Ever since satellite photos of a miles-long Russian convoy trapped in a traffic jam of its own creation emerged from Ukraine in March, fans of the legendary Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, commonly known as the Warthog, have been aching to see it join the fight. But now that sending A-10s to Ukraine is finally starting to seem not just possible, but downright feasible, it’s time to temper our BRRRT-based rhetoric with a healthy dose of reality.
“It’s not that easy,” an Air National Guard A-10C Thunderbolt II pilot told TheAviationist.com. “It has to be a pretty permissive environment for us to just roll in and do a gun run. That doesn’t happen much anymore.”
The truth is, the A-10 isn’t the right jet for Ukraine’s fight. In fact, it probably wouldn’t fare all that well at all.
The A-10 needs air superiority to win fights (and Ukraine doesn’t have that)
While it is true that the A-10 was originally designed specifically to engage columns of Soviet armor (though, as we’ll discuss later, it may not be as effective at that as you’d think), the low-and-slow Warthog found fame as the infantryman’s favorite close air support platform throughout two decades of asymmetrical warfare in the Middle East. The fighting in Ukraine, however, is very different.,
In the permissive and sandy environments of Iraq and Afghanistan, the mighty Warthog proved its mettle time after time, delivering 65 massive 30mm rounds per second to enemy positions by flying straight into the line of fire, using a combination of the pilot’s titanium tub and a laundry list of redundant systems to keep it airborne after eating all the rounds the enemy could throw at it. This wasn’t the A-10’s original purpose, but in many ways, it proved more effective at delivering air support to troops in contact than it ever could have been against waves of Soviet armor pouring over European borders.
In a lot of ways, the Global War on Terror was the perfect opportunity for the A-10 to shine, as it pitted American troops against opposing forces with no appreciable airpower or advanced air defense capabilities. When operating within this highly permissive environment, the A-10’s strengths were evident, but its weaknesses were less apparent. Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) were few and those leveraged by opposition forces were largely dated. Beyond that, air defense systems were practically absent from these conflicts.
“In a higher-threat environment, many of the A-10’s tactics would place the aircraft at a high risk of being shot down. Indeed, against very high-quality air defenses, most current USAF and Navy aircraft would operate at considerable risk.”“Defining an Approach for Future Close Air Support Capability” by John Matsumura and John Gordon IV, Randall Steeb for the Rand Corporation
The airspace over Ukraine is still very much contested. While Ukrainian aircraft continue to fly combat sorties each day — which, in itself, seems practically miraculous against Russia’s superior technology and numbers — Russian fighters and air defense systems remain a prevalent part of the fighting. And while Russia’s air defense systems may not be as invincible as they’re often described, they’re certainly capable of engaging the supremely detectable and slow-flying Warthog.
As we’ve discussed in the past, an A-10 can actually hold its own against thoroughbred fighters in a one-on-one standoff under the right circumstances, but attempting to do so is more an act of desperation than procedure. With a top speed of just 420 miles per hour, the A-10 would be an easy target for Russian S-300 or S-400 air defense systems as well as a variety of Russian fighters.
And to be clear, Ukraine seems to be well aware of that.
A-10’s “will not close our sky, they will not stop bombers and missiles,” Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s minister of defense, told Military.com.
“They will be a target for Russian jet fighters and anti-aircraft defense, because we don’t have the means neither to effectively cover them, nor to break through the enemy anti-aircraft defence.”
The A-10 isn’t the armor-pulverizing murder machine you think it is either
Oooooh boy, I can already feel the angry comments that header is going to draw, but the truth will set us all free.
The A-10’s legendary cannon, the GAU-8 Avenger, is an incredible piece of engineering. At almost 20 feet long and nearly 620 pounds, this hydraulically driven seven-barrel Gatling-style autocannon could originally fire at 2,100 rounds per minute in a low setting and 4,200 rounds in a high setting, but was eventually shifted to a steady 3,900 rounds per minute at all times. To put that another way, the A-10’s massive weapon fires 65 rounds per second… and we’re not talking about just any rounds.
