank kills claimed during the air campaign and better than nine/tenths of the artillery kills. It dominated the interdiction campaigns against the roads. The aircraft proved tough enough to survive the anti-aircraft exposure and fire anti-tank Maverick missiles, while the F-16s, F-111s and F-18s were just too vulnerable to ground guns to be usable in this role.”
As a result, the Block 10 F/A-16 was phased out after the war.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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