Contrary to popular belief:
- constraints help make better products (or services), and
- a good innovative product or service does not need to be expensive
As a young kid, one thing I was good at, was identifying fighter jets just looking at their pictures. Especially American ones. In fact, with American jets, a look at the tail section, canopy or nose and I could tell an F-14 Tomcat from an F-15 Eagle, among many other jets. Each fighter design seemed to speak of a unique personality.
In the past month though, I have been overly fascinated by another American jet from the 1970’s.
The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II. Or simply the A-10 or Warthog. Developed as a close air support jet during the Cold War, and there dozens of reasons that make the A-10 an exceptionally designed machine.
During the Cold War, there was the need to defend a 50-kilometre region called the Fulda Gap, from a potential Soviet advance. To do so, in addition to tank regiments, the US needed a low-flying jet that could protect its tanks and troops, while being capable of causing sizeable damage to enemy tanks. Flying close to the ground, such a jet also (obviously!) needed to be able to protect its pilot and survive missions. And, just like in WWII, in case of a possible escalation in the Cold War, the winning side would be the one that was designed for quantity (ability to quickly manufacture and deploy, or repair and reuse) as opposed to quality. So, another requirement criteria was to have a jet that could be easily fixed, with affordable and easily available spares.
Imagine you were tasked with designing such a jet. Doesn’t it already sound like quite a limiting list of constraints?
To top it, the Americans had also chosen the main gun that would be used on such a jet (before knowing what such a jet itself might look like). The gun was the 30 mm General Electric GAU-8/A Avenger autocannon; a real monster. Fully loaded and with its feed system, it measured nearly 6 metres, and weighed 1.8 tonnes!
However, what emerged despite this tall-list of requirements (or constraints), was the incredible and unique looking A-10. Every design aspect aligned with its purpose – close air support, protect ground troops & artillery, destroy tanks, protect the pilot, survive being shot at. Placement of its twin turbofan engines reduced its heat signature to enemy missiles. Its cockpit was a titanium tub that protected its pilot from ground fire, even when the plane itself was badly damaged. Its low stall speed and high maneuverability allowed for close range attack. More in the fascinating video at the end of the post.
For now, let’s focus on 3 things:
2. Affordability of the solution, and
3. Advantages of a clearly defined purpose (and focus).
The A-10 was the first and probably the last close air support jet developed by the US. However, the latest jet in their fleet, the F-35 Lightning II is supposed to be a far more advanced plane which, at least in theory, has the ability to replace the A-10s. A direct comparison does sound a bit absurd at first, like trying to compare an old pickup with a Tesla Cybertruck. But that’s for the Cybertruck to defend.
The A-10 came into service in 1977, and despite some discussions to discontinue it in the past decade or two, given its continued relevance, affordable flight time and maintenance; performance upgrades now enable them to serve till at least 2028. The F-35 came into service in 2015, and while expected to be in service till 2070, there are already many concerns, from its initial delay and escalated project cost, to its high flying time and maintenance related costs.
The F-35 has the obvious edge on several specifications when compared to the old 1970’s A-10. Consider the following:
A-10 (introduction to service: 1977):
- Cost: $3 million (equivalent to $21.2 million today), Unit cost: US$1.4 million ($9.3 million today)
- Max. Cruise Speed: 741 Km/h
- Travel range: 4148 Km
- Fuel economy: 0.68 km/litre
- Take-off / Landing distance: 945m / 610m
- Max. Take-off weight / Max. Payload: 22950 Kg. / 7257 Kg.
- Fuel tank capacity: 7257 litres
- Flight cost per hour: USD 20,000
F-35 (introduction to service: 2015)
- Cost: between $94 million (F-35A) and $122 million
- Max. Cruise Speed: 1932 Km/h
- Travel range: 2778 Km
- Fuel economy: 0.46 km/litre
- Take-off/ Landing distance: 168m / 213m
- Max. Take-off weight / Max. Payload: 31751 Kg. / 8160 Kg.
- Fuel tank capacity: 10448 litres
- Flight cost per hour: USD 36,000
As the A-10 was meant for attacking ground targets with its gun, it was designed to be able to fly at a slow 222 km/h without stalling. In contrast, while the F-35 can even hover in one position; but being a stealth fighter, is not exactly meant to be too close to enemy sites. The price difference between the two is obviously glaring. The A-10 costs $21 mil, the F-35, $122 mil. While the F-35 is a third more fuel efficient than the A-10, it is almost twice as expensive to fly an F-35 per hour, than the A-10. While the F-35 would certainly be relevant in a high-tech war against, say a China or Russia, for its regular action in the middle east, it is a very expensive overkill.
The A-10 was built in a time of a specific need, with numerous other constraints in mind. And that resulted in an innovative product that not just catered well to those needs, but as a result continues to stay relevant even today.
The F-35 in comparison, was built in more peaceful times, without perhaps a sharp focus on its intended purpose. And the result was an expensive Swiss army knife that isn’t too great in most of the individual specific roles it might be called in for.
To wrap it up simply, constraints can do wonders to the development of a truly innovative solution (the A-10). And just because a solution has exceptional features and capability, does not necessarily mean it is the greatest of all time (F-35), as has been proven by all the doubt looming over the F-35 project merely 6 years into service, while the 44-year old A-10’s service is already being considered for extension to 2040 or beyond.
Check out this incredible video about the A-10.
Alternate title for this post was: Brrrrrrrrrrrrt