The A-10 Thunderbolt II is one of the most recognisable aircraft in the US Air Force fleet. Designed specifically to destroy tanks with its powerful gun, there’s nothing else in the world quite like it. Most people tend to assume it’s a unique concept. In fact, it isn’t; aircraft armed with powerful anti-guns have a long history, and the A-10 is just the latest and most sophisticated one.
As far as anyone can tell the first aircraft armed with a heavy gun was an experimental version of the British DH-4, back in 1918. This was a light bomber and artillery spotter, and towards the end of the First World War, a couple of them were fitted with the semiautomatic 37mm COW Gun. Despite the name, this wasn’t designed for killing livestock; it was made by Coventry Ordnance Works and the original plan was to use it against German bombers. It wasn’t much of a success at that, though, so the small number made were fitted to naval patrol planes for destroying small patrol boats.
By the late 1930s, the COW Gun had been developed into the much more powerful and reliable 40mm Vickers S Gun. At 320 pounds and 9 feet 9 inches long, this was quite compact for what it was – a fully automatic gun capable of destroying anything short of a Tiger tank, with a 15-round drum magazine and a rate of fire of 100rpm. The S Gun was just light enough that a Hawker Hurricane fighter could carry one in a pod under each wing, as long as most of its standard armament was removed; two of its eight machine guns were left in place and loaded with tracers to help with aiming the cannons. A squadron of these modified Hurricanes was sent to North Africa; they managed to knock out 47 German tanks, damage a hundred more and destroy almost 200 other vehicles. They were so effective they were nicknamed “The Flying Tin-Openers”, and No. 6 Squadron still has a winged can opener as an unofficial badge.
Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, the USSR and Germany were working on tank killers of their own. Both of them were first used at the battle of Kursk in July 1943. The Soviet plane was the Il-2M, a variant of the famous Sturmovik, fitted with a pair of 37mm cannons in place of its normal 23mm weapons. The guns turned out not to be that effective though, and the Soviets soon switched back to smaller cannons and fitted the Il-2 with cluster bomb dispensers instead. There were later attempts to fit heavy guns to various aircraft, including a Yak-9 fighter with a single 45mm gun, but none of them really worked.
On the other side of the line, the Germans had modified their elderly, but still notorious, Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber. The bomb racks were removed and a pod, containing a high-velocity 37mm AA gun and twelve rounds of ammo, fitted under each wing. With armour-piercing shells, it could destroy any Soviet tanks. Luftwaffe dive bomber ace Hans-Ulrich Rudel was given the first one, and by the end of the war, he’d single-handedly destroyed 519 Soviet tanks. Rudel was so successful with the Ju-87G Kanonenvogel – Cannon Bird – that everyone on Fairchild’s A-10 design team was ordered to read his book, Stuka Pilot.
Finally the British, not to be outdone, went looking for a bigger cannon. The solution was the 6-pounder (57mm) Molins Gun, an Army 6-pounder anti-tank gun fitted with a 25-round autoloader. This was built into a Mosquito fighter-bomber, replacing its four 20mm cannons; this was overkill against tanks, so the RAF used it to destroy surfaced U-Boats.
By the end of the war, the Germans were trialling 50mm and 75mm anti-tank guns on attack aircraft, although without much success, and the USA had built a single XB-25G Mitchell armed with a 75mm gun taken from a Sherman tank (although this had to be hand-loaded for each shot). The arms race finally came to an end when the RAF fitted another Mosquito with a massive 32-pounder (96mm) tank gun, again with a Molins autoloader. Amazingly, it worked – the Mosquito could fly, fight, and even fire its terrifying weapon without shaking itself to pieces.
By the time the up-gunned Mosquito had been tested the war was over, and only the prototype was ever built. Over the next decade’s rockets, then missiles and cluster bombs, became the main ground attack weapons. The idea of fitting an anti-tank gun to a plane slowly faded into obscurity – but it was never likely to disappear for ever, and of course, it didn’t.
By the late 1960s the USAF was looking for a new close support plane to replace the A-1 Skyraider, and in 1970 they added a requirement that it had to carry the GAU-8/A Avenger rotary cannon. This had been designed to fire a high-velocity 30mm anti-tank round with more energy than any of the WW2 guns could generate (except the 32-pounder, of course). The aircraft the gun was eventually fitted to was the A-10, and that brings us back to where we started. The A-10 exists because flying anti-tank guns are useful; that makes it worth hanging on to.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.