The A-10 ground attack aircraft was designed to destroy Russian tanks in Europe for a war that never happened. The Soviet Union self-destructed in 1991, but that was the year the A-10 first saw combat, destroying Russian made tanks in Kuwait and Iraq. There were 132 A-10s in that war, they were available 95 percent of the time and flew 8,100 sorties. Four A-10s were shot down by SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) and eleven were hit by anti-aircraft artillery. The A-10 proved to be as rugged as it was designed to be with those hit by ground fire making it back to base. Several were so badly damaged they never flew again. In that operation A-10s scored their first air-to-air victories, downing two Iraqi helicopters. A-10s used 90 percent of the Maverick guided missiles expended in that conflict and when it was all over the air force decided it needed the A-10 and gave up plans to replace it with a ground attack version of the F-16. This was a remarkable comeback for an aircraft that first flew in 1972 and entered service in 1977. Only 716 were produced between 1972 and 1984, but 39 percent (282) are still in service as the much-upgraded A-10C. The air force kept trying to set a retirement date for the A-10 but new uses were constantly found and, even before Russian invaded Ukraine in 2022, the air force had decided to indefinitely put off retiring the A-10. This was partially because there was no viable replacement and the A-10 had a remarkable ability to keep reinventing itself to remain useful. For example, the A-10 had become a key component of CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) for pilots down in hostile territory. Some designs, like the B-52 heavy bomber, are irreplaceable and the A-10 has become another one of them.
Spare parts from AMARC (Aerospace Maintenance and Recovery Center) have kept the ancient A-10 ground attack aircraft flying. The A-10 was not able to demonstrate its effectiveness until the 1990s and ever since the army and marines have been able to block air force efforts to retire all A-10s. Instead, the A-10 was upgraded and received new wings to replace the ones weakened by decades of flying, often in combat. The most useful A-10 weapon is its built-in 30mm autocannon. Originally designed to use armor piercing shells, these were replaced with high-explosive shells for ground support. Just the sound of the low-flying A-10 firing its 30mm autocannon was considered a useful weapon by the ground troops as it would demoralize the enemy troops who survived the firepower.
Recent upgrades included the ability to use smart bombs. The latest upgrade involved new bomb racks that enable each A-10C to carry sixteen GBU-39 smart bombs that are laser guided and the most popular weapon used to support ground troops. The A-10 can carry seven tons of bombs and the sixteen GBU-39 SDBs (Small Diameter Bombs), with their new bomb racks, weigh less than five tons.
A new addition to the bombs the A-10C can also carry MALD (miniature air-launched decoy), which has been a remarkably flexible system that the air force wants to use as a swarming system in the form of the MALD-N. Basically, MALD-N is a powered disposable decoy that can broadcast signals imitating various radars and do so while networked (thus the N) with other MALD-Ns as well as manned aircraft. This enables all the MALD-Ns in a swarm to automatically share information and quickly make changes to maintain the maximum confusion for enemy radars. There’s a pilot or system operator monitoring all this and able to intervene if needed. The MALD-N is a variant of the older (2012) MALD-J, the first jammer version of MALD.
The original ADM-160B MALD finally passed acceptance tests in 2009 and the air force agreed to buy it. The original MALD is a 115 kg (250 pound) powered decoy with a range of 900 kilometers and speed comparable with the cruise speed of some manned warplanes. MALD appears on the enemy radar as a warplane. MALD itself is a torpedo-shaped object that is about half the size of a Tomahawk cruise missile. MALD operates on the same principle as Tomahawk. When launched short wings pop out and a small jet engine starts. MALD deceives enemy radars with electronics that can generate signals that make MALD appear to be one of several actual warplanes. MALD is preprogrammed to fly a specific route with its electronic radar transmitter programmed to emit signals making the tiny MALD appear like a larger aircraft on the enemy radar.
So far no one but the Chinese claim to have fully autonomous swarmware. MALD-N software could be, and may already have been, modified to full-autonomous swarmware mode. An A-10 can carry 16 MALDs, or 16 SDBs. Since 2016 the A-10 has been able to carry and use the AGR-20 APKWS 70mm laser guided rocket. These weigh only 15 kg (32 pounds) each and have a range of up to 11 kilometers when launched from an A-10. An A-10 can carry and use dozens of the APKWS. A new guidance system makes the APKWS very effective against the swarms of small armed boats favored by the Iranians.