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GAU-8/A Avenger: The World’s Biggest Gatling Gun

By: Warren Gray

“Use Enough Gun.”

— Author and big-game hunter Robert C. Ruark, Jr., 1966.

The General Electric GAU-8/A Avenger is a massive, seven-barrel, 30x173mm, rotating, Gatling gun, entering service with the U.S. Air Force in 1977. The gun itself measures 19.5 feet long, with 7.54-foot-long barrels, and it weighs 620 pounds, but the entire assembly, including the feed system and ammunition drum, weighs 4,029 pounds when typically loaded with 1,174 rounds of ammunition. This huge weapon was conceived in May 1970 as a rapid-firing, high-velocity (3,324 feet per second), anti-tank weapon for countering enemy armored columns in the event of a Soviet ground invasion of West Germany.

Interestingly enough, the GAU-8/Agun system was designed first, specifically for the new, Fairchild Republic A-10A Thunderbolt II close air support (CAS) aircraft, unofficially and more-affectionately known as the “Warthog,” and the A-10 itself was actually designed around the gun as the Air Force’s only production aircraft created solely for the CAS mission, with a secondary mission as a forward air controller, directing airstrikes by other aircraft. A total of 716 Warthogs were constructed in Hagerstown, Maryland, from 1975 to 1984.

The Avenger Gatling gun is mounted slightly toward the left (port) side of the airframe in the bottom of the forward fuselage, with the firing barrel at the nine-o’clock position, precisely aligned with the A-10’s centerline for stability, preventing changes in aircraft pitch or yaw when firing. The GAU-8/A system represents about 16-percent of the total weight of the aircraft.

The mighty weapon fires at a fixed rate of 3,900 rounds per minute (65 rounds per second), but it takes about a half-second to spool up to full firing speed, so 50 rounds are fired in the first second, and then 65 rounds per second thereafter, of depleted-uranium, armor-piercing projectiles. The gun is effective out to a slant range of 4,000 feet (three-quarters of a mile) in a 30-degree dive, and accurate enough to place 80-percent of its rounds within a 40-foot circle at that distance. This is about 37-percent more accurate than the 20mm M61A1 Gatling gun found in most U.S. fighters today.

The standard ammunition mixture is five rounds of PGU-14/B Armor-Piercing Incendiary (API), followed by one round of PGU-13/B High-Explosive Incendiary (HEI) in a repeated pattern, typically with 14-ounce projectiles having an aluminum body cast around a depleted-uranium, penetrator core (which can typically penetrate more than two inches of solid steel armor at 4,000 feet range), and long, aluminum cases instead of brass or steel, allowing up to 30-percent more ammunition weight to be carried. The GAU-8/Autilizes a linkless feed system to further reduce weight and avoid jamming.

Recoil force for the GAU-8/Ais substantial, averaging about 10,000 pounds-force (five tons of bone-jarring kick), but the aircraft’s twin, General Electric TF34 high-bypass-ratio (6:1) turbofans each produce 9,065 pounds of forward thrust, so a cannon burst normally slows the A-10 by only a few miles per hour in level flight. Bursts are usually limited to just one or two seconds, anyway, to conserve ammunition and avoid barrel overheating, and recoil adapters mounted between the gun housing and gun mount help absorb the recoil forces and reduce recoil energy transmitted to the airframe.

When the stout, A-10AWarthog entered active service in Europe in 1979, it wasn’t exactly popular at first. After all, fighter pilots love speed and a sleek appearance for their jets, and the Warthog was slow, ugly, and totally unglamorous, however, it was built like a tank, able to sustain significant battle damage and keep flying and fighting. It had no less than 11 weapon stations for all types of armament, and sported the world’s largest and most-powerful Gatling gun, instantly striking fear into the hearts of Soviet tank commanders at their run-down bases in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

This author worked as an intelligence specialist within two different fighter squadrons in Germany during that same period, about three to seven years after the A-10s became active. I still remember them buzzing around the German countryside at breathtaking altitudes between 50 and 250 feet, rarely any higher during combat training, due to the staggering, Soviet air defense threats just across the border.

