The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, more commonly known as the “Warthog,” may be a fan favorite, but the close-air-support champ is increasingly seen as a relic of a bygone era of warfare. The slow-moving attack aircraft was originally designed to engage Soviet armor advancing into Europe if the Cold War ever turned hot, before finding fame as the infantryman’s favorite aircraft throughout the multi-decade spanning Global War on Terror.
But as resilient as the A-10 has proven to be in combat, the American Defense Department has no illusions about the Warthog’s potential survivability in a modern peer-level fight. Without stealth to rely on, the A-10 would be extremely vulnerable to Chinese or Russian air defense systems, not to mention any enemy fighters that manage to slip past the A-10’s fighter support.
Today, the A-10’s future is questionable, as the airframes in service continue to age and tensions between globe-spanning powers simmer toward a boil. But not all new defense efforts have to rely on developing exquisite new airframes or lengthy R&D cycles. As a recent piece from The Warzone highlights, finding the A-10’s value in a 21st-century fight could be as simple as taking some systems off the shelf and bolting them up to the Warthog’s shiny new wings.
Related: Why the A-10 is just not the right jet for Ukraine
The A-10’s old-fashioned capabilities still have use
In order to understand how the A-10 could fit into a high-level fight, the first step is forgetting about the Warthog’s most meme-able character trait: its massive and powerful GAU-8 Avenger 30mm autocannon. While the A-10’s mighty BRRRT has carried its legendary status off the battlefield and into the digital realm, it would need to take a back seat to the A-10’s lesser-known — but often more effective — approach to engaging the enemy: the ability to carry a whole lot of ordnance for an extended period of time.
The A-10 has the ability to carry 16,000 pounds of munitions spread across 11 hardpoints, which is impressive but not necessarily groundbreaking in itself. The F-16 Fighting Falcon, which also often provides air support to troops in contact, can carry a similar amount of weight across nine hardpoints while flying more than three times as fast.
But while the F-16 carries enough fuel to loiter over a battlespace for just 20-30 minutes, the A-10 can hang out for better than an hour and a half. And when it comes time to reload, the runway queen F-16 needs a well-manicured airstrip, whereas the down-and-dirty Warthog will happily set down in austere environments like highways or fields.
“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,” Maj. Kyle “Metric” Adkison, A-10 Division Commander at the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron told The Warzone.
“Essentially, we can carry a lot of things that will help others achieve their desired effects.”
And perhaps most importantly, it can do all that with very little support and for a fraction of the cost of more exquisite fighters. While it may cost more than $44,000 per hour to put F-35s in the air, the A-10 rings in at less than half that, while requiring less maintenance and support personnel.
Of course, all that capability does the venerable Warthog little good in the contested airspace of a near-peer conflict. And that’s where we can begin to reframe our understanding of the A-10. The A-10’s place in a future flight isn’t in the thick of it as we’ve come to expect, but rather hundreds of miles away.
Related: Could a stealth makeover save the A-10?
Enter the MALD
The ADM-160 MALD, or Miniature Air-Launched Decoy, is exactly what its name suggests: a small vehicle that’s launched by aircraft, like a missile, nad can mimic the radar returns of any American aircraft in service. The nine-foot-long, 300-pound MALD manages this feat through a Signature Augmentation Subsystem (SAS) leveraging active radar enhancers that broadcast across a wide range of frequencies to fool defensive radar systems into mistaking the missile-shaped MALD for jets ranging from small and nimble F-16s to massive payload-ferrying bombers like the B-52.
The MALD effort began in the 1990s, following America’s success in the Persian Gulf War deploying more than a hundred ADM-141 Tactical Air-Launched Decoys into Iraq ahead of coalition aircraft to fool Iraqi commanders into activating their air defense radar arrays. Once the enemy radar systems came online, coalition aircraft engaged them with anti-radiation missiles like the AGM-88 HARM, making for an extremely effective means of rendering Iraqi airspace safe for subsequent air operations.
