The Warthog of Tomorrow : The A-1000
Or Designing Tomorrow’s A-10 Thunderbolt II / Warthog Anti-Tank Close Air Support Aircraft.
Two A-10’s fly over France to celebrate the anniversary of D-Day. The A-10 on the left is painted to commemorate the anniversary, assuming the black and white stripes of some of the Allied aircraft flown on 6 June 1944 during the invasion of Normandy. Photo: theaviationist.com
For those of you perhaps unfamiliar with my favorite plane, and the world’s most awesome 30mm bullet-spewing flying anti-tank killer in the world, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, known more affectionately as the Warthog, is America’s premier tank busting aircraft. Rather than let me go on about it for pages, you can browse these two web sites:
Here is a great YouTube video compilation of the A-10 shooting its incredible 30 mm GAU-8 rotary barrel (Gatling-gun like) gun.
Two aspects of the A-10 are relatively unique in terms of audio: first, the engines have a high-pitched whistling above the lower, bass roar. This is partly to reduce its audio signature so that adversaries hear it as late as possible – preferably after it has already fired and turned away from its threat. Second, when the gun shoots the first sound (the sound of a lot of a snare drum) is the bullets impacting and then one hears the higher-pitched sound of the bullets being fired (a brrrrr, or sound of canvas being ripped). This is because of the speed of the bullets, sound, location of their impact, and location of the aircraft. So you see and hear the bullets hitting their target before you hear them being fired. Time travel!
Two Warthogs fly over Afghanistan. Photo: USAF.
Other than the aircraft’s stellar close air support and interdiction history, there are a few points worth mentioning. First, the USAF (US Air Force) generally does not like the plane. The USAF has the need for speed. Faster, higher, farther. And more expensive. Thus we have the two billion dollar B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, and the 150 million dollar F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. The A-10, on the other hand, is slow, cheap, and “ugly”. It’s a warthog on a stallion farm. Ever since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the USAF has tried to kill the A-10 off, but Congress – controlled over the past several decades by both parties – has compelled the USAF to keep the A-10 in active duty. And the plane has proved itself again and again: in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
But the plane is getting old. Despite a recent budget allocation by Congress to refurbish the aircraft’s wings to extend its lifespan, it is not a bad thing to begin to consider a serious replacement. Serious is the key word, because the USAF keeps pushing joke replacements – perhaps hoping that the replacements are such godawful jokes that the US Congress will give in and just let them buy more F-35s.
No one doubts the need for close air support (CAS). Whether its infantrymen fighting other infantrymen, or an armored tank battalion charging over European planes or Middle Eastern deserts, there is only so much artillery or a B-52 Stratofortress can do. America needs a close air support fixed-wing plane to bring the pain on enemy soldiers and their vehicles, especially when they are just a few hundred yards of friendly forces.
Some of the planes the USAF is considering for the CAS role include a propeller (yes, like a World War II era propeller plane) such as the Super Tucano. It looks like the famous P-51 Mustang of WWII – and that’s not a good thing. Or some armed version of a training aircraft. Basically, planes with none of the features of the A-10, and none of the features of the F-35 Lightening II stealth fighter (which the USAF really, really loves).
Most of the proposed replacements have neither the survivability or firepower of the A-10. Any propeller aircraft will suffer from poor firepower. A high performance aircraft such as the F-35 (which cannot, as this time, even fire an anti-tank missile such as the AGM-65 Maverick) has low survivability. None of the planes envisioned will have a 30 mm gun.
I would like to propose some basic features of the A-1000, or whatever one would like to call it. Naming aside, there are a number of traits the A-1000 should have. Some of these already exist in the A-10, but are worth keeping. These include:
- Titanium “bath tub” cockpit for pilot protection
- Flat fuselage for crash landings
- Low stall speed so that pilots can fly very low below radar and use terrain masking
- Engines designed to minimize infrared signature
- Raised engines to reduce the likelihood of ingestion of foreign objects, especially on unimproved airstrips (roads, dirt runways, etc.)
- Engines separated to reduce likelihood of both engines being disabled simultaneously
- Large gun (the 30mm GAU-8 is fine)
- Raised cockpit for best pilot visibility
- Ability to fire anti-tank missiles such as the AGM-65 Maverick
- Able to fly low and maneuver – with 10-20 meter altitude not unreasonable. This could even enable maneuvering amidst enemy formations, making their target acquisition difficult
- Redundant control systems (wired and hydraulic) to survive major damage
- Tight turn radius
- Aerial refueling
- Ability to land on unimproved airstrips
- Short landing and take-off capability (ie. can take off and land on short runways)
- Red and Blue force tracking
- High definition look-down cameras to provide an omnidirectional view of the battlespace, similar to the F-35 helmet. Thus, when a pilot looks towards his feet he could see the ground instead of the plane, as if it were invisible.
- Independent target acquisition and laser designator, so that the aircraft does not need to rely on external sensors for targeting
- Stealth (radar signature reduction and reduced infrared signature)
- Recessed landing gear (reduced vulnerability to damage)
- Higher speed (probably thanks to a more powerful engine, but also reconsideration of some of the aerodynamics)
- Longer range
- Better climb rate
- Modular design to customize aircraft for specific missions, including Wild Weasel anti-radar, observation and reconnaissance (O/A missions), and possibly supply missions
- Cooperative engagement capability (target deconfliction between A-1000’s and other aircraft and ground systems)
- Improved air-to-air capability
- Active anti-infrared missile defense system (laser)
- Anti-drone (small drone)
- Deploy small drones
- High-energy laser system
- “Urban warfare” kit (to be determined what this would entail, but could include down-angled/angle adjustable/stabilized guns, greater variety of rockets, and other weapons capabilities.
It is a given that some of the suggested features are contradictory. For example, there is a trade-off between number of weapons carried and stealth. Aircraft are normally well designed to carry weapons on their wings – but this significantly decreases stealth. Thus, most stealth aircraft will carry their missiles in internal weapons bays. This, however limits the total amount of armament. Related to this is that many anti-tank missiles require their seeker to have a laser or visual/camera video lock-on; but this more difficult if they are in internal weapons bays. There is also a basic tradeoff between lift and speed. Aircraft with more lift will have less speed, as the aircraft surfaces that generate lift also generate drag. This is overcome by having more powerful engines or using variable swept wings.
It is also important to note that the more capabilities are put onto an aircraft, the more expensive it becomes. Men and women with more stars on their shoulders or at least a better paycheck should be able to figure out how to make this A-1000 – but given their imperfect design and acquisition record in almost every other major program (F-22, F-35, USS Gerald Ford, uniforms, the Littoral Combat Ships, etc.), a bit of outside help might not be such a bad thing.