Eventually, America’s beloved rugged close-air support warbird A-10 “Thunderbolt” will have to retire. But not today: in fact, the A-10 likely got a life extension when the commander in charge of the Air Force’s combat deployments suggested retirement might be pushed back a few years.
This is welcome news for troops on the ground, who associate the distinctive “brrrrrrrrrt” of the A-10’s vulcan cannon with battlefield salvation, and bad news for those who find themselves on the receiving end of the A-10’s attacks. For a few more years, the Thunderbolt will stay in the skies, hunting America’s foes. But it has to retire someday.
Beloved as it is, the A-10 is an old plane. Designed to hunt Soviet tanks in a potential European war, it entered service in 1975 and it’s remained active ever since.
Numbering the A-10’s days is the F-35, America’s brand-new stealthy multi-purpose jet. Designed as a versatile, multi-role plane, the F-35 is built to serve in many roles, and it serves none of them worse than close air support. Instead of the A-10’s large 30 mm cannon with 1,350 rounds, the F-35 fires a 25mm gun with either 181 or 240 rounds, depending on the model. (Both planes can carry roughly the same payload of bombs or missiles).
The F-35 only just started entering service this year, and they haven’t seen combat yet, so we don’t know for sure how it will actually perform as an A-10 replacements. There’s no other plane quite like the A-10, but here are three possible (and one definite) replacements.
Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.