For a weapon system to have numerous applications is good, for all of the obvious reasons. However, there is a point beyond which using a weapons system for roles it was not designed for, despite upgrades, specialized changes and all of the magical hoo-haa experience, big budgets and the collaboration between military and civil engineers can produce, goes wrong.
During the Second World War, planes were generally designed for one purpose. Sometimes it would be realized that a second or even third job, generally with changes big and small, might be possible: the vaunted P-51 Mustang, thought by many to be one of the most beautiful airplanes ever designed, had a much lesser known variant called the A-36 Apache. The A-36 was a P-51A with added dive brakes and a host of other accessories to make it a better dive bomber and attack airplane. However, if you read about it, the A-36 really came about – all 500 that were produced – because at the time of production, there was money allocated in the war budget for dive bombers, and none for fighters. It was apparent that the plane was a winner, and so in a move to make Meyer Lansky smile, a crafty general called for the production of “A-36's,” and thus keep the production line turning out Mustangs…Apaches, I mean…until the fiscal year changed, and they could get back down to business. Those who fail to remember history…
Increasingly, the emphasis has been on multirole aircraft and weapons systems in general. But when you design something to do a number of tasks, even though it might be capable of them, it is not perfectly suited for any of them. The A-10 was designed, using many years of experience and wisdom, to do one job and do it better than anything else. And it has done so since 1972, even while picking up a few different but closely related roles, with one – literally one airplane – being the exception: the plane that is in the process of being disarmed and stripped of aiming systems and weapons pylons for usage by the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for “weather penetration,” meaning they will hire some courageous neo-Yeager to fly it into thunderstorms, hurricanes and even near, if not through, tornadoes. If any more proof were needed of the incredible strength and durability of this machine, there you have it.
Other than this one wildly divergent variation, since its inception, the Warthog has undergone several major upgrades and two variants: the A-10A and the A-10C, with much-enhanced avionics and aiming systems for participation in the Precision Engagement program, which is precisely what it sounds like: an upgrade to make it a more precise in the delivery of guided munitions. And in a reasonably related role, the OA-10 was developed. Specifically engineered for forward air control, it basically ensures that the bombs and missiles being deployed by other A-10's and whomever else is floating around go where they are intended to. In the more fluid nature of the wars of today, where the location of the front between two forces can change by the hour or not really exist at all, this is useful, to say the least: friendly fire, an oxymoron if ever there was one (clearly a product of that other wonderful oxymoron, military intelligence), has been reduced greatly since the development of good forward air control doctrine and the machines to implement it.
Upgrades to the A-10 began soon after it began to fly operationally, in 1977. In 1987, Grumman Aerospace took over support for the A-10 program. In 1993, Grumman updated the damage tolerance assessment and Force Structural Maintenance Plan and Damage Threat Assessment. Over the next few years, problems with wing structure fatigue, first noticed in production years earlier, began to come to the fore. Along with other general concerns about staying au courant with enemy antiaircraft capabilities, the HOG UP program was introduced, which in addition to addressing the wing issue included new fuel bladders, changes to the flight control system, and inspections of the engine nacelles. In 2001, cracks in flight surfaces were reclassified as "critical,” which meant they were considered repairs and not upgrades, which allowed bypassing normal acquisition channels for more rapid implementation. Meyer Lansky smiles again.
What is a plane but a wing with a propulsion system? Flying wings have always been a part of aviation design, with the B-2 Spirit being the first truly operational one. Wing design is always the most highly guarded secret in plane design, and industrial espionage in the aviation world often focuses on stealing the wing design of new aircraft. It is not that the rest of the plane is in anyway unimportant, but the truth of the matter is this: the wing is the fundament, the rock upon which the aerial church is built. So despite the fact that as early as the millennium the debate about replacing the A-10 with (and, as I have stated before, in my opinion a self-defeating measure) multimission aircraft, notably the expensive, maintenance intensive and untested F-35, several wing upgrades have taken place, with the most recent one being in 2019. With new wings installed, the A-10 could be performing the job it was designed for until 2040, unless, in the words of one general, we “take a giant leap backward” and replace the A-10 across the board with F-35's.
Just over 700 A-10's were manufactured, and virtually all of them that continue to fly have undergone significant upgrades. This article is but the first part of a two-part series, with the second describing in greater depth some of the more recent upgrades and proposed upgrades, such as the Super Warthog, which is a proposal to redesign the A-10 but still keep its significant and tested primary characteristics. Yet in the current conflict in Ukraine, it is apparent just how amazingly useful such a plane would be to the besieged Ukrainians. It looks like it might very well drag on for a while, as wars in Eastern Europe have tended to. We have kept the A-10 to ourselves, something we have done with practically no other aircraft, with the exception of our heavy bombers. It is as far as modern aircraft go relatively easy to teach experienced pilots to transition to the A-10. Of course, doing so might have political implications, but since we are already sending all manner of materiel to Ukraine, the training of some pilots to fly a squadron or two, and the mechanics to keep them up, really is a matter of change of degree and not the nature of our support. Of course, Mr. Putin might not see it that way, but predicting what goes on in Mr. Putin's mind requires a crystal ball and a set of tarot cards, as well as a whole roomful of CIA psychiatrists…and even then you might get it 100% wrong. So since we are all agreed that a swift resolution and a cessation of the horrors of the war in Ukraine is desirable, and since even in the convoluted blender that masquerades as a brain and sits atop Mr. Putin's shoulders escalation to a nuclear war and the dystopian future that would be the probable result, it seems that this is a gamble worth taking.
People are dying…50 people died when a missile hit a train station, and everyone who isn't Russian, and even some of them – there is evidently a regiment of elite Russian paratroopers who have said they prefer desertion to deployment to Ukraine, and while desertion has consequences in the US Army, I hazard to say they are likely worse in the Russian Army – would have preferred the death of the three guys operating the missile battery or the pilot flying the MiG to the civilians in the train station, hoping and praying that the train to safety would arrive before anything happened…and those hopes were disappointed. Twenty years ago, South African mercenaries with one excellent ground attack helicopter turned the tide of the war in Sierra Leone. Clearly this war is a different animal, but it is, once again, a question of scale: enough A-10's could make a real difference, even a war-winning or at least war-shortening difference in Ukraine. So for once, I agree with the generals who, bowing to their political masters, are advocating replacement of some A-10 squadrons with F-35's: let's take fifty good A models, switch them up with advanced, complicated and expensive machines, where we can realize how tough they are to work with, and then replace them with Super Warthogs…and in the meantime, shore up the ones going to Ukraine, get them to Poland, put some of their guys through as quick a qualifier as is possible, do whatever needs to be done to the business end, and prevent any more train station explosions like the travesty we just saw.
Part 2 to follow…
The writer is a former military man, now researching and writing about the Ukrainian Conflict. Questions can be sent directly to email@example.com
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