Few American airplanes are as beloved as the A-10 Thunderbolt II. Affectionately known as the “Warthog,” the iconic ground attack fighter is loud, ugly, deadly, and almost ancient. First flown in 1975, the plane is clearly showing signs of age, which is partly why the Air Force has spent decades developing a replacement. The plane they chose, the expensive, problem-riddled F-35, is at the best of times a poor candidate for the A-10’s old job. So today, as a joke, U.S. Air Forces Central Command tweeted out their suggested Warthog replacement: the X-Wing, from Star Wars.
It’s an April Fool’s joke, sure. But it hits at a very real frustration within the military: the A-10 is an aging plane, and the F-35 simply can’t do the A-10’s job as well as the A-10. Yet the age of the Warthog means that, at some point soon, troops on the ground will have to do without the familiar brrrrt of the A-10’s Avenger cannon blasting away hostile tanks, technicals, and other targets.
The A-10 was designed with a service life of 8,000 flight hours, which would have brought the fleet to retirement age in 2005. The War on Terror decided differently, so the retirement was pushed back to 16,000 hours (around 2016), and that’s been extended now to 24,000 flight hours, which will keep the planes in the air until 2028. There’s an inevitable obsolescence just from age itself. Add to that advances in anti-aircraft missiles and weapons over the past 40 years, and it becomes hard to ignore that the A-10’s days are numbered, even with a congressional caucus trying to save it.
So why all the clamoring for a new replacement? The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, designed and built over decades, is finally starting to enter service. It’s the most expensive airplane program in history, faced with a gargantuan task: replace six different retiring American fighters, using roughly one similar body. The F-35 has three different versions: the F-35A for the Air Force, the vertical-takeoff-and-landing F-35B for the Marine Corps, and the carrier-based F-35C for the Navy. All three boast sophisticated sensors and stealth for modern battlefields, but none features a gun even remotely on par with the A-10, and while they can carry a similar amount of missiles and bombs, they lose some of their stealth protection when doing so.
Given this frustrating reality, it’s no wonder Star Wars fans, including the Air Force, apparently, long instead for the reliable, powerful X-Wing fighters flown by Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, and seen again under Poe Dameron’s command in The Force Awakens. In the movies, the X-Wing switches perfectly between fighting Imperial aircraft and attacking targets on the ground. It’s a beautiful, fictional plane, but it’s not a dedicated anti-tank machine like the A-10. If the Air Force really wanted to sell their joke, they’d have gone with the aging, rugged Y-Wing instead.