Air support could come from unmanned A-10s

An unmanned A-10 overhead and a joint terminal attack controller on the ground with the firing controls in his hands.

It’s not possible now, but it will be in the next few years, theoretically cutting response time dramatically and reducing errors in close-air support strikes.

The Pentagon’s advanced research arm wants an aircraft 30 miles from a firefight to be able to attack within six minutes of a request by a JTAC. The airman would access the plane’s targeting sensors, enter coordinates to multiple targets and send ammo flying.

Officials with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency expect to award a contract for the venture later this year; a live-fire demonstration is proposed for the last quarter of fiscal 2014. The contractor will modify an A-10 already in the fleet.

Now, Murdoc loves the A-10. Murdoc loves close air support. And Murdoc loves drones.

But why does converting A-10s to drones make sense?

With a limited number of planes available to convert, and most of them at the end of their shelf life, isn’t this a bit of a dead-end program? The planes at the limit of their service hours for manned flight could be rated to fly unmanned, of course, and the A-10 obviously brings things to the table that current and near-future drones do not, but I’m wondering if this would be the right way to go.

On the other hand, anything that keeps A-10s supporting the guys on the ground can’t be all bad. It’s not like we’re likely to start developing a drone with a 30mm cannon.


  1. With the thick wing upgrade the a-10 fleet is nowhere near the end of it’s life. That said making a drone out an A-10 is not the brightest.idea in the world. For one thing most “drones” are really glorified remotely piloted vehicles. At 20k feet the odds of Reaper slamming into a hillside is pretty slim. So autopilots work fine till there is something to do. At 200-400 hundred feet there are a lot of things to fly into. Human intervention is not going to be effective because flying via TV is effectively flying blind. You cannot increase the bandwidth because of satcom limitations.

    This means you would have develop a serious low level flight autopilot (which exists) but combine it with some autonomous threat assessment and avoidance capabilities. (which do not exist)

    Parking an A-10 6 minutes out means it going to be at most 30 miles out. This means its going to be SAM bait and or fighter bait. Moreover since an A-10 staition time would limited compared to dedicated UCAV’s it really would be far more expensive and more resource intensive in this role.

    There is nothing wrong with parking a stealthy UCAV over the battlefield and dropping 500 lb. Bombs as a form of CAS. It’s been done, is done and works pretty well. Turning a A-10 into a robo-fighter turns it from it’s strengths (cheap, incredibly tough and simple) and tries to make into something high tech.

    Sounds like a profit center for R&D that will never see the light of day.

    I see no real benefit to UCAV’ing an A-10 as stated in this article. You could really do everything you wanted with existing birds. A better idea would be to develope a stealthy UCAV and park at 20k and call down bombs.

    1. With the thick wing upgrade the a-10 fleet is nowhere near the end of it’s life.

      I guess I was assuming that un-upgraded planes would be used for this.

      Sounds like a profit center for R&D that will never see the light of day.


      1. A program devoted to giving old A10s the capability to transform into giant robots might be a better use of R&D money. And prolly see a more prompt result.

        You could even keep the pilot, the cockpit would just be inside the robot’s chest.

        But then the Air Force would complain about having to be infantry.

  2. Somehow, I’m not comforted by the prospect of a grainy, 15fps, black & white soda-straw camera being used to remotely ID and engage targets for a flying 30mm rotary cannon, from the other side of the planet…

  3. Damn! Here I was envisioning small jet drones autonomously attacking anything that moves across the “death zone”, ala the ones in Babylon AD.

  4. I read a short story once about a future battlefield, I think it was between the US and USSR. The remaining soldiers from each side were bunkered in pretty heavily and isolated.

    Each side had developed autonomous swarming nanobots programed to destroy whatever didn’t have the proper IFF. It made life outside the bunkers exciting but brief- if they sensed you, they would come in and basically disassemble you.

    Not terrifically relevant, but Flanker’s mention of a “death zone” made me think of it.

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