The pilots in my squadrons used to joke that in case we went to war, you could tell where the front lines of battle were by the A-10 wreckage on the ground. Warthog pilots themselves joked about the aircraft’s slow speed: “If you come up behind a Russian tank too fast and overshoot him, just hit your speed brakes, and he’ll pop right out in front of you again!”

All kidding aside, however, the actual, wartime mission of my two F-4E Phantom II jet fighter squadrons (the 512th “Dragons” and 526th “Black Knights”) was to patrol down very low in the heavily-wooded, German valleys with their radars turned off for stealth, waiting for Russian fighters to fly past overhead, and then pop up and shoot them in the belly. I actually had an ultra-low-level, back-seat ride in 1985, over the Bardenas Reales Bombing Range in central Spain, at 580 knots airspeed (667 mph), down at only 50 feet altitude. Wow!!! Totally unforgettable! I still remember seeing the twin rooster-tails of swirling, red dust behind us in the rearview mirrors, because we were flying just above the desert floor at about Mach .82, and had to actually pull up every now and then to avoid low hills.

And I can still recall asking one of my squadron’s fighter pilots that if he could have any aircraft and any missiles in the world to do his wartime job, what would they be? In all seriousness, he replied, “Give me an A-10 with a lead-computing gunsight, and 14 AIM-9 Limas!”

At the time, our F-4Es each carried four AIM-7E-3 Sparrow radar-guided missiles, which were problematic and unreliable, at best, and four heat-seeking AIM-9P-4 Sidewinders, which could only be fired successfully from behind an enemy aircraft. The new AIM-9L (“Lima”) Super Sidewinder variant, which we did not possess, had an all-aspect engagement capability, and could be fired from any angle. The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy had already used it with spectacular results in the 1982 Falklands War against Argentina, where it was aptly nicknamed “the Death Ray,” shooting down 21 of the 23 enemy aircraft destroyed in battle.

In fact, the A-10 would have been perfect in that specific role. It had wrap-around, green-and-gray camouflage for ultra-low-altitude flight over the woodlands, twin, smokeless, turbofan engines for survivability, thick cockpit armor (titanium), no radar, a ferocious cannon, was very nimble, could loiter over a target area for up to two hours, was relatively inexpensive (only $16.2m in today’s dollars, literally just half the price of an F-16CM), and was certainly capable of carrying up to 14 air-to-air missiles, if desired. But the vaunted Warthog truly excelled at anti-armor attacks, which terrified the Russians, who relied almost exclusively on their T-72 tanks and BMP-2 armored personnel carriers for any likely invasion of West Germany.

The A-10 could carry up to eight tons of various weapons, including Mark 80-series iron bombs, Mk. 77 incendiary bombs, cluster bombs, Hydra-70 unguided rockets, AGM-65A/B/D Maverick TV-guided or infrared-guided missiles, two AIM-9M Super Sidewinder missiles for self-defense, and later, after certain upgrades from 2006 to 2010, laser-guided bombs and GPS-guided bombs.

The fierce, ugly Warthog served with great distinction in the 1991 Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), making its combat debut, where it destroyed more than 900 Iraqi tanks, 2,000 other military vehicles, and 1,200 artillery pieces. They also shot down two Iraqi helicopters with their GAU-8/A cannon, scoring the A-10’s first air-to-air kills, but four Warthogs were shot down by enemy missile systems.

Interestingly enough, just before this war, the Air Force had been attempting to prematurely retire all of its A-10s, and replace them with F-16A Fighting Falcons armed with GPU-5/A gun pods, containing a smaller, downgraded, four-barrel version of the GAU-8/Aweapon, called the GAU-13/A, with 353 rounds of ammunition, even going so far as to actually retire about half of the A-10 inventory, and designate pod-carrying F-16As as the “A-16.” But, in the middle of this budgetary nonsense, the U.S. suddenly went to war against Iraq, which had the fourth-largest army in the world, consisting primarily of Russian-made tanks, which the A-10 was specifically designed to destroy.

