The US Air Force has hated the A-10 with a burning fiery passion, and has been doing their best to kill it since they got it. I guess they think of it like that ugly sweater you get at Christmas from your crazy relative that your parents make you not throw in the trash. This is because it takes pilots and money away from glorious aerial combat and nuclear weapons delivery and puts them to work moving mud for the ground pounders. One of their schemes from the late 80s to oust the Warthog centered around making an F-16 variant that could handle hardcore ground attack actions.
On paper, this seems easy. The F-16 can carry anything the Warthog can. The F-16 can sling Mavericks just as well as the A-10 can. And it would get precision guided bomb integration first. And it can carry regular iron bombs too. Perfect, right? Well, not quite. The A-10 has a massive gun, the aptly named GAU-8/A Avenger. This beast of a gatling gun is chambered for the 30x173mm round, and is absolutely massive. The A-10 was built around this beast, and it’s an accurate, powerful tank killer. It also has a terrifying buzz saw sound. This gun is sweet.
So, the USAF decided to try to put that gun on the F-16, since the F-16 had only a regular 20mm Vulcan cannon. The answer was the GPU-5/A gunpod. To work in a pod, they decided to scale back the Avenger a bit into the GAU-13/A. The GAU-13/A has four barrels instead of seven on the Avenger, and has the rate of fire reduced to about half that of the Avenger (2,400 rounds per minute instead of 4,200 rounds per minute). From a technical standpoint, the GAU-13/A is driven pneumatically using bleed air, instead of being driven by the A-10’s hydraulic system.
The pod held 353 rounds of ammunition, which isn’t a lot at 2,400 rounds per minute. But fully loaded it only weighs 862 kg, and it can be mounted on any NATO-standard large bomb rack. It was tested on the F-16, F-15, F-4, A-7, and even the small F-5.
What could be better? Well, they got tested during the first Gulf War, and all the illusions were shattered. The GPU-5/A pods were mounted on F-16s, but the accuracy was appalling. While a bomb mount can easily handle the weight, it was never designed to deal with the stresses of firing a massive gun like the GAU-13/A. Additionally, the integration with the F-16’s targeting systems was poor. It was used for all of a day and then removed and replaced with more effective stores. The A-10 can deliver accurate bursts from the Avenger; the F-16 just wasn’t able to match it. You’d need specialized pylons at least, which takes away some of the attraction of the GPU-5/A pod.
This is to be expected. These days, we’ve grown accustomed to multirole types and forgotten some things about dedicated designs. The F-16 was never designed to be a CAS plane, and it has a bunch of issues that are way more important than whether or not it carries a giant gun. The F-16 is fast, and burns fuel quickly. It can’t hang around low and slow for hours like the A-10 can. Slow is good for the A-10 because it helps the pilot spot targets visually. Fast is good for the F-16 because it needs to be able to catch MiGs. The F-16 can be tasked with short order CAS missions, but it can’t hang around without refueling. And that’s ok, it’s just silly to try to make it do something that it can’t. The Air Force scrapped the project shortly afterward.
For once I agree with them. Interestingly, if the US Air Force wanted to be rid of the A-10, they should just let the US Army operate fixed wing aircraft. Or even make a specific exemption for the A-10; the Army would love them. Were A-10s available in the procurement games, we would be all over them. As things are, we’ll make do with attack helicopters, like the US Army.
Verdict: Funding Request Denied by the Borgundy Air Ordnance Procurement Board