We’re talking about 65 of these per second.
Above, you can see a replica 30mm round from the A-10’s GAU-8 (left), next to an armor-piercing incendiary .50 cal round you might fire from an M2 machine gun, followed by a standard .223 rifle round commonly fired from rifles like the AR-15, and finally, an X-Files themed pencil for good measure.
So, in a very real way, to our limited human senses, the A-10 effectively fires a depleted uranian laser beam at targets from less than 4,000 feet away (often, significantly closer). I’m not here to pretend the A-10’s massive cannon isn’t incredibly effective at turning targets into bad guy-flavored oatmeal… But it’s important to recognize that, as powerful as this weapon truly is, it’s not necessarily as capable against Russian armor as popular perception might suggest.
To be clear, the A-10’s GAU-8 and its 30mm armor-piercing rounds can be extremely effective against the armor adorning Russia’s dated tank force largely made up of poorly maintained T-72s, but being effective requires a great deal of pilot skill and effective operational planning (beyond the need for a permissive environment).
Back in 1979, the Naval Postgraduate School tested the efficacy of the A-10 and its powerful gun against Soviet T-62 tanks using low angles of attack. In what may come as a shock to some, they found that the Warthog was utterly ineffective against the 1950s-era tank when engaging from the front, but could deliver lethal blows when attacking from behind or from the sides.
Per the report, in seven total passes against T-62 tanks at altitudes primarily below 200 feet and distances ranging from 4,400 feet to just 1,587 feet, A-10s fired a total of 957 rounds and actually hit the tanks with just 93. Of those 93 rounds that impacted T-62s, only 17 constituted perforations or actual armor penetration. In one of the seven passes, no rounds hit the tank at all.
Of course, penetrating armor isn’t always necessary for anti-tank combat. Causing enough damage to the suspension or tank treads to limit mobility, for instance, can be just as valuable — and the A-10 did just that in some of the passes. In fact, this test ultimately showed the A-10 could take out T-62s at a rate of .43 kills per pass, or a bit less than once every two times around the bend.
For context, however, it’s important to understand that the T-62 carried 100mm thick front-armor plating mounted at a steep angle to improve performance. As a result, it’s said to offer the equivalent of 200mm of rolled homogenous armor. On the sides and back, the T-62’s armor is largely between 45 and 80 millimeters thick.
The most common Russian T-72s (known as the T-72B3), on the other hand, sport 200mm thick armor up front, made of improved layered materials that are also sloped to increase protection, said to equate to between 500 and 600mm. The sides of the tank are covered in 80mm rolled steel plates, as well as Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor for protection against missiles, rockets, and other similar anti-tank weapons.
Engaging these vehicles from the front would be all but useless for the A-10, but it seems likely that it would find success when attacking from the back or sides, provided it engages at ranges of between 2,000 and 3,000 feet (per the assessment’s conclusions regarding accuracy). This is entirely feasible, but would prove difficult in a complex combat environment, especially for pilots given only abbreviated training on the platform.
The A-10 would be fighting uphill in Ukraine
A-10s could certainly do some real damage against Russian forces, but Ukrainian A-10 pilots would need to be highly skilled at operating their aircraft while leveraging timely intelligence to attack from effective angles and distances, while flying under active threats from Russian air defense systems, MANPADs, and enemy aircraft. Ukrainian troops are well aware of this, as their own Su-25s, often touted as the Soviet equivalent to the A-10, have been operating since the beginning of the conflict.
Ukraine would see a greater benefit from broadly capable platforms like the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which could potentially serve in close air support roles while still able to defend itself against (or escape) enemy fighters.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II may be an incredible aircraft touted an absolutely mammoth gun, but Ukraine needs jets that don’t rely on other fighters to manage the sky for them.