Needless to say, the ill-fated, A-16/GPU-5/A experiment failed miserably in actual combat on the very first day, and it was instantly removed from service due to very poor accuracy resulting from the horrendous recoil of the pod. These weapons were all resold to the U.S. Marine Corps by 1997, as optional armament for their LAV-AD Air Defense vehicles, which ultimately adopted the five-barrel, GAU-12/U Equalizer 25mm Gatling gun instead. The Warthogs were all pulled out of retirement and returned to active service.

A-10s later fought in other conflicts, in the Balkans (Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force) from 1994 to 1999, and in Afghanistan, beginning in 2002, Iraq, beginning in 2003, Libya in 2011, and Syria, beginning in 2015. They now carried a new, two-tone, gray paint scheme known as “Compass Ghost,” and began flying and launching their weapons from much higher altitudes, often up to 15,000 feet. As a direct result of its stellar, combat performance, the A-10 earned the very top spot in the Military Channel’s “10 Most-Feared Aircraft in the World,” a very deadly, ground-attack fighter that no enemy (especially not the Russians) ever wanted to confront in battle.

From 2006 to 2011, all 356 remaining Warthogs were upgraded to A-10C configuration, modified for the use of precision (laser-guided and GPS-guided) weapons, and the first A-10C, from the Maryland Air National Guard, was deployed to Iraq in 2007. But there were already highly-contentious, military and political plans afoot to replace the venerable Warthog with the F-35A Lightning II stealth fighter in the CAS role. The F-35, however, would later prove far too expensive to operate in this manner on a daily basis, and it certainly lacked the A-10’s low-level performance and weapons capacities.

By 2008, the paranoid, heavily-militarized, Russian Federation greatly feared two things in Europe that only the United States possessed: the U.S. Missile Defense proposed, GBI (Ground-Based Interceptor) complex near Redzikowo (formerly Słupsk Air Base), Poland, and the A-10C Warthog close air support fighters at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, with their fearsome, GAU-8/A anti-tank, Gatling guns.

In October 2009, only nine months after taking office, the new, Obama-Biden administration inexplicably cancelled the highly-effective, GBI missile site in Poland, replacing them instead with much-smaller, land-based, naval, SM-3 Block IIA interceptor missiles, which the Japanese government had already tested, proving them to be “totally ineffective” at stopping ballistic missiles, in order to appease Russian Prime Minister (later President) Vladimir Putin. So, Obama and Biden both clearly knew that their SM-3 system was inadequate for the daunting task.

Then, on March 26, 2012, Obama was caught red-handed on a hot mic, telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that, “missile defense, this, this can be solved...After my election, I have more flexibility.” Just one year later, in March 2013, Phase 4 of the missile defense shield in Poland, the implementation of SM-3 Block IIB missiles to better cope with advanced, enemy missiles by 2020, was abruptly cancelled, allegedly because the new interceptors were allegedly “poorly placed (the ballistic flight path for long-range, Iranian missiles between Tehran and Washington, DC, passed only 110 miles north of Redzikowo, Poland, and directly over Russia’s Kaliningrad Region, so the placement was, in fact, absolutely perfect for stopping either Iranian or Russian missiles), and of the wrong type (that much was actually true; the GBI was far better) to defend the United States.”

Finally, on June 18, 2013, the Obama-Biden administration brusquely inactivated the very last remaining, A-10CWarthog unit in Europe, the 81st Fighter Squadron (“Panthers”) at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, also to appease the belligerent Russians, who were absolutely petrified of the tank-killing A-10.

As retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters noted for the New York Post on September 30, 2015, “President Obama’s afraid of Putin. Physically, tangibly, change-the-diaper afraid...terrified...the Obama administration is utterly, profoundly unprepared...respected by no one, and feared by no one...Never before has a U.S. presidential administration combined such naked cowardice, intellectual arrogance, and willful blindness. We don’t have a president; we have a scared child covering his eyes at a horror movie. And Putin knows it.”

Decades earlier, President Ronald Reagan took quite the opposite approach to Russian threats, aggressively confronting them in Europe with 108 super-accurate, hypersonic (Mach 8+), virtually-unstoppable, Pershing II nuclear missiles, boldly daring them in 1987 to tear down the Berlin Wall, and supplying heat-seeking, Stinger missiles to the Afghan insurgents from 1986 to 1989 to help defeat the Russians in battle, ultimately hastening the end of the communist, Soviet Union, and ending the decades-long, Cold War by Christmas Day 1991.

Specifically concerning the A-10 Warthog, Reagan actively ensured that the U.S. Air Force had the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge in England, with 72 A-10As assigned from 1979 to 1993, constantly operating four rotating detachments in West Germany, at Sembach Air Base, Leipheim Air Base, Nörvenich Air Base, and RAF Ahlhorn, to always be instantly ready to respond to any hint of Soviet aggression there.

Reagan had bluntly understood that, “Our enemies...do not fear the United States for its diplomatic skills...They respect only the firepower of our tanks, planes, and helicopter gunships...Of the four wars fought in my lifetime, none came about because the U.S. was too strong.”

Meanwhile, A-10C Warthog upgrades continued, since there was still no suitable replacement aircraft.  Helmet-mounted sighting systems, including the Thales Scorpion, were added beginning in 2010, and a reinforced wing program began in 2011 under the Thick-skin, Urgent Spares Kit (TUSK) program, a fitting acronym for the aggressive Warthog, extending its service life to 2040. In 2012, long-range, 600-gallon, external fuel tanks were added, to extend the A-10’s loiter time by 45 to 60 minutes.

Other upgrades and modifications have included a hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) combination, using the F-15C Eagle’s throttle system and the F-16CM Fighting Falcon’s control stick. Multi-function, cockpit displays were added, as well as GPS receivers, SATCOM radios, and other communications upgrades. Finally, advanced, targeting pods such as the AAQ-28(V)4 Litening AT (Israeli-made) or Sniper XR pod, with laser rangefinders and target designators, are now incorporated on the A-10C.

In 2015, the Obama-Biden administration once again tried to prematurely get rid of the entire, single-mission, A-10 fleet, still attempting to replace them with F-35A stealth fighters. Why on Earth would they want to retire “The Most-Feared Aircraft in the World,” and the most-requested, airborne asset by the U.S. Army for close air support airstrikes?! In fact, the Army even offered to purchase the A-10s, due to their combat versatility, high weapons loads, psychological impact upon enemy forces, and other key factors, but they were bluntly told that there was “no chance” of that happening.

Then came the A-10’s brilliantly-successful, combat operations against ISIS terrorist forces in Iraq and Syria in 2015 and 2016 under Operation Inherent Resolve, in which the Warthogs struck enemy targets on an almost-daily basis. They were a vital part of Operational Tidal Wave II, the intensification of efforts to defeat ISIS. So, by January 2016, the Air Force was “indefinitely freezing” plans to retire the A-10 for the next several years, until at least 2022.

Warthog deployments to Eastern Europe beginning in 2016 in response to Russian aggression against Crimea and Ukraine in 2014, and similar threats against Poland and the Baltic States, only reinforced the huge, ill-timed, Obama-Biden mistake of withdrawing the 81st Fighter Squadron from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, three years earlier, necessitating a reevaluation of the planned, A-10 retirement. In June 2017, the new, Trump administration wisely announced that the vaunted Warthog fleet “will now be kept in the Air Force’s inventory indefinitely.”

On January 19 2018, a dozen A-10Cs from Missouri were deployed to Afghanistan for close air support operations, marking the first time in more than three years since A-10s had been sent to Afghanistan.

