As the legendary A-10 Warthog looks down the barrel of an uncertain future, could the United States field a stealth iteration of this air support titan for use in the contested airspaces of the 21st century?
That’s a question I’ve been asked, in various forms, a number of times over the past few months — and the premise certainly has its fans.
In fact, everyone’s favorite conceptual aviation artist Rodrigo Avella even has a series of next-generation A-10 graphics he’s dubbed the A-14 Wild Wolf that really bring the concept to life, and he was kind enough to let us feature some of them in this story. Make sure to check out the rest of the incredible artwork on his website!
Make no mistake about it, the Warthog has earned every bit of its hero-worship throughout the past twenty years of combat operations. Yet, unfortunately, as awesome as the phrase “Stealth Warthog” would be to see emblazoned across a new development program, the way the A-10 engages the enemy runs counter to how stealth aircraft have to operate in order to maintain a low profile in contested airspace. But that doesn’t mean the A-10 should be sent out to pasture quite yet.
The real way to bring the A-10 into the future isn’t adding stealth. It’s turning this workhorse aircraft into a decoy-carrying stand-off threat.
The things that make the A-10 great don’t lend themselves well to stealth
Unlike other kinds of air support, which frequently come in the form of precision-guided ordnance delivered by high-flying “fast jets” that don’t often have the gas to stick around for long, the A-10 engages ground troops by flying directly at them at low altitude while unleashing what is — for all intents and purposes — a laser beam of depleted uranium rounds at its targets.
From 1,000 feet away, the A-10’s gun can put 80 percent of a 1,000-round volley inside a five-meter circle at a mind-boggling rate of 70 rounds per second. But there’s a big but here — in order to do that, A-10 pilots have to be willing to eat plenty of enemy fire in the process. The Warthog’s 58′ wingspan provides an ample target for anti-aircraft guns and even small arms fire at such low altitudes. Yet, the A-10 shrugs it off thanks to the titanium tub its pilots nestle in while behind the stick.
Other essential systems also received the titanium armor treatment. Further, the aircraft itself was designed with a number of redundancies to help ensure it could operate against Soviet convoys that would have included radar-guided anti-aircraft guns that would very likely find their targets as the Warthog zoomed in. As a result, it isn’t at all uncommon to see A-10s flying home and landing safely despite taking serious damage in the fight.
Major Kim Campbell knows better than most just how tough the A-10 really is. She flew her aircraft back to its airstrip after taking such heavy enemy fire that she lost all hydraulic power. The aircraft’s backup control systems, which are made up of cranks and cables, allowed her to keep control of the aircraft and make it out of Baghdad. Her perforated A-10, shown in the photo above, tells the tale of a heroic pilot, a resilient jet, and an approach to combat that simply doesn’t jive with how stealth platforms operate.
Stealth aircraft have to tiptoe in combat zones, but the A-10 wants to strut straight into enemy fire
The A-10 Warthog is, in many ways, the polar opposite of a stealth aircraft as it is designed to operate in uncontested airspace where it can focus its fury on ground targets. We’ve discussed in the past how the A-10 can potentially hold its own against enemy fighters, but no A-10 pilot really hopes to put that to the test. They instead prefer air superiority champs like the F-15 and F-22 to handle airborne threats. The Warthog has no onboard radar for air-to-air combat, but does carry AIM-9 infrared-seeking air-to-air missiles it can leverage against airborne targets if they’re beyond the reach of the Warthog’s famed BRRRRRRT.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II is, without a doubt, an incredible aircraft capable of taking a beating and dishing it out twice as well. But when operating inside contested airspace, making your presence clearly known to the enemy, flying directly at your opponents at low altitude, and eating small arms fire along the way are all things a stealth platform simply can’t do if it intends to remain stealthy enough to fly back home.
Modern stealth designs go a long way toward deflecting radar waves away from an aircraft. Yet, jets like the F-22 and F-35 are still heavily reliant on a coating of Radar Absorbent Materials (RAM) covering the majority of their airframe and layered over any gaps or crevices in an airplane’s body. Even the tiniest gap between body panels on the aircraft can result in producing a larger radar profile, so you’ll often see body seams covered in RAM tape.
This RAM is rated to absorb upwards of 70-80 percent of inbound electromagnetic energy (or radar waves), making it extremely useful for stealth applications, but also extremely problematic for bruisers like the A-10. Current RAM is quite fragile, particularly when exposed to the high heat of supersonic flight. Repairing or replacing RAM coatings makes up a substantial portion of the huge cost of operating America’s fleets of F-22s and F-35s. Now imagine covering an A-10 in this pricey material and sending it back into the shredder of A-10 operations. The titanium tub would still protect its occupants, but the RAM would likely need to be completely removed and then replaced each time the aircraft took fire.
