Return of the Warthog

Ungainly jet earns honors for effectiveness

By David Abel  |  The Boston Globe  |  5/20/1999

WASHINGTON -- A decade ago, the US Air Force's A-10 Thunderbolt, better known as the "Warthog" for its noted resemblance to the brawny beast, was one of the military's many pricey programs slated for extinction.

The titanium-armored flying "tank-buster" was considered expendable in light of looming budget cuts at the end of the Cold War.

Pentagon officials said other aircraft, including the Army's Apache attack helicopter, could fill the role.

But that was before the Warthog earned its reputation in the Gulf War as one of the Air Force's most potent and reliable weapons. Now, with the military reluctant to risk the nearly $14 million Apaches, the less expensive jets have taken a leading role in pummeling Yugoslavia's forces.

"When the weather is good, as it generally is at this time of year, most of what the Apaches could do can be done by the A-10s at less risk," President Clinton told reporters this week. The Pentagon previously had announced that it was sending 18 additional Warthogs to Italy from Air National Guard units, including the 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield.

The ground-attack A-10s, which cost nearly $9 million a copy, were conceived in the midst of the Vietnam War. Military planners noted the need for a powerful plane that could loiter low around a target, evade and sustain hits from enemy fire, and unload a significant arsenal. The initial mission, which has evolved over the years, was to aid ground troops engaged in battle or clear a zone for soldiers to occupy.

The first of more than 700 Thunderbolts rolled off the assembly lines of Fairchild Republic Co., in Farmingdale, Long Island, in 1975. The Warthog earned its nickname after an Air Force major described it in a journal as "an ugly beast with a thick hide and dangerous tusks."

The jets were designed to pack and to withstand a punch. They carry up to 16,000 pounds of bombs and missiles and enough ammunition to fire 3,900 bullets a minute from a 300-mm Gatling cannon mounted under the plane's pointy snout.

The A-10 was built to survive direct hits from powerful, armor-piercing shells. The jet's skin is coated in flak-resistant titanium, its fuel cells are protected with a special foam and its pilots can fly even if the hydraulic power gets knocked out.

Today, about 360 active and reserve Warthogs are in service. Pentagon officials would not say how many are taking part in the air war over Yugoslavia.

"It wasn't until the Gulf War, when the A-10s did better than expected, that the Air Force decided not to get rid of them," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military specialist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

The jets flew 8,100 missions during the Gulf War, officials said, destroying more than 50 percent of Iraq's military equipment. Using depleted uranium bullets, which some critics said may have caused the symptoms known as Gulf War Syndrome, pilots pierced the armor of Iraq's Soviet-made tanks as if they were tin cans.

Until the first week of May, NATO restricted the Warthogs to mostly spotting missions at high altitudes over Yugoslavia. Since then, however, they have played an increasing role as the alliance has intensified its strikes.

"The A-10s may be able to do the work that the Apaches were sent there to do," the Pentagon spokesman, Ken Bacon, said at a briefing Tuesday.

Bacon said there are two reasons why the Pentagon has favored the continued use of Warthogs over Apaches. First, the weather has improved, he said. The Pentagon sent the Apaches to strike targets beneath a stubborn canopy of clouds that has hampered the air campaign since it began. But with better weather, NATO can attack from a higher altitude, which reduces the risk for NATO crews, Bacon said. Second, the allies have heavily damaged Yugoslavia's air defense system, making it easier to use the Warthogs, he said.

With at least 650 US aircraft committed to NATO's air campaign, the resilient Warthogs have proved capable of taking on missions few other jets, or the Apaches, would risk.

Swooping low, often through dense pockets of antiaircraft fire, the awkward-looking A-10s have attacked scores of tanks, armored personnel carriers and any other Serbian targets.

"The A-10s get the job done," O'Hanlon said. "There's less political risk if one gets shot down. That might not be acceptable with the Apaches, given all the hoopla."