Weapon Systems

The A-10: designed for close-combat destruction


With titanium armour and a lethal array of armaments, the A-10 is a key aircraft designed to support US and allies in countering malign activities throughout the Gulf region.

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Maintainers perform a post-flight inspection on an A-10 Thunderbolt II at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, February 16. [US Air Force]
Maintainers perform a post-flight inspection on an A-10 Thunderbolt II at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, February 16. [US Air Force]

Armed with an array of lethal weapons and the ability to take substantial fire from enemy forces, the US Air Force's A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft is prepared for close-combat missions against ground forces, tanks and surface ships.

The Thunderbolt's main weapon is the 30mm Gatling gun that can fire 3,900 rounds a minute -- 65 a second.

The normal ammunition package for the Gatling gun is a mix of armour piercing incendiary rounds and high explosive incendiary rounds.

The armour piercing rounds allow the A-10 to devastate armoured targets, such as tanks and fast attack ships, in close battles.

An A-10 Thunderbolt II performs a strafing run at the Saylor Creek Bombing Range, south of Mountain Home, Idaho, September 8. [US Air National Guard]
An A-10 Thunderbolt II performs a strafing run at the Saylor Creek Bombing Range, south of Mountain Home, Idaho, September 8. [US Air National Guard]

"A typical A-10 gun employment uses 120 rounds, which means an A-10 is capable of employing fires on nine to 10 targets before exhausting its gun munitions," said Maj. Kyle Adkison, 422nd TES A-10C division commander, in a US Air Force release, during a demonstration of the aircraft's abilities in May 2022.

"Against large fielded forces, A-10 formations are capable of engaging nearly 40 armoured vehicles with 30-millimeter munitions. That's a significant amount of firepower."

The Gatling gun "can put basketball-sized holes in vehicles after a strafe", the National Interest wrote in 2021.

The A-10 would be particularly devastating against fast attack boats, such as the ones used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) near the Strait of Hormuz.

Designed like a tank

Given that the A-10 has to get in relatively close to strafe ground targets, the aircraft is designed like a tank.

The aircraft is built to enter highly contested environments as the cockpit and essential systems are protected with titanium armour, according to a US Air Force fact sheet.

The so-called titanium "bathtub" surrounding the pilot can "survive direct hits from armour-piercing and high explosive projectiles up to 23mm [in diameter]", and continue flying.

The bathtub varies from 0.5 to 1.5 inches (12.7mm to 38.1mm) in thickness and comprises about 6% of the airframe's total weight, according to the 1945 website.

It also features a multi-layer nylon spall shield to further protect against shell fragments, and the windscreen and canopy are capable of withstanding small arms fire.

The A-10's fuel system is also designed to reduce the prospect of damage, with all four of the A-10's fuel tanks located near the airframe's centre while being kept from the fuselage itself.

Damaged fuel lines self-seal, and the system prevents fuel from flowing into compromised fuel tanks.

If an A-10 loses all of its main fuel tanks, two self-sealing sump tanks offer enough fuel to fly for another 230 miles.

Increased lethality

The Thunderbolt II can also employ a wide variety of conventional munitions, including general purpose bombs, laser-guided bombs, joint direct attack munitions (JDAM), and a variety of missiles.

The aircraft can carry up to 16,000 pounds (7,200kg) of mixed ordnance on eight under-wing and three under-fuselage pylon stations.

Potential armaments include 500-pound (225kg) Mk-82 and 2,000-pound (900 kg) Mk-84 series low/high drag bombs, incendiary cluster bombs, combined effects munitions, mine dispensing munitions, AGM-65 Maverick missiles, laser-/GPS-guided bombs, unguided and laser-guided 2.75-inch (6.99cm) rockets; and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

The integration of Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs) -- which manufacturer Boeing touts as "the next generation of low-cost and low collateral-damage precision strike weapons" -- with the A-10 Thunderbolt II will bring increased lethality to the well-known fighter jet as well as extra standoff bombing capabilities in a fifth-generation environment.

The SDB is a 250-pound (113.3kg)-class precision-guided bomb that can glide dozens of kilometres to strike its target.

The Thunderbolt has eight under-wing and three under-fuselage pylon stations.

Each SDB bomb rack unit can carry four bombs.

Photos released by the US Air Force in April showed the A-10 equipped with different SDB configurations, including one with 16 SDBs and one with eight SDBs and a centerline fuel tank.

This was the first time a single A-10 has carried and employed four bomb racks of SDBs, according to the Air Force.

Air Force officials have said they expect to mount between four and six SDB bomb rack units on the A-10, for a total of 16 to 24 SDBs.

That means a flight of four A-10s could potentially carry 96 SDBs, which is within the range of the number potentially carried by a single B-1B Lancer.

Relatively light for an airdropped bomb, SDBs can still penetrate hardened structures, including more than three feet (91.4cm) of steel reinforced concrete.

For pilots of the A-10, the SDB provides superior ability to make precision standoff strikes compared to JDAMs and AGM-65 Mavericks (air-to-ground missiles) because it can glide for dozens of miles to its target.

The SDB is capable of standoff ranges of more than 40 nautical miles (74km), and can be targeted and released against single or multiple targets.

JDAMs and Mavericks have ranges of roughly 28km and 22km, respectively.

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