That would very quickly make the currently inexpensive-to-operate A-10 one of the more expensive aircraft in Uncle Sam’s hangars.
But believe it or not, the RAM problem wouldn’t be the most expensive part of making a stealth A-10 Warthog. Rather, the aircraft’s design itself would have to fundamentally change, and that would cost so much money, you’d be better off building an entirely new jet instead.
The A-10’s design lacks stealth, and that means it would have to change dramatically to evade radar
The A-10 Thunderbolt II’s design was largely finalized by 1972. This is approximately 11 years before the world’s first stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk, would enter operational service. In other words, the Warthog’s design comes from a pre-stealth era, so bringing it up to snuff would require more than a facelift — it’d need an entire design overhaul.
You’ll notice that aircraft like the F-35 don’t have a giant hydraulically driven seven-barrel Gatling-style autocannon sticking out of their noses. That is, of course, partly due to the fact that the A-10’s GAU-8/A Avenger cannon system is approximately the size of an entire Volkswagon Beetle, but it’s also because having a big cannon protruding from the front of the aircraft would wreak havoc on its stealth profile.
Rodrigo Avella saw this one coming. He even prepared a full series of images of his A-14 concept that don’t leverage the big gun up front that he’s named the A-14B.
Likewise, on the opposite side of the A-10, its two high-mounted General Electric TF34-GE-100A turbofan engines are a big problem for both limiting radar and infrared returns. Just about every facet of the A-10 airframe would have to be redesigned in order to mitigate detection, and like the Ship of Theseus paradox recently referenced in Marvel’s Wandavision, there comes a point when replacing every external body component that you have to ask yourself, is this even still the same aircraft?
It would be more cost-effective to simply start from scratch on a new A-X platform that combined low-observable design elements with some heavy-hitting weaponry. Yet, even in that case, you’d still be facing the same problems we discussed above. The truth is, building a stealth aircraft just to fly it straight into enemy gunfire simply isn’t a very cost-effective idea.
Even if it had stealth, the A-10 and its mighty cannon would struggle against modern armor
The truth of the matter is, that the A-10 Thunderbolt II is an incredible aircraft that’s approaching the end of its lifespan. That’s not necessarily as bad a thing as many might think. While it is true that the Warthog’s incredible close-air-support capabilities will be sorely missed when it’s finally sent out to pasture, no amount of spray-on stealth paint or design tweaks can change the fact that these jets likely won’t last beyond the 2040s.
In fact, even a stealth-infused A-10 wouldn’t be able to do the job the aircraft was originally designed to do in modern combat. The massive 4,000-pound cannon the A-10 is built around may be insanely powerful, but it isn’t actually quite as powerful as you might think. It was originally designed to penetrate the armor of post-WWII Soviet tanks like the T-55 and eventually the T-62, but the truth is… the mighty Avenger cannon has proven fairly ineffective in doing so.
A 91-page report from the Naval Postgraduate School, penned in 1979, assessed the A-10’s famed GAU-8 against different kinds of armor, and clearly showed that the Warthog would perform poorly in head-on gun runs against a column of Soviet-era tanks like we see in Ukraine.
The report shows that the Avenger cannon can effectively penetrate the armor on the back of dated tanks like the T-62, but struggled against the sides (though it did destroy the suspension, taking the tank out of the fight). Importantly, however, it proved ineffective against these tanks from head-on, where their armor is most concentrated.
The truth is, as good as the A-10 is at devastating ground troops with its massive Gatling gun, even a big boost in stealth wouldn’t make the Warthog the most effective option for engaging dated armor, let alone a modern main battle tank like China’s composite-armored Type 99A or Russia’s long-delayed T-14 Armata (if its production ever comes to fruition).
The A-10’s legendary BRRRRT may be the infantryman’s favorite means of ground support, but in a near-peer conflict against a well-equipped military, the A-10’s most effective weapons would be the ones it carries under-wing. Indeed, today’s A-10s could make short work of modern tanks thanks to wing loads of 70mm rockets and AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles, as well as a variety of bombs. But if the goal is to deliver bombs or missiles to targets at close range inside contested airspace, the A-10 is likely not the best choice for the job.
However, the addition of advanced new weapons designed to confuse air defenses or to engage from standoff ranges could actually give the A-10 a renewed purpose in even the most hotly contested near-peer fights.