MALD development slowed in the late 1990s, hampered in part by the aim of keeping system costs down. By 2002, the Air Force was ready for a new take on the MALD concept, scrapping the $30,000 ADM-160A in favor of a new competition for what would become Raytheon’s larger and more capable ADM-160B, at a per-unit price tag of $120,000.
By 2013, the ADM-160C MALD-J was in service, incorporating not only the Signature Augmentation Subsystem to mimic the radar returns of other aircraft, but also a modular electronic warfare capability developed under the name CERBERUS. Rather than a single jammer, CERBERUS offers a variety of interchangeable electronic warfare (EW) payloads that can be swapped in and out in less than a minute to allow for tailored EW attacks in a variety of battlefield conditions.
In other words, the small and expendable MALD-J, currently carried into the fight by either F-16s or B-52s, is capable of fooling enemy air defenses into thinking they’re all sorts of incoming aircraft, and can also jam early warning and targeting radar arrays to further complicate matters for defending forces.
The MALDs in service today can cover 500 miles and remain airborne for over an hour. The newest iteration, the MALD-X, incorporates more advanced EW capabilities alongside an encrypted data link that will allow it to take cues from other platforms, shifting from a pre-programmed asset to a dynamic one capable of playing a more active role in combat operations. Another advanced iteration meant for the Navy, the MALD-N, is also cruising toward service.
Related: America’s loitering radar-hunting missile is due for a comeback
The A-10 can ferry as many MALDs into the fight as a B-52 (while taking off from patches of dirt)
In a large-scale conflict against a country with substantial air defense capabilities, there is a high likelihood that the ADM-160C MALD-J would be among the first American assets to cross into enemy airspace. By deploying a high volume of these jamming decoys into a contested area, air defense systems would be forced to try to divine the difference between real and fictional radar returns on their scopes, and all while sifting through a stream of static being delivered by the jammers.
Launching interceptors at the flood of real and simulated radar returns pouring into enemy airspace would leave these systems vulnerable to attack from anti-radiation missiles like the AARGM-ER soon to be carried internally by F-35s, while simultaneously depleting their surface-to-air missile stores.
In more limited engagements, a formation of MALDs presenting the returns of F-15E Strike Eagles closing in on a potential target, for instance, could draw a great deal of focus while stealthy F-35s flying at higher altitudes deploy munitions at the same target. By mixing combat tactics and using MALDs to replicate real attacks conducted previously, the efficacy of these systems would remain strong even deep into a conflict, as the enemy would find the risk of ignoring an encroaching swarm of fighters or bombers too high, even if they prove to be nothing more than decoys.
And when it comes to flinging a high number of MALDs into the fight, there are few more cost-effective or broadly capable platforms than the dated and slow-moving A-10 Thunderbolt II.
“MALD was the easy button. It requires no software integration with the A-10, we can just hang it up, drop it, and it works,” explained Maj. Mason “Pinch” Vincent, an A-10 instructor pilot with the USAF Weapons School’s 66th Weapons Squadron, in the aforementioned Warzone piece.
“To bring it to the fight you just need lots of stations — which is what the A-10 has — we’re not limited by weight because it’s a lightweight weapon and we’ve got 10 pylons that we can hang MALD on,”
All told, the A-10 can carry as many as 16 of these jamming decoys across those 10 hardpoints. This is, shockingly, the same number of these systems that can be deployed by the comparatively massive and expensive B-52 Stratofortress. And again, while the B-52 needs a well-manicured and lengthy runway to conduct its business, the A-10 can be armed and deployed from austere patches of dirt or the nearest highway. The F-16 can also send MALDs into the fight, but only four at a time.
Mix in some long-range low-observable cruise missiles like the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), which can be lobbed into the fight by A-10s, a variety of fighters, or in larger groups by cargo aircraft thanks to programs like Rapid Dragon, and you’ve created a terrifying swarm of real and fictional threats not even the most advanced integrated air defense systems on the planet could effectively manage. Similar to the World War II approach of defeating enemy air defense efforts through sheer volume, except most of the targets that appear on radar screens wouldn’t be real, and the most pressing threats from stealth aircraft or cruise missiles may not appear on targeting scopes at all.