Then, beginning in mid-2019, all Warthog, ACES II ejection-seat survival kits received the brand-new, GAU-5A Aircrew Self-Defense Weapon (ASDW), which employs a Colt M4A1 carbine receiver with a 12.5-inch, quick-release barrel kit, and four 30-round magazines loaded with 5.56x45mm ammunition. That same year, the Air Force began fielding the new, SIG Sauer M18 (P320 Compact) service pistol in 9mm Luger to replace existing, Beretta M9 pistols, and A-10C pilots will wear the M18 on their combat survival vests, along with their Ontario 499 USAF survival knives.

As of 2021, there are still 282 A-10C Warthogs in service, notably with the 74th “Flying Tigers,” 75th “Tiger Sharks,” and 76th “Vanguards” Fighter Squadrons at Moody AFB, Georgia, all bearing shark’s-teeth nose art for the historic, “Flying Tigers” wing. A-10s are also flown by the 25th Fighter Squadron (“Assam Draggins”) in South Korea, the 354th “Bulldogs” and 357th “Dragons” Fighter Squadrons in Arizona (ideal for desert combat training), the 45th, 47th (with wild-boar, teeth-and-tusks nose art), and 706th “Cajuns” Fighter Squadrons, also in Arizona, by four test squadrons in Florida, Nevada, and Utah, four Air National Guard squadrons in Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, and Michigan, and two more reserve squadrons in Missouri (also with morale-enhancing, teeth-and-tusks nose art.)

The massive, GAU-8/A Gatling gun is also used in the Goalkeeper CIWS (Close-In Weapon System) naval platform, introduced in the Royal Netherlands Navy in 1979, and is currently employed aboard 36 combat vessels of the Belgian, Chilean, Netherlands, Peruvian, Portuguese, Qatari, and South Korean navies.

In this capacity, the radar-controlled, Goalkeeper system, with a camera backup, fires 70 rounds per second from an 1,190-round magazine, using a mixture of high-explosive incendiary, armor-piercing incendiary, and other types of ammunition to engage and destroy incoming, supersonic, sea-skimming, anti-ship missiles such as the Russian SS-N-22 Sunburn, at ranges out to nearly one mile. Typical, missile-piercing, discarding-sabot (MPDS) ammunition has a discarding, nylon sleeve, or sabot, around a 21mm tungsten penetrator core.

Lieutenant Colonel Brian Boeding, a recently-retired, A-10C Warthog pilot, or “Hog Driver,” with 863 combat hours logged over Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, offered this expert assessment on June 26, 2020: “The A-10 may be the closest thing to a religious relic in the U.S. military’s weapons inventory...It’s simply the best airborne protection for American ground troops, period...Anyone who’s been around ground combat knows F-35s, F-22s, and legacy jets (F-15s and F-16s) are far too fast, and lack the close-in maneuverability.

“The Warthog...was designed from the ground up to withstand more AAA (antiaircraft artillery) and infrared missile damage than any other aircraft in history...alongside the plane’s impressive, combat achievements in Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Libya, and even Syria, the theater supposedly too dangerous for A-10s to survive...Every F-35 (supposedly replacing a Warthog) will carry half the missile ordnance of an A-10, and a much-less-effective, 25mm cannon with one-fifth as many rounds onboard. Each A-10 will put in at least nine times as many hours over the troops...in sustained sorties per day.”

In conclusion, there is simply no substitute, and no projected, credible replacement, for the A-10CWarthog and its astounding, GAU-8/A Gatling gun, and all the wishful thinking by those who seek its early retirement will not make it magically come to pass. The Air Force has already candidly admitted that it would take at least 15 years to design and develop a suitable replacement, and that lengthy process has not yet begun. In the meantime, the United States still possesses “The Most-Feared Aircraft in the World,” with the world’s biggest Gatling gun. Who in their right mind would want to relinquish that amazing capability?!

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.

 
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