TechA-10C Thunderbolt II vs. F-35A Lightning II: Surprising outcome of the comparison

A‑10C Thunderbolt II vs. F‑35A Lightning II: Surprising outcome of the comparison

A-10 planes during the "elephant walk"
A-10 planes during the "elephant walk"
Images source: © Public domain
6:56 AM EST, November 12, 2023

Over the years, repeated attempts to retire the A-10 aircraft have proven unsuccessful. Despite the aircraft's unique capabilities, the F-35 aircraft was meant to take over its role. To confirm this transition, a series of comparative studies were conducted in America, yielding some surprising results.

"I'm ready to bid farewell to the A-10, but not its capabilities," a leading member of the House Armed Services Committee was quoted as saying by Defense One.

The struggle to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II — also known as the Warthog — has spanned many years. Resistance mainly came from politicians each time the Air Force leadership tried to remove the A-10 from active duty.

Those most vocal were associated with states whose industry stood to gain from the plane's continued service, given the need for regular maintenance and replacement parts.

Despite plans to retire the A-10 being formulated as early as 2007, the process didn't commence until April 2023. That's when the first Warthogs started appearing at Davis Monthan's storage in Arizona.

Davis Monthan Airplane Boneyard
Davis Monthan Airplane Boneyard© Public domain

A-10 and F-35 - two extreme ends of the aviation spectrum

The F-35 and A-10 couldn't be more divergent. The F-35 represents a modern marvel - a 5th generation plane mass-produced and relied upon by many countries' air forces as a testament to aviation progress and advanced technology capabilities.

In contrast, the A-10 embodies simplicity and technical primitiveness, despite substantial upgrades in the A-10C version. It contrasts with the lightning in almost every way. Its battlefield survivability is due, not to its stealth features, but to its robust structure, built to withstand direct artillery shell hits or anti-aircraft missile explosions.

F-35A and A-10C during a joint flight
F-35A and A-10C during a joint flight© Public domain

Aircraft destined for destruction

However, the battlefield is evolving. Cold War simulations suggested that the A-10 would likely be a one-off machine. The initial days of combat against the Soviets and the rest of the Warsaw Pact would potentially result in A-10 losses of 70-80 percent.

Since then, the capabilities of anti-aircraft defenses have significantly increased. Against these defenses, the A-10 - despite its enhancements over time - is vastly outpaced.

The missions in Afghanistan and Iraq did not underscore this, given their asymmetric conflict nature. But the fate of Russian Su-25s over Ukraine is telling: in skirmishes with adversaries possessing modern anti-aircraft defenses, close-support aircrafts derived from fighters become targets. However, finding a suitable substitute remains a challenge.

A-10 and F-35A comparison

In 2019, Americans conducted tests comparing the capabilities of the F-35A and A-10C in terms of close support and searching, as well as protecting downed pilots among other tasks.

The test report was made available in 2022, its recent publication - following substantial censorship - calls into question the previous assumption that the A-10 could be smoothly replaced with newer planes and precision ammunition.

The Project on Government Oversight highlighted that the tests were conducted under ideal conditions for the F-35. Nevertheless, even the highly experienced F-35 pilots, former A-10 pilots themselves, could not conclusively prove their superiority over the 1980s-era aircraft.

Test report

Although the report has been edited to avoid directly highlighting the F-35A's limitations for Close Air Support roles, it includes recommendations for improving the plane's functionalities.

It also shows that the F-35's effectiveness largely depends on the accuracy of satellite navigation, which signals can be disrupted. To destroy a specific number of targets, the F-35A requires more flights than the A-10.

Findings from the tests pose significant challenges for the American Air Force. The retirement of the A-10 has commenced, but the aircraft poised to take over its tasks doesn't have the capacity to entirely replace the older model. The importance of the A-10 is underlined by its deployment to the Middle East following Hamas's attack on Israel.

Although the retirement of the A-10 has been systematically phased, it may lead to a capability gap within the American Air Force that cannot be filled. The ones most likely to suffer from this change are not the decision-makers in the Pentagon, but the soldiers who may no longer receive effective air support on the battlefield.

Thanks to 11 suspension nodes, the A-10 can carry an impressive set of weaponry.
Thanks to 11 suspension nodes, the A-10 can carry an impressive set of weaponry.© Public domain
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