Screw stealth and the GAU-8: The A-10’s future will be carried under-wing
Despite the Air Force’s best efforts to divest its A-10 fleet and retire America’s Warthogs, Congress has other ideas. The A-10 is expected to keep flying well into the 2040s, stealth be damned. However, that does beg the question: If a near-peer conflict were to kick off any time soon, how could the A-10 help America win that fight without sending a lot of pilots to early graves?
The answer seems to be to move away from relying on the aircraft’s reputation-defining cannon for many operations, and flooding the airspace with highly-capable long-range weapons and decoys any time the A-10 needs to get up close and personal with the bad guy.
In a fantastic piece by A-10 weapons officer Maj. Maurice “SPAWN” Grosso for Task & Purpose recently, Spawn breaks down how integrating stand-off weapons (SOWs) on the aircraft could offer commanders in-theater a valuable uptick in ordnance on-target. According to his assessment, the A-10 could feasibly carry four or even five AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles or JASSMs into the fight. To date, the only other fighter in American hangars that can match that feat is the F-15E Strike Eagle, with room for five such weapons. The furthest reaching iteration of these air-launched cruise missiles has a reported range in excess of 1,100 miles, meaning an A-10 could launch these missiles from well outside the reach of enemy air defenses.
Let’s build upon Spawn’s suggestion and look at this from a cost-per-launch perspective. The A-10 is particularly cheap to fly compared to more advanced jets, at just about $20,000 per flight hour, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies. (There are reports of significantly lower operating costs from other sources).
Assuming a four-hour flight to launch five JASSMs, we’re looking at a total cost of $80,000, or about $16,000 per missile launched. The F-16 is also very cheap to operate, at a cost of about $23,000 per hour, but can only carry two AGM-158s per sortie. That means it would take three F-16s to deliver the same five missiles at a per-launch cost of between $46,000 (if launching six missiles) and $55,000 when launching five. The F-15E can carry five JASSMs in one sortie at a per-hour cost of $32,500, resulting in a per-launch cost of $26,000 — or $10,000 more per launch than the A-10.
Now, that’s obviously an oversimplified example and real costs would vary more significantly due to variables like cruising speed, but no matter how you cut it, the A-10 doesn’t need stealth to deliver ordnance on target and significant savings.
The A-10 could become a game-changing decoy mothership
While Spawn’s pitch for arming the A-10 with JASSMs is a convincing one, his discussion about using the A-10 to deliver a high volume of ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoys is even harder to ignore.
Not exactly a weapon, the MALD is an ingenious air-launched flight vehicle developed by Raytheon systems to perfectly mimic the radar signatures of any aircraft in American or allied arsenals. These relatively inexpensive decoy aircraft have a range of about 500 miles and can currently be deployed from both the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the B-52 Stratofortress. When employed in a large volume, they can saturate enemy airspace with enough spoofed radar signatures to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for air defense systems to find the real targets.
The more advanced MALD-J also offers radar-jamming capabilities, further complicating matters for surface-to-air missile batteries trying to find a lock on any aircraft, including the A-10 despite its lacking stealth. At just about 300-pounds per decoy, the F-16 can currently carry and deliver as many as four MALD decoys into the fight. The massive B-52, on the other hand, can delivery as many as 16.
But here’s the real kicker: according to Spawn, two MALD decoys can be loaded onto each of the A-10’s triple-ejector racks, giving it the ability to carry 16 of these swing-wing decoys — or the same number as the significantly larger B-52. And if you thought the A-10 carrying JASSMs could offer cost savings over other aircraft, you should know that the B-52 costs more than a whopping $70,000 per hour it’s in the air. Spending just $20,000 per hour to deliver the same number of decoys is a hard amount of cost savings to ignore.
“A four-ship formation of A-10s could bring up to 64 MALD to a fight. The A-10’s robust, agile combat employment capabilities (low maintenance footprint and ability to operate from unimproved or makeshift runway surfaces) combined with the ability to carry 16 MALD per aircraft, provides combatant commanders the ability to create multi-axis problems, target saturation, and horizontal escalation options for adversaries,” wrote Maj. Maurice “SPAWN” Grosso.
It’s worth considering that the A-10 is capable of operating from austere airstrips closer to the fight than runway queen bombers like the B-52 or even the light and nimble F-16. That means these aircraft could fly shorter duration sorties, launching JASSMs and MALDs into contested airspace from just outside it, and flying back to re-arm and do it all over again. And while the JASSM would require software integration that would represent a financial investment, MALDs wouldn’t even require that. As Spawn puts it, “Carriage and separation testing is the only cost to consider.”
“Hopefully, the effort will gain the support of Air Combat Command (ACC) and Headquarters Air Force (HAF),” Spawn wrote. “With their support, the MALD can go through separation testing and complete its integration on the A-10 in the next few months.”