As the most dedicated Russophile among my flight-simming friends, I strapped myself into the cockpit of my early-birthday-present A-10C intending to make like good Soviet propagandist and put it down for every trivial flaw I could find in otherwise-perfect product of decadent capitalism. My final opinion turned out to be a little more measured. The Charlie Warthog is, in a lot of ways, a fine aircraft, and perhaps even the Su-25T’s superior (I would say the jury is still out), but it’s not quite the world-beater I thought it might be.
I’ll start with how it flies. The one-word description is ‘docile’; the two-word description is ‘very docile’. Those big, straight wings yield excellent handling at low speeds, a great roll rate, and all-around pleasant performance. The two podded turbofans strapped to the fuselage in back are high-bypass, which is to say they’re the same sort as the engines on most airliners: the jet exhaust contributes less than the volume of air moved by the fan at the front. It doesn’t make for a fast airplane, and indeed a loaded Warthog struggles to reach the sorts of speeds I consider ‘slow’ in the Su-25, but in any aircraft without an air-to-ground radar, sloth is a virtue (which explains my thing for helicopters). I count this one as even. The Su-25 has better thrust-to-weight and better ability to escape danger, but the A-10 can loiter just about forever and is an easier weapons platform.
Since all fixed-wing planes are basically the same, I got on top of the flying thing in just about no time flat. The two remaining pillars of the Warthog (the systems and the weapons) I learned at about the same time, but I’m going to hit weapons first. The biggest drawback compared to other the other DCS platforms of my acquaintance is the inexcusable lack of dedicated anti-tank missiles. The Su-25T can carry sixteen, plus another six laser-guided missiles, and that’s a lot of semi-standoff capability. On the other hand, the A-10’s gun is worthy of all the praise it garners. It’s effective against every target up to and including the vaunted M1 Abrams, provided you attack from the right aspect, and it makes a lovely, lovely sound.
The guided bomb options (fitted with the GPS-guided JDAM kits and the laser-guided Paveway kits) are good, and can be mounted on most of the hardpoints, but the Maverick only works on two of them, and the Su-25T’s Kh-25 (the Maverickski) is roughly equivalent. The Warthog’s rocket options are typically American, which is to say horrid; the Russians, with their long experience in Afghanistan, have a much better selection (from tiny little 57mm peashooters to 340mm monsters). The Su-25 has better light and medium weapons, and the A-10 has better heavy stuff; in my book, that goes to the Su-25.
Finally, we come to avionics, that traditional locus of American superiority, and the A-10C doesn’t disappoint. The dash holds two color multifunction displays, which control the armaments and targeting, and can display a moving map, and it’s all brilliant. The A-10’s targeting pod (the LITENING, a hardpoint-mounted jobber), through gyroscopes, gimbals, and voodoo magic (I repeat myself), plus a healthy dose of positional awareness, can track a point on the ground even if the wing or the airplane is blocking it, through a complete turn. It features an absurd amount of zoom, plus an IR camera and a standard CCD, and really, it’s hard to say anything bad about it.
It also feeds into the Sensor Point of Interest concept: with any sensor, from the targeting pod to the navigation display to a Maverick seeker to the little visual designation cursor on the HUD, you can declare a Sensor Point of Interest. It sticks around, and you can slew all of your sensors to it at any time. It’s a very, very handy bit of systems integration, and makes re-locating targets on subsequent attack passes a lot easier than they are in the Su-25.
Still, as good as it is, the designers missed two tricks. For one: by Russian standards, the A-10C’s autopilot is archaic. The Su-25T and the Ka-50 both have modes galore, up to and including ones which will follow the mission route or line up on a target, and the A-10 has… one mode which orbits, and one mode which flies straight and level. An orbit mode being the bare minimum for a single-seat attack aircraft, the A-10’s omission of anything fancier is a significant strike against it, given how much head-down work it expects you to be doing. The second one, I wouldn’t have thought of had it not been for the Su-25T: an infrared jammer in the tail. It makes a great deal of sense. Attack planes hang around at low level, where any mujahid with an SA-7 can take a pop at them, and having a bit of kit which makes rear-aspect attacks difficult is a gigantic win.
In the end, the Warthog is what I expected it to be: a solid ground-attack platform with a gun that’s unmatched in its effectiveness. At the same time, it isn’t quite what I expected. It’s only just entering service now, and being such a modern piece of kit, I have to wonder: why did the Air Force settle for very good, when perfect was so nearly within their grasp?