Aside from the F-35 there is perhaps no more controversial USAF program flying than the A-10 Thunderbolt II (or Warthog as damn near literally everyone calls it). Air Force brass says it’s not survivable in a real “shooting war” and that it’s time for the Hog to hit the pasture; defenders say it’s the best, most effective platform in possession for fighting ISIS/ISIL and the War on Terror and any attempt to downplay its success is mere window dressing for the true issue, trying to free up funding anywhere possible for the far sexier but troubled Lightning II. As it stands, a cash-strapped USAF continues to fly the A-10 over the battlezone to the relief of many of those on the ground and terror to those at the wrong end of its legendary 30mm Gatling gun. But is the gun that the plane was built around the very thing holding it back?
Official National Museum of the US Air Force diagram showing the scale and location of the GAU-8 Avenger Gatling gun relative to the rest of the aircraft
The GAU-8 Avenger is usually touted as the primary weapon system of the A-10, a gun with such a punch it can cleanly cleave a battleship in half like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Needless to say it’s hyperbole born more from awe than fact: soon after the aircraft’s introduction the GAU-8 was already considered inadequate for perforating all but the most vulnerable rear armor of the T-62, by now a wildly obsolete tank more at home with the armies of North Korea, Iran, Cuba and other nations facing economic and trade embargoes with little means to acquire better armor. The Air Force itself pounded this fact into the heads of its pilots with a saucy comic book reminding them their best bet is the “backdoor” approach. Today, with potential adversaries fielding advanced and upgraded T-72s, cutting-edge T-90s or similar Chinese tanks the situation looks more hopeless for the A-10’s GAU-8. That is if such enemies are even fielding tanks at all - though there’s no question that the hefty shell, packing as much kinetic energy as some guns with bigger raw diameters behind it, will do a wallop on a bare unprotected human body, such a tank-killing specialist is simply too much overkill when fighting gunmen and rocket-wielding terrorists in crowded urban environments or alongside a desert road.
A now classic photo of a GAU-8 compared to a Volkswagen Beetle, Official USAF Photo
As it stands for the current tactical situation, the GAU-8 can be argued as being a bunch of dead weight. Sure, it’s sexy in its own right - this lady seems maybe a little bit too enthusiastic about it - and this guy even moreso - but such a hulking raw expression of dakka might not be the most efficient means for the A-10 to conduct its current mission set.
What I’m about to say could very well qualify as the most sacrilegious thing scrawled since the very inception of the United States Air Force nearly 70 years ago. But maybe, just maybe, it’s time to take the gun out of the A-10.
Kicking the gun out will shave just over 600 lbs from the aircraft’s weight - weight that will have to be put right back in as some form of ballast since being in the extreme nose will play havoc with the A-10’s weight and balance. Why is that such a big deal? Imagine taking off, then doing a giant loop and then crashing into the ground because the plane was optimized for anticipating the equivalent of a fully loaded Harley-Davidson Bagger sitting on the nose that suddenly isn’t there anymore, throwing the see-saw of the plane’s aerodynamics off-balance. Throwing extra gas tanks in the now blank space isn’t much helpful either because gas burns off, putting you in the same situation only at the very end of the flight instead of the very beginning. Still, the GAU-8 is a very maintenance-intensive beast, and removing it would save on personnel and upkeep costs even if you go back and refill the space with a whole sporting goods store’s worth of lead shot to keep it from sitting on its tail.
That’s all well and nice but it would be really neat if you can use that space for, you know, something useful....
Airman Robert Hunter cleans an electro-optical turret mounted in an MH-60 helicopter, Official US Navy photo
Part of what makes the A-10 such a great platform in Iraq and Afghanistan are characteristics that make it the “anti-”fighter jet. It has a nice big long wing that can be shoved full of weapons and fuel, it’s nice and slow and it can patrol vast stretches of sky burning less fuel than say an F-15. In a lot of ways it’s like a manned, heavily armed UAV like a Predator. If that big honkin’ GAU-8 is too much overkill to really be useful, why not replace it with a drone-style electro-optical turret? These things are popping up everywhere because there’s just so gosh darn useful - drones pretty much can’t operate without them as they provide the eyes and ears for remote operating crews, but they’re also terrifically useful on manned helicopters (virtually any attack helicopter will have one as well), fixed-wing aircraft and even ground vehicles and ships. They’ve become as much standard equipment as guns and armor. An electro-optical turret provides the potential to greatly enhance an A-10 pilot’s situational awareness. Now you might be thinking, that thing would be a little awkward for a single pilot to control and fly and shoot at the same time. Not so! Many if not most EOT’s are controlled through movements sensed through the pilot’s or operator’s helmet with resulting imagery displayed there in, a technology that’s incorporated into the F-35’s DAS system all the way down to the AH-64 Apache years back. An EOT can help ferret out terrorist or militant fighters and direct a Hellfire missile, rockets or .50-cal or 20mm gunpods onto target. Of course, there’s no EOT heavy enough to work out the weight balance issues left by the GAU-8 on its own unless you forged the whole thing out of lead, so some ballast will still be necessary. Heck, the old ammo drum might just be close enough to the plane’s center of gravity to actually put a decent-sized fuel tank in there instead.
So, am I on to something or is this just another hair-brained scheme from an armchair general?