Related: Believe it or not, the A-10 can hold its own in a dogfight
Winning the next big fight won’t be about the capability of one aircraft or weapon, but rather how systems integrate to create compounding battlefield effects
All too often, we tend to discuss an aircraft’s capability or survivability in a vacuum, as though large-scale warfare is nothing more than a series of overlapping individual battles occurring in close proximity. The truth is, mission planning is where battles are most frequently won or lost, and effective mission planning is an exercise in leveraging the resources at hand as effectively as possible. Perfect solutions, like designing new aircraft to fill each need or even investing heavily in programs that integrate new capabilities into existing platforms, are often argued as the only logical choice. Yet, real-world limitations on budgets, timelines, resources, and even popular support all play their part in the defense acquisition process.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II is a dated airframe whose value as a close air support platform can only truly be seen once air dominance has been established, making its future in America’s increasingly stealth-focused Air Force questionable regardless of popularity. Its future remains entirely in question, with yet another Air Force attempt to begin divesting A-10 airframes from service in Fiscal Year 2023. However, with 173 of America’s 281 total Warthogs already equipped with new wings meant to extend their service lives by 2,000 hours, it seems likely the BRRRT-y beast will keep flying well into the 2030s before finally being put out to pasture.
If a large-scale conflict were to kick off in Europe or over the Pacific before then, we might see the A-10 Thunderbolt II offer substantial value in yet another American conflict in yet another era of warfare.
First, it was meant to be a tank smasher built to slow the Soviet onslaught into the Fulda Gap as NATO organized a World War III counter-offensive. Then, it was a terrorist hunter that instilled fear in the enemy and hope in downed pilots as a combat search and rescue platform.
Next, it may well be a decoy-jammer carrying arsenal ship that makes the skies safer for American and allied aircraft… And a veritable nightmare for anyone standing in their way. As far as bang for your buck goes, the A-10 certainly knows how to stretch the value of a dollar.
William Griffin says
Nomad, do some research–you don’t know what you’re talking about. The MALD is not a glider, it’s a cruise missile with its own jet engine. Even though F-15s & F-16s are capable of 3-5 times the top speed of the A-10, they can’t release munitions at trans- or supersonic speeds; the bombs will bounce off of the shock wave. And I’d like to see you try and launch an F-16 from a roadway. It would suck up every loose pebble and shred the engine!
It sounds like a pretty stupid idea to me. First off the A10 can’t take off from rough dirt, that’s always been a case where it’s legend has outstripped its real capabilities. It has conventional landing gear that requires paved ground to take off from. As far as taking off or landing from highways, pretty much anything can do that if you have enough length of straight highway available. That’s another thing that’s been misunderstood, it’s not the actual feat of taking off and landing that’s the challenge, it’s performing service on aircraft away from the support facilities of a dedicated air base.
They’re not even going to be taking off in a notably short distance if you’re fully loading them with ordinance.
But there are practical problems with doing this too. Part of the flight time of these decoys is based on the speed of the launch platform, they are gliders and they’ll stay in the air longer if they’re launched at a higher speed. A10s are famously not able to do high speeds, especially not if they are fully loaded. So you’ll have these slow a10s carrying the decoys that will have to take off first and fly towards the enemy air defenses. They are going to need escorts while they do this so you’ll have to dedicate some fighters to covering these vulnerable decoy carriers, fighters that could have been carrying the drones in the first place and keeping up with the rest of the strike package while they did it.
Look, let’s just face it, at the end of the day if we’re doing this this is a tacit admission that the US focus on grossly overpriced stealth fighters and bombers has failed. We sunk most of our budget into a few of those stealth planes because they were supposed to be able to do the mission, but now it seems they can’t do it without a fleet of support aircraft that we can no longer afford.
The fact that we are seriously talking about using a slow dedicated ground attack aircraft to disrupt enemy radars seems to show that we have no faith in the survivability of our stealth aircraft despite the fact that we blew the budget on them and are continuing to blow the budget